Robert Ford came to 610 Sports Radio in 2009 as the station’s “Royals Insider.” He currently serves as the pre and post game show host for Royals Broadcasts on 610. The Syracuse graduate has been around professional baseball as a reporter and broadcaster for over a decade.
What follows are a handful of things Royals fans can – and should – keep an eye on as the year progresses.
Watch Danny Duffy’s head. When his delivery gets out of sync, it’s often because he’s jerking his head too far back and arching his back too much. When Duffy’s delivery is in sync, his head doesn’t move quite as much. If Duffy can consistently repeat his delivery, he will have a solid year in the Royals rotation.
Watch Luke Hochevar’s changeup. Hochevar has an excellent fastball, cut fastball, slider and curveball, but all of those pitches are hard, with the exception of the curveball, which is a difficult pitch to throw consistently for strikes. A changeup gives Hochevar another pitch he can throw to both sides of the plate that can keep hitters off his harder pitches. Hochevar’s tried to throw a changeup before, but with limited success. Hochevar feels he’s finally found a changeup grip that works for him (a grip that’s in between a circle-change grip and a palmball grip) and the results this spring have been encouraging.
Watch how much Humberto Quintero moves behind the plate. Quintero has been working diligently to learn the Royals pitching staff since coming over in a trade from the Astros on March 20th. Quintero told me that when he’s comfortable with a pitcher he’s very “quiet” behind the plate and doesn’t move as much before the pitch. However, when Quintero’s not as certain about a pitcher’s stuff, he moves around more behind the plate. The pitchers seem to be getting along well with Quintero and, generally speaking, pitchers prefer a “quiet” catcher; a catcher who’s always moving makes it harder for the pitcher to focus on his target.
Watch Lorenzo Cain’s fly balls. Cain’s defense in centerfield has never been much of an issue, but many have wondered whether Cain would be an effective offensive player at the Major League level. Cain’s had an excellent spring training at the plate but, one thing I’ve noticed is his propensity for fly balls. Cain has a bit of an uppercut to his swing, which helps generate power, but also generates a lot of balls in the air that are relatively easy plays for outfielders. With Cain’s speed, you’d like to see him hit a few more balls on the ground, especially at Kauffman Stadium and especially when he’s slumping, which has yet to happen this spring.
Today, the Royals announced they signed outfielder Alex Gordon to a long-term deal, paying him $37.5 million over four years, with a player option for $12.5 million for a fifth season. Gordon is the third player the Royals have locked up long-term this spring, joining catcher Salvador Perez and shortstop Alcides Escobar, but I think Gordon’s deal is the most significant of the three. Perez and Escobar didn’t get big signing bonuses, came from Venezuela where baseball talent tends to be less expensive and they weren’t very close to free agency; it’s easier for some to be dismissive about those signings and what they mean about the Royals’ commitment to winning. Gordon got a $4 million signing bonus as the second overall pick of the 2005 draft and was due to make nearly $5 million this year. Plus, Gordon was eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. Gordon made it clear he wanted to stay with the Royals and it was only a matter of coming to terms. I’d estimated Gordon would get about $8-$10 million a year, and this contract falls right in line with that figure.
There are legitimate questions about the wisdom of locking up Gordon long term. After all, 2012 was his first solid season and one of the few in which he was able to stay healthy. But, watching Gordon as much as I have, I’m not worried about any sort of letdown. For one, there have never been questions about Gordon’s work ethic, even when he was struggling; his past production issues were tied more to his inability to make adjustments. I think Gordon finally found an approach that worked for him last year and he showed the ability to adjust to how he was being pitched and the ability to take the ball the other way. Also, Gordon’s 28 years old, which is right about when most athletes start hitting their prime. I think locking up Gordon was a great move by the Royals and gives the clearest indication yet that they want to keep their best players in Kansas City.
At the start of camp, many were wondering where Royals 2011 first-round pick Bubba Starling would end up, but the smart money was on him landing in extended spring training where he could refine his baseball skills, which are very raw; after all, this is the first time Starling, a three-sport athlete who had a chance to play quarterback at Nebraska, has ever had an opportunity to focus on baseball exclusively. The Royals seem to feel that Starling is talented enough to play at Low-A Kane County, but they also want him to get plenty of pre-game early work to improve his skill set, and it’s hard to do that in April and May at Kane County, when the weather is usually cold and unpredictable. By keeping Starling in Arizona, the Royals can ensure he’ll get plenty of reps every day. Expect to see Starling in Kane County once the weather warms.
Although Starling tweeted yesterday that he would start the year in extended, it was made official today with the Royals releasing all of their minor-league assignments. There will be some changes, especially at the upper levels (AAA Omaha only has 20 players listed on their roster as they await Major League cuts). The starting pitchers to watch in Omaha will be Mike Montgomery, whose command needs to improve, and Will Smith, who looked good in spots when he was in big league camp after a strong finish to 2011 at AA Northwest Arkansas. Nate Adcock and Vin Mazzaro will also be in Omaha’s rotation with Sean O’Sullivan joining them, provided that he clears waivers once he’s reassigned from the big league club (O’Sullivan is out of options). 2010 first-round pick, shortstop Christian Colon, and 2009 third-round pick, outfielder Wil Myers, will start at Northwest Arkansas for a second straight year, where they’ll be joined by pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Chris Dwyer. All four could be in Omaha by the middle of the year with strong performances and I don’t think it’s out of the question that Odorizzi could be in the Majors before the year is out. None of the high school players the Royals drafted last year will begin the year with a full-season club, which may be seen by some as a conservative approach, but it’s easier to be conservative with prospects when your system has the depth the Royals’ system has.
Not once during camp did I feel like I had a good sense as to what direction the Royals were headed when it came to the last two spots in the rotation. After Mike Montgomery was eliminated rather early in the competition, it came down to Felipe Paulino, Luis Mendoza and Danny Duffy for those two spots. Mendoza needed to have a great spring to have a shot at the rotation, and he has. Duffy has shown flashes of brilliance and looks better than he did last season, but has been inconsistent throughout camp. Paulino’s looked good at times and struggled with his command at times. Of the three candidates, Mendoza seemed to be the best fit for long relief, but his success starting would making it tough for the Royals to put him in the ‘pen. Meanwhile, Paulino’s one stint as a reliever, with Colorado last year, was a disaster, so moving him to the ‘pen could also be a bad idea.
Today, the Royals announced that Luis Mendoza and Danny Duffy would be their fourth and fifth starters, respectively, with Felipe Paulino going on the disabled list with a forearm strain that manager Ned Yost said affected his command. While he wouldn’t come out and say it, Yost seemed to indicate that, had Paulino been healthy, he would’ve been in the rotation and Mendoza would’ve been the long man; that could still happen once Paulino comes back in a couple of weeks, especially if Mendoza doesn’t pitch well in his first two starts. As recently as yesterday, I thought there was a good chance Duffy could start the year with Omaha, but the Royals seem to feel he’s made the adjustments he’s needed to make to be more consistent at the Major League level. Also, Paulino’s injury increases the chance that Everett Teaford begins the year as the Royals long man out of the bullpen, a ‘pen that figures to have two other lefthanders in Jose Mijares and Tim Collins.
The next few days loom large for Louis Coleman, Jeremy Jeffress and Kelvin Herrera, who are competing for that final bullpen spot. Greg Holland, Jonathan Broxton, Jose Mijares and Aaron Crow are locks and Collins and Teaford seem to be safe bets to make the ‘pen as well.
I was a little surprised when Royals manager Ned Yost announced today that Bruce Chen would be the Opening Day starter April 6th in Anaheim, followed by Luke Hochevar and Jonathan Sanchez. With the way Hochevar pitched in the second half last year and spring training this year, I thought for sure that he would be the guy for the second straight year. Chen has been the Royals best pitcher the last two seasons but, even at his best, he doesn’t project to be the innings-eating workhorse that Hochevar can be. Yost indicated that the decision was based more on balancing out the rotation than anything else. Hochevar and Chen were going to be the top two starters in some order and Sanchez was a lock to be in the third spot. However, making Hochevar the Opening Day starter means bunching two lefties back-to-back in Chen and Sanchez. I think Hochevar should be the Opening Day starter regardless, but Yost clearly didn’t feel that way.
Speaking of Chen, after watching him struggle in the first and fifth innings of his start Thursday, but retire 11 of 12 and pitching well in the middle three frames, I wanted to see if Chen could build off that good stretch he had. It’s been a rough spring numbers-wise for Chen, who’s rotation spot has never been in jeopardy since he was the Royals best pitcher the last two seasons and was signed to a two-year, $9 million deal this past off season. And, Chen didn’t disappoint today vs. the Brewers in Maryvale, pitching into the seventh and allowing three runs. Chen threw all of his pitches effectively, got a good Brewers lineup to mis-hit the ball and, other than the home runs by Mat Gamel and Alex Gonzalez, didn’t allow a hard-hit ball. The last week of spring training is important for guys competing for a spot, but it’s also important for pitchers, who need to have their stuff fine tuned and ready for their first regular-season outing, and Chen appears to be close.
I was also impressed with the way Mike Moustakas looked at the plate today. After striking out his first time up, he went down and got a Yovani Gallardo pitch and smoked it to rightfield for a double. Next time up, Moustakas stayed back on a breaking ball and hit it out of the park to right-center for a homer. To me, Moustakas has looked a little too pull-conscious much of the spring, making him vulnerable to off speed pitches away, but his timing looked much better today, which is encouraging for the Royals.
With Johnny Giavotella being optioned to Omaha yesterday, the Royals are left without a great option for the number two spot in the lineup. Chris Getz seems to make the most sense, but batting him second between Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer means the Royals would have three straight lefthanded hitters, making it easier for other teams to match up against them, especially in the late innings. The other viable options for the two spot are Lorenzo Cain and Yuniesky Betancourt. The Royals tried Cain in the leadoff spot last season at Omaha, but quickly realized he wasn’t a great fit there; even though Cain has speed, he also has a bit of a long swing, which doesn’t play well in the two spot either. Betancourt generally puts the ball in play, which is what you want a number two hitter to do, but he may be too much a free swinger to excel in that role. Without an ideal fit, who bats second figures to change based on who’s performing the best.
Luis Mendoza turned in another strong outing today, throwing five shutout innings against the Giants in Scottsdale. Coming into camp, Mendoza faced an uphill battle to make the rotation but the way he’s pitch combined with his lack of options is going to make it difficult for the Royals not to start the season with him on the 25-man roster. Felipe Paulino, with whom Mendoza’s been competing, hasn’t been quite as sharp, but he’s also out of options and he has a longer – and better – Major League track record, complicating the decision. I think both Paulino and Mendoza will be on the club, with one in the rotation and the other as the long reliever in the bullpen. Paulino’s turn at relieving, last year with Colorado, was disastrous and he seems to be better suited mentally for starting, even though his stuff would play well in the bullpen. Mendoza may be a better fit for the Royals than Paulino in long relief, but it will be pretty tough to tell Mendoza he’s going to the bullpen when he’s outperformed his starting competition this spring. I really don’t have a good feel for how this competition is going to end; it may come down to the final starts of spring training for both.
Not only did the Royals option Johnny Giavotella to Omaha today, but manager Ned Yost said both Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt would share time at second base once the season starts. I thought the Royals would give Giavotella until the end of camp to try and win the second base job, but I’m not surprised by his demotion. Frankly, Giavotella didn’t do enough to win the job; his defense, while improved, still needs work, and he didn’t look great at the plate. Coming into camp, it was an open secret that Giavotella would need to hit to be the everyday second baseman. Royals general manager Dayton Moore often talks about wanting prospects to “force their hand,” or play so well that the Royals have to promote them and Giavotella hasn’t done that. However, if Giavotella were better defensively, the Royals would be more tolerant of his spring training offensive struggles.
I’m more surprised the Royals are going with two second baseman. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of guys sharing a position, especially early in the season; it’s hard to get into any sort of offensive rhythm when you’re not playing every day. Betancourt as the regular second baseman weakens the Royals bench so, if you’re the Royals, you have to hope either Getz goes on a tear offensively or Giavotella hits well enough at Omaha to force a call-up. But, what if neither one of those things happen? Do you go with Getz and Betancourt sharing second all season? I just don’t see that sort of sharing working out well over the course of an entire year.
Mike Moustakas’ rough spring continued tonight in the Royals game vs. the Diamondbacks in Scottsdale, as he struck out three times before hitting a single to rightfield in his final plate appearance. While his defense has improved – despite an error tonight – Moustakas hasn’t looked good at the plate all spring. Moustakas has been pulling everything, like he was when he first made it to the Majors last season, and he needs to get back to spraying balls to left and center. The Royals aren’t going to be concerned about Moustakas’ numbers until the season starts and, at this point, the Royals have to hope it’s simply a slow start. Moustakas has had slow starts to the regular season in nearly every season of his professional career. Last year, the Royals had Wilson Betemit to keep third base warm until Moustakas was ready and, while they acquired Yuniesky Betancourt to give them a righthanded-hitting option at third, he doesn’t figure to play every day at the hot corner. Essentially, the Royals don’t have any great fallback options if Moustakas struggles mightily this season, and he needs to be a productive part of their lineup.
Tonight, Jonathan Sanchez turned in his best outing of the spring. His command was as good as it has been and he was able to throw all of his pitches for strikes, working into the sixth inning. Sanchez has talked repeatedly about how important it is for him to be able to throw his off-speed pitches when he’s behind in the count. Being able to throw something other than a fastball in a fastball count benefits any Major League pitcher, but it may be even more important for a pitcher like Sanchez, who works a lot of deep counts and needs to work his way back into counts more than the average pitcher.
There are several players who need to put together good seasons for the Royals to achieve their dreams of contending in the AL Central in 2012, but no one may be a bigger key than Luke Hochevar. In a starting rotation that has lots of question marks, Hochevar needs to be the anchor and he needs to be solid more often than not. Hochevar’s strong second half in 2011 was encouraging, but he has to carry that success over in 2012 for the entire year. And, so far this spring, Hochevar has looked like he’s turned the corner. After six shutout innings today vs. the Dodgers in Surprise, Hochevar has allowed just two runs and one walk in 14 spring innings. His command has gotten better each time out and he appears to have confidence in all his pitches. Hochevar has talked repeatedly this spring about the importance of focusing on one pitch at a time, something he’s struggled with in the past. Of course, we need to see Hochevar carry these spring results into the season and we need to see him bounce back when he struggles, but it looks like Hochevar is poised to have an excellent year.
Before today’s game, Royals manager Ned Yost mentioned Eric Hosmer would see some time in the outfield this spring training. Hosmer, who’s been taking fly balls for several days and who’s worked out in the outfield in the minors, played the final three innings of today’s game in rightfield, catching one fly ball. Yost mentioned that playing Hosmer in the outfield could help the Royals in interleague play in National League parks, when there’s no designated hitter; in such instances, Hosmer could play the outfield and Billy Butler would be able to start at first, thus keeping two of the Royals best bats in the lineup. With year-round interleague play coming in 2013, Hosmer’s ability to play the outfield could wind up being even more valuable for the Royals. Spring training is the time to experiment with such scenarios and I don’t have an issue with Yost putting Hosmer in the outfield to at least see if he’s comfortable out there. I think Hosmer’s a good enough athlete to handle one of the corner outfield spots
The middle portion of Bruce Chen’s outing today was very good. The beginning and ending, however, was not good. Against the White Sox in Glendale, Chen allowed several hard-hit balls in the first, including a two-run home run by Adam Dunn, leading to four runs. But, starting with the final two batters of the first, Chen retired 11 of 12 and looked very sharp. That string ended for Chen in the fifth, when the White Sox picked up four singles, none of which were hard-hit, before Dunn crushed a grand slam, followed by an A.J. Pierzynski solo homer, putting an end to Chen’s day.
If you only looked at Chen’s numbers today, and saw 10 runs in 4 1/3 innings, you’d think Chen wasn’t able to do anything right. And, combined with Chen’s struggles in two of his previous three spring outings, one might draw the conclusion that the Royals should be very concerned about Chen. I thought Chen located the ball very well in the middle three innings of his start today and I’m curious to see if he can build on that in his final two spring starts. Regardless, Chen will be in the Royals rotation unless he struggles during the regular season; Chen’s the Royals winningest pitcher over the last two seasons and the Royals signed him to a two-year, $9 million deal this past off-season, so he’s going to get an opportunity to pitch his way out of his funk, especially since the season has yet to start.
The Royals got a little bit of a scare today when pitcher Luis Mendoza took a hard-hit ground ball off the back of his left leg in the second inning against the A’s in Surprise. Mendoza left the game with a bit of a limp. The Royals say Mendoza has a left hamstring contusion – a fancy way of saying he has a bruise – and was taken out for precautionary reasons. Hopefully, for the Royals sake, it’s nothing serious. Especially since Mendoza has been the most impressive starter in camp. Mendoza and Felipe Paulino are out of options and, if they both continue to pitch well, they’re both going to make the team, with one in the rotation and one in the bullpen. Right now, I think Mendoza has a leg up on Paulino and is more likely to be in the rotation.
Monday, the Royals didn’t have a game, which gave me a chance to watch some of the minor leaguers. I got my first look at Bubba Starling, the fifth overall pick in last year’s draft. What impressed me most about Starling was his speed. Most guys Starling’s size – 6’4” and 205 pounds – aren’t fast or they’re fast, but it takes them several long strides to reach top speed. Not only does Starling have above-average speed, but he reaches top speed in a couple of steps. Starling still looks very raw, which is to be expected for someone who was a three-sport athlete in high school and never concentrated solely on baseball. As a result, it seems unlikely Starling will begin the year with Low-A Kane County. Cold weather in April and May means there’s less opportunity for players with full-season minor league clubs to do the early work that helps them sharpen their skills; all they’re doing is playing in games and not much else. By keeping Starling in Surprise for extended spring training, the Royals would have more chances to help him improve upon his raw skill set. But, that doesn’t mean Starling will open his pro career with a short-season rookie ball team; the Royals could opt to send Starling to Kane County once the weather there warms up. The Royals have raved about the adjustments and improvements Starling’s been able to make and, if those continue, he’ll find his way to Kane County this summer.
It wasn’t surprising that the Royals swung a trade with the Astros for catcher Humberto Quintero. The Royals’ catching depth took a hit with knee injuries to Manny Piña and Salvador Perez, leaving Brayan Peña as the only catcher on the 40-man roster. The Royals needed someone who could pair with Peña for the three months that Perez is out, and Quintero seems to fit that mold. Quintero’s never hit much but, by all accounts, he’s an excellent defensive catcher and should be fine in a tandem with Peña. Plus, once Perez returns, it’s likely he’ll only catch four or so days a week to protect his surgically repaired knee and Quintero could serve as a good backup for him.
It’s a little surprising that the Royals also got outfielder Jason Bourgeois back in the deal. Bourgeois was a minor-league journeyman who’d played 99 career Major League games before getting into 93 games with the Astros last season, hitting .294/.323/.357 with 31 steals in 37 attempts. A righthanded hitter, Bourgeois can play all three outfield positions and actually came up as a second baseman. Royals general manager Dayton Moore indicated Bourgeois can play third base as well, but he’s never played there in the Majors and only saw six games worth of action there in his minor league career. To me, Bourgeois seems like a righthanded, slightly better hitting version of Jarrod Dyson. Bourgeois also has an option left, so the final two weeks of spring training figure to be a competition between he and Dyson for the final spot on the Royals bench as the fifth outfielder behind lefty-hitting Mitch Maier, who’s out of options.
Now that the Royals have confirmed Joakim Soria has damage to the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, he will almost certainly be out for several weeks. There’s a good chance Soria will have elbow surgery, even if the dreaded Tommy John procedure isn’t required. Now, the question is who replaces Soria as the Royals closer? In the short term, I think Jonathan Broxton is the prohibitive favorite, but judging from the recent comments of Royals manager Ned Yost, Broxton may not be the only one who gets a shot. Yost hinted that a closer by committee is a possibility early in the season, which doesn’t surprise me. In addition to Broxton, Greg Holland and Aaron Crow (whom Yost confirmed was no longer in the running for a starting rotation spot) will also get opportunities to close and I don’t think Yost wants to pigeonhole himself; if he says there will be one closer and one closer only, and that closer falters, it leaves Yost open to second guessing. But, by saying the closer’s job is up for grabs and indicating that he may not designate a closer at the start of the year, Yost is leaving himself plenty of wiggle room, which may help him should his initial choice for closer struggles.
Royals closer Joakim Soria hasn’t looked sharp all spring. His first appearance came in a B game and he’s pitched three times in regular spring training games; in all of those outings, he’s thrown strikes, but has struggled with his command within the strike zone, allowing more than three times as many hits as innings pitched. It’s not uncommon for veteran pitchers to post poor numbers during spring training; they have nothing to prove in the spring and are trying to get ready for the season. However, Soria’s spring struggles come after a 2011 that, for him, was subpar. Soria doesn’t have overpowering stuff or a dominant out pitch he can throw in any count, so he relies on command and control more than the majority of successful closers. Today against the Indians in Surprise, Soria looked like he has in his other spring outings, allowing hits to three of the five batters he faced. Then, manager Ned Yost and the trainer paid Soria a mound visit, removing him with what the Royals later said was elbow soreness; Soria will be reevaluated in a couple of days.
Modern-day bullpens are built backward, from the closer on out, and having instability at the closer’s spot can be a recipe for disaster. If Soria has to miss significant time, the Royals may be able to weather the absence of their closer better than most. For one, they have Jonathan Broxton, who’s been a successful closer in the past. Also, Aaron Crow and Greg Holland seem to have both a closers’ stuff and mentality and could fill that role as well. And, the Royals have a surplus of excellent bullpen arms and there are plenty of options for setup roles as well as closer. The key for the Royals if Soria isn’t the closer is for Yost to pick a closer immediately and to stick with him, even through a rough patch or two. The closer by committee approach never works and the best bullpens always have defined roles for all their relievers.
Clearly, if Soria misses a significant amount of time, that would be bad news for the Royals. But, their bullpen depth would help cushion them from that possible blow.
There are two groups of players in spring training: those competing for jobs and those who essentially have jobs won and only have to worry about getting ready for the season. When teams have competition, the hope is that one player will outshine the others and, usually, that’s what happens. But, sometimes, none of the competing players distinguishes themselves, making picking a “winner” difficult.
Coming into camp, the Royals were hoping Johnny Giavotella would win the second base job over Chris Getz. Giavotella is the lesser defender of the two, but he has more upside offensively than Getz, who’s primarily a singles hitter. Giavotella has hit at every one of his minor league stops and showed offensive promise in 46 games with the Royals last season. But, he hit .247 with Kansas City and struggled with the bat after a hot start, so the Royals didn’t want to just hand Giavotella a job. Both Giavotella and Getz have options remaining, so the Royals could start one in the Majors and have the other shipped to Omaha.
However, neither Getz nor Giavotella has exactly won the second base job. Getz has been the more impressive player of the two and Royals manager Ned Yost has raved about his new stance, which gives him a chance to hit for more power, but Getz has yet to have an extra-base hit. Since Giavotella is a work in progress defensively, he needs to hit, and he hasn’t looked great at the plate all spring. Yost has said that Yuniesky Betancourt, who was signed to be a utility infielder, is also in the mix for the second base job to start the year, but I don’t buy that. Yost has talked about the importance of a strong and versatile bench this season, and having Betancourt play second everyday to open the season weakens the bench, since neither Getz nor Giavotella can play multiple positions. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Betancourt to play second everyday at some point during the season if Getz and/or Giavotella struggles, but he won’t open the year at second.
There are still two weeks remaining in spring training, so there’s still time for Getz or Giavotella to go on a tear and leave no doubt they should start at second. And, for the Royals sake, that needs to happen.
Even once the Royals learned Salvador Perez had torn the meniscus in his left knee, they had to wait until he had surgery before determining the proper course of action. If Perez had to miss just a few weeks, the Royals probably would’ve patched things together with the handful of catchers they already have, maybe acquiring a fringe Major League journeyman catcher because of Manny Piña’s absence.
The Royals got the news today and it won’t be just a few weeks. The Royals say doctors have estimated Perez’s recovery time will be 12-14 weeks, meaning he won’t be back in the Majors until mid June, at the earliest. And, according to people I’ve spoken with, once Perez comes back, he probably won’t be able to catch more than four times a week for the remainder of the season. So, ideally, the Royals will look to get a Major League catcher who’s solid defensively and can share time with Brayan Peña; they’ll be looking for someone like Matt Treanor, whom they picked up at the end of spring training last year to pair with Peña. It will be hard to find a decent Major League catcher who fits the Royals needs before the last few days of spring training; once teams set their rosters and have a better idea of what they have is when they’re in a position to deal players they don’t have as much of a need for. It’s not out of the question that the Royals could look to deal a bullpen arm or two (their surplus) for a serviceable catcher.
When spring training started, manager Ned Yost said that the centerfield job was up for grabs. However, everyone who follows the Royals closely knows Lorenzo Cain is, by far, the best option for centerfield; I think the Royals didn’t want to come out and say the job was Cain’s because he has limited Major League experience and spent almost all of last season in Omaha. To Cain’s credit, he hasn’t taken anything for granted. He’s swung the bat very, very well and has been outstanding in the outfield, making another superb catch today on a deep drive by the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy. There have been plenty of opportunities for Cain to sulk or get down on himself since he joined the Royals, but his numbers have yet to show any evidence of sulking; he’s just gone out and made plays with his bat, legs and glove. I think Cain will hit for a decent average and show some pop in addition to stellar defense.
Today, the Royals announced they locked up shortstop Alcides Escobar long term, signing him to a deal that guarantees him $10 million over four years, with two club option years that could bring the total value of the contract to $21.75 million over six years. A lot has been made about the Royals willingness to spend money to keep the young players they develop (or, in the case of Escobar, traded for) once they show they belong in the Majors. The deals signed by Escobar and, earlier this spring, by catcher Salvador Perez indicate the Royals are actively looking to lock up players they see as key parts of their future. The Royals are also negotiating with outfielder Alex Gordon on a long-term deal, which I think will get done by the All-Star Break.
While it’s encouraging the Royals are willing to sign their young players long term, it’s also encouraging that those young players want to sign with the Royals. It’s my understanding that both Escobar and Perez made clear to their agents that they wanted to stay with Kansas City and wanted to sign now, even though they knew they may be able to get more money a year or two from now. Gordon has publicly stated on numerous occasions that he wants to stay with the Royals. Generally speaking, if a player wants to get a deal done with his current team, that deal will get done, regardless of who their agent is. But, you have to give players a reason to want to stay with your club as well, and the Royals seem to be doing that. If the Royals start winning, even more players will want to stay in Kansas City.
Sometimes, you can tell more about a player when he’s struggling than when he’s going well. Every player has hot streaks and days when he’s on fire. But, how does a player perform when he doesn’t have his best stuff or when he gets off to a bad start? Today, Danny Duffy had a rocky first inning against the Dodgers in Glendale. He started off by walking leadoff man Dee Gordon, who promptly stole second before another pitch was thrown, catching Duffy and the rest of the Royals defense napping. After Gordon moved to third, Duffy balked him in before allowing an RBI single to Matt Kemp to go down 2-0. The second inning was much better for Duffy; after allowing back-to-back soft singles to start, he retired the next three hitters. Duffy faced only four batters in the third, working around a two-out walk.
While Duffy’s first outing of spring training, where he struck out five of the six hitters he faced, was very impressive and encouraging, quite a bit can be gleaned from today’s performance as well. Duffy admitted that, in the first inning, he was guilty of trying to be too perfect, which is why the inning got away from him. However, it’s encouraging to see Duffy realize that mistake and bounce back relatively quickly; last season, I don’t know that Duffy recovers as well.
The news today that Salvador Perez is going to miss at least three to four weeks because of surgery on his left knee is a significant blow to the Royals. While the Royals have done a great job of developing quality players at a variety of positions over the last few years, Perez is a rare breed; he’s an above-average defensive catcher who knows how to handle a pitching staff and has the potential to be an above-average hitter. Not to mention, Perez isn’t even 22 years old yet. Plus, the Royals are already without catcher Manuel Piña, who suffered a similar meniscus tear in his right knee, leaving the defensively challenged Brayan Peña as the only catcher on the 40-man roster. Royals General Manager Dayton Moore said the Royals were in the market for more catching after Piña went down and that search intensifies with Perez’s injury. Max Ramirez and Cody Clark are the leading in-house candidates to back up Peña to start the season. Ramirez is the better offensive player of the two (although manager Ned Yost has said Ramirez is better than he thought he’d be defensively) and he has Major League experience. Clark has never played in the Majors, but is the better defender of the pair. I think that, once Perez has the surgery – probably in the next few days – and the Royals have a better idea of how much time he’ll miss, will help determine what catcher, or catchers, they look to acquire.
The Royals announced their first cuts of spring training before tonight’s game with the Mariners in Peoria. With minor league camp starting tomorrow and pitchers getting stretched out – making it harder for everyone to get innings – now was the time to pare down the roster. To me, the most interesting of the cuts was lefty Mike Montgomery, who lasted longer in last year’s camp. Entering spring training, the Royals made clear they wanted to give Montgomery every chance to win a spot in the rotation, but he only threw 2 2/3 innings over his two spring appearances. While less than three innings isn’t a whole lot of time to prove oneself, I don’t think Montgomery helped his case by struggling with his command, a big issue for him during his lackluster 2011 at Omaha. Not to mention, the other Royals starting pitching candidates have performed very well – in some cases, better than expected – which also made Montgomery expendable. I still think Montgomery will make it up to Kansas City before 2012 draws to a close.
Since the Royals traded for Jonathan Sanchez in November, fans have asked me what to expect from him this season. Before spring training began, I made my assessment based mostly on the numbers Sanchez posted with the Giants, which showed high walk and strikeout totals as well as a low rate of hits allowed. Digging further, I learned Sanchez averaged less than six innings per start over the last two seasons. Everything indicated Sanchez was someone who would throw a lot of pitches and allow his share of baserunners but, if things were going well, Sanchez would be able to keep damage to a minimum because of his low hits-allowed numbers and high strikeout rate.
After watching Sanchez pitch in spring training, it’s pretty clear the numbers didn’t lie. Today against the Reds in Surprise, Sanchez issued two walks and one hit in the first – a home run by Jay Bruce – and allowed two runs (he wasn’t helped by a pickoff throw that first baseman Billy Butler missed. Butler was charged with an error). After a 1-2-3 second inning, Sanchez was pulled after allowing hits to the first two batters of the third. All told, Sanchez threw 51 pitches in 2+ innings. Some pitchers always seem to work long innings and throw a lot of pitches, and that’s what I think Royals fans can expect from Sanchez, even on days he’s pitching well.
Royals catcher Salvador Perez came out of the game in the top of the second. Afterwards, manager Ned Yost says it appears Perez tweaked his knee while warming up Sanchez in the bullpen before the game and the Royals are awaiting MRI results. The Royals already lost one catcher this spring, Manny Piña, for several months with a knee injury. Of course, losing Perez for any length of time would be devastating; he may be the most indispensible player on the club. Hopefully, for the Royals sake, they get good news about Perez’s knee later tonight or tomorrow.
Royals starting pitcher Luke Hochevar knows that, barring injury, he’s going to be in the rotation no matter what. Since he doesn’t have to focus on winning a job, Hochevar can focus on fine tuning his pitches and adding to his repertoire. This spring, Hochevar’s been trying to refine his changeup, which I thought looked very good during his three-inning stint today against the Giants in Surprise. Hochevar has thrown a changeup in the past, but was never comfortable with it. Now feels that he’s found a grip that works for him. After the game, Hochevar said he wasn’t happy with his fastball command; I noticed he left a few fastballs up in the zone and got burned. But, all in all, it was a solid second spring outing for Hochevar, who allowed two runs on four hits and didn’t issue a walk.
The Royals had a scare to end the top of the fifth, when first baseman Eric Hosmer twisted his glove awkwardly while fielding a sharply-hit grounder down the line. He was able to recover enough to flip the ball to first for the out, but was slow getting up. Hosmer appeared to be holding his right shoulder when he came off the field, but the Royals say he is fine and should be good to go for tomorrow. Not too long thereafter, Mike Moustakas was hit in the right knee by a pitch leading off the bottom of the fifth and came out of the game. The Royals say Moustakas has a lateral right knee contusion and will be reevaluated tomorrow. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much concern for either, but something to keep an eye on as camp progresses.
Today wasn’t a good day for Royals lefthander Mike Montgomery against the A’s in Phoenix. He was scheduled to pitch three innings, but he was pulled after 2/3 of an inning, allowing five runs on three hits, two walks and a wild pitch. Montgomery seemed to be throwing as hard as he usually does, but all of his fastballs appeared to be up in the zone, and the Oakland hitters teed off. It was certainly a step back for Montgomery after an encouraging first spring outing. However, it’s important to remember two things: 1) it’s one spring outing and 2) Montgomery is only 22 years old and already has a full season at Triple A under his belt. It was unlikely Montgomery was going to break camp with the Royals anyhow, especially considering his struggles at Omaha last season. But, there’s still plenty of time for Montgomery to get on the right track.
It can be difficult to judge an outfielder’s defense because it may be several days before you see an outfielder get a chance to show off his range or his arm. Today, Lorenzo Cain looked outstanding in centerfield. Throughout camp, I’ve thought Cain’s done a nice job reading balls off the bat, but today, he had to cover quite a bit of ground on a few different plays. Cain’s most impressive play came in the second, when he had to range far into deep left-centerfield to track down a drive off the bat of Seth Smith, fully extending his left arm to make the catch. I think Royals fans are going to enjoy watching Cain patrol Kauffman Stadium’s spacious centerfield this summer.
Jonathan Broxton also saw his first spring training action today, but not against Oakland. The righthander pitched in a B game against the Rangers in Surprise. B games are common early in spring training, before the pitching staffs are pared down, because they’re a way to get more pitchers some work. Broxton didn’t pitch after May 3rd last season because of an elbow injury, so the Royals have been taking it slow with him, especially since he’s all but assured of a spot on the Opening Day roster. Not surprisingly, Broxton looked rusty. He was throwing in the mid 90s, like he usually does, but his command was off. He did show a good slider that darted out of the zone (he used that slider to strike out Adrian Beltre), but he didn’t throw an off-speed pitch for a strike which isn’t surprising after a long layoff. Hopefully for Royals fans, Broxton looks better when he pitches in his first spring training “A” game later this week.
I’ve always thought hitting was tougher to evaluate than pitching. Most hitters only get 4-5 plate appearances in a regular-season game, while you’ll get to see a pitcher throw several pitches in one inning alone. Hitting is even tougher to evaluate in spring training because, for much of camp, position players aren’t playing all nine innings, meaning you get to see fewer plate appearances. Also, pitchers don’t always pitch in a spring training game like they do in a regular-season game; they may be working on something specific. For example, Alex Gordon hit a home run earlier this spring off a sidearming lefty who threw him four straight sliders, two of which he’d fouled off; it’s unlikely Gordon would see four straight sliders in a regular-season at-bat, unless looked overmatched on all of them. Also, it tends to take hitters a few weeks to get their timing where they want it to be.
So, when I watch Royals hitters in spring training, I generally look for things that jump out, like with Chris Getz, who has a new stance that’s more upright and with a more pronounced weight shift as a way of generating more pop. When I watch position players I’m familiar with, I want to see at least some flashes of what’s made them successful in the past. Today, for instance, Mike Moustakas got a hanging breaking ball that he was a little early on and hit a mile foul down the rightfield line, completely out of the stadium; I know that, when he’s going well during the regular season, Moustakas probably keeps that ball fair. I also like that I’ve seen Gordon, Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, among others, hit the ball effectively to the opposite field. All of those hitters rely on taking the ball the other way and you generally don’t want to see a hitter pulling everything this early in camp.
A few Royals fans have contacted me expressing alarm at the paltry offensive numbers of various position players this spring. I almost never look at spring training statistics for position players, especially the ones who are all but assured of a spot on the Opening Day roster; those guys have plenty of time to iron out the kinks and to get their swings where they want them to be. I know a lot of fans pore over spring training box scores but, for the most part, they are meaningless. Unlike the regular season, when you can look at stats and draw some accurate conclusions on players and teams, in spring training you have to go by what you see (or what someone in camp sees) rather than by what the numbers say.
I’ve had several conversations with Royals pitcher Danny Duffy this spring and, in all of them, he’s made one thing very clear: he’s on a mission. A mission to prove that, not only can he pitch in the big leagues, but that he can be very successful at this level. Duffy showed flashes of brilliance in his 20 starts with the Royals last season after being called up from Omaha, but he struggled with consistency. This off-season, Duffy tinkered with his delivery to make it easier to repeat and he says he spent a lot of time working on his mental game as well. I’ve gotten the sense Duffy can’t wait for the 2012 season to start.
Duffy made his first outing of the spring today against the Reds in Goodyear and looked like a different pitcher than the one Royals fans saw labor through much of the season. He was confident, composed and looked completely in charge on the mound. Duffy started off his outing by getting Drew Stubbs to fly out; as it turned out, Stubbs was the only one to hit a Duffy pitch into fair territory. The lefty struck out the other five hitters he faced in his two-inning stint, including Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Scott Rolen, perhaps the three best hitters in the Reds lineup. Duffy kept his fastball down and threw it for strikes on both sides of the plate. Like most pitchers making their first spring appearance, Duffy didn’t throw a ton of off-speed pitches but the few he did throw looked effective. Duffy’s added a cut fastball to his repertoire, something he said he started working on last season. If Duffy continues to look like he did today the rest of the spring, it will be nearly impossible for the Royals not to put him in the season-opening starting rotation.
Hard to believe that, around this time two years ago, we were talking about Duffy walking away from baseball; occasionally, I still hear from Royals fans who question his dedication to the game. Duffy’s told me he was very immature two years ago and that a break from baseball was a good thing for him. Even in 2010, I noticed how competitive Duffy is and how badly he wants to win. Now, in 2012, I see the focus and confidence to go along with that competitive drive.
There’s no question Aaron Crow is a big piece of the puzzle for the Royals; the question is where. He was an All-Star reliever last year, but was drafted as a starting pitcher and, not surprisingly, the Royals are stretching Crow out this spring to see if he’ll be a viable option for their rotation in 2012. For Crow to have success as a starter, he needs to show an effective changeup to go along with his excellent sinking fastball and slider. In his first spring outing today against the Rockies in Scottsdale, Crow threw two changeups in his two-inning stint, including one that struck out Rockies centerfielder Dexter Fowler swinging, one of two strikeouts Crow recorded. Even if Crow does join the rotation, it probably won’t be for the entire season; the Royals are concerned about his workload after he threw just 62 innings last season. But, whether Crow works as a starter or a reliever, an effective changeup would be a useful weapon for him against lefties, who hit .311 off of Crow last year.
Yuniesky Betancourt drew his first spring training start at second base this afternoon and looked very good defensively; he started two double plays and was in the middle of another twin killing. Betancourt also ranged far up the middle to backhand a grounder hit by Jonathan Herrera, throwing him out at first. Even though he’s played just nine Major League games at second – all in his rookie year in 2005, with Seattle – there’s little concern about Betancourt’s ability to play there. While Betancourt’s range, especially to his left, is fringy, at best, for a shortstop, it profiles as above-average range at second base. Plus, at second, Betancourt will usually be playing between Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar, both of whom have above-average range at their positions (part of the reason I think the Royals aren’t too concerned about Johnny Giavotella’s below-average range at second). Before the Royals first acquired Betancourt, in a trade with Seattle during the 2009 season, there were published reports that the Mariners were considering moving Betancourt back to second base, the position he played for most of his career in Cuba.
Several people have asked me about catcher Max Ramirez, who homered today – his fourth longball in the last three games. After today’s game, manager Ned Yost said he knew Ramirez could hit, but he’s played better than Yost thought he would defensively. It’s going to be very difficult for Ramirez, a non-roster player, to unseat Brayan Peña as the backup catcher, but if Ramirez continues to play well, he’ll give the Royals another option at catcher as the year progresses, especially with Manuel Piña out for a while after undergoing knee surgery. Barring injury, Ramirez would have to keep hitting homers at his current Ruthian pace to have any shot at making the club out of spring training.
Defense was an issue early in the Royals’ spring training game against the Cubs in Surprise, with Mike Moustakas playing a part. In the first inning, the third baseman committed a fielding error and a throwing error – the latter happening after Jeff Francoeur’s throw from rightfield short-hopped past Moustakas. In the second, Moustakas almost committed his third error of the game, taking a groundball off his chest before just barely throwing the runner out at first base. He did rebound nicely though, making some nice plays coming in on grounders later in the game. Moustakas struggled defensively in camp last year, but did a nice job at third during the season. There have been questions about whether Moustakas would stick at third base his entire professional career. However, I think Moustakas will be at least adequate defensively at third; he has plenty of arm for the position, he seems to have the work ethic and desire when it comes to his defense and he’s slimmed down the last couple of years, which should improve his agility. Nevertheless, how Moustakas does at third is worth watching, especially since this will be his first full Major League season at the position.
Jeff Francoeur also committed an error in the Cubs’ four-run first, the only inning Jonathan Sanchez pitched in his Royals spring debut. From what I’ve seen of Sanchez during his time with the Giants and in live batting practice earlier in camp, he has electric stuff and all of his pitches move. Sanchez has always walked a lot of hitters and run deep pitch counts because he’s struggled to fully harness his stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Sanchez this spring, but I get the sense he’s one of those pitchers who will always run a deep pitch count, even when he’s pitching well. Of the 31 pitches Sanchez threw today, 21 of them were strikes, which is encouraging, even in a rough outing. The Royals have been taking it slow with Sanchez, whose 2011 season ended a month and a half early because of an ankle injury, so he’s a little behind the other starting pitchers, but not by much. Sanchez’s command should get better in his subsequent spring outings but, again, he’s a pitcher for whom command may always be a bit of an issue.
In today’s start vs. San Diego, Luke Hochevar showed excellent command for a first spring training outing, working around a hit and a walk over two scoreless innings. After the game, Hochevar talked about the progress he’s made with his changeup, a pitch he’s struggled to throw effectively throughout his career. However, Hochevar says he’s found a grip that works for him and he’s been happy with the way the ball comes out of his hand. Hochevar has a pretty extensive repertoire, but most of his pitches are hard. Having something soft, like a changeup, could bode well for Hochevar this season. For one, it gives him a pitch he can throw when hitters are hitting his fastball; sometimes, struggling pitchers are better off going softer when they’re in trouble rather than trying to go harder (an issue Hochevar’s had in the past). Hochevar is also working on focusing on one pitch at a time as a way of preventing bad situations from snowballing on him, another issue he’s dealt with throughout his career. Hochevar will likely open the season as the Royals’ #1 starter and, while he may not have all the makings of an ace, Hochevar needs to be a rotation anchor for the Royals to be successful.
Today was a split-squad day for the Royals, with games at home against the Padres and on the road vs. the Indians. As a result, both Mike Moustakas and Yuniesky Betancourt started at third today, the latter drawing the assignment in the home game. It was the second straight start at third for Betancourt, who has looked solid over there thus far. Yesterday, he made a nice backhand stop of a sharply hit ball down the line and just missed throwing out a runner at second. The Royals have been watching Betancourt closely at third since he’s never really played there before and because they signed him in part to spell Moustakas against tough lefties. The Royals aren’t as worried about Betancourt at second because shortstops are usually fairly adept at second and Betancourt has played there before, mostly in Cuba. Manager Ned Yost plans on using his bench more this season and the Royals are counting on Betancourt’s versatility; if he can handle second, short and third, that would enable the Royals to carry Jarrod Dyson as the fourth man on a four-man bench. Dyson has proven to be rather effective in late-game, pinch-running situations. Dyson might’ve been able to stick with the Royals all year in 2011 had they not decided to carry 13 pitchers most of the season.
One of the difficult things about spring training, especially early in spring training, is determining the significance of what you’re seeing. If someone struggles, should there be concern? On the flip side, if someone performs well, should we be impressed? Generally speaking, those who enter camp knowing their jobs are secure have more leeway for poor performances; after all, they know they have a job sewn up, so they can focus on specific things and take their time getting ready, as long as they aren’t coasting or going through the motions. However, when someone is trying to win a job or show he belongs, his early performances are much more meaningful; a strong showing early increases that player’s chances of getting a longer look.
So, I’m not too concerned about Bruce Chen’s poor outing today vs. the Rangers. The lefty was scheduled to pitch two innings, but finished an out shy of that. He also allowed eight men to come to the plate in a three-run first (one of those runs was unearned thanks to Johnny Giavotella’s throwing error). Five of the seven hits Chen allowed were hit to the opposite field or up the middle and four of those five opposite field/up the middle hits came on inside pitches, which tells me Chen’s command wasn’t as good as it usually is. A harder thrower can get away with missing a little on pitches inside but, when you don’t throw hard, your margin for error on the inner half is much smaller and requires refined command. Chen wasn’t very happy with today’s outing, but there’s no reason to be alarmed at this point.
On the flip side, it was good to see Mike Montgomery bounce back in his second inning of work after a rocky first inning. Montgomery, one of several candidates for the last two spots in the rotation, walked the leadoff man and gave up three hits and a run in the fourth, but recorded a strikeout and didn’t allow a ball out of the infield during a 1-2-3 fifth. The difference between the two innings for Montgomery was command, particularly of his secondary stuff. In the fourth, Montgomery couldn’t throw his off-speed pitches for strikes, allowing the Rangers to sit on his fastball. But, in the fifth, Montgomery’s command was much better, as he threw perhaps his best breaking ball of the day to strike out David Murphy swinging.
The most impressive Royals plate appearance of the day came from shortstop Alcides Escobar. Facing Rangers sidearming lefty Mitch Stetter, Escobar worked the count full and fouled off several pitches before tripling off the top of the centerfield fence. Stetter didn’t really have anything to put Escobar away with and didn’t throw anything effective inside to the righthanded hitter and, to his credit, Escobar battled until he got a pitch he could really drive. Through two spring games, Escobar seems to be sticking with the approach that proved to be so successful for him last year: keeping his hands back and not trying to do too much, especially on pitches away. Escobar has quick wrists and a surprising amount of power, but gets himself in trouble when he looks to pull everything, as he did early last season. Also, when Escobar looks to pull everything, he fouls off quite a few hittable pitches. Even before camp began, I’ve felt Escobar is poised for a big year; we know what he can do defensively and he seems to have turned the corner offensively. He should do well, especially in this lineup.
Today was the opening game of the Royals spring schedule and Luis Mendoza helped Kansas City start off on the right foot. Mendoza started the game and threw two scoreless innings; after a 1-2-3 first, he allowed a two-out single to Nelson Cruz on a grounder deep in the shortstop’s hole in the second before walking Mike Napoli and retiring Mitch Moreland on a groundout. What was most impressive about Mendoza’s outing was his command. He worked the ball in and out and changed speeds effectively. When Mendoza did miss, he almost always missed down, making it difficult for the Rangers hitters to square the ball up against him. If Mendoza continues to pitch like he did today, he will make it nearly impossible for the Royals not to put him on the club as either a starter or reliever, especially since he’s out of options.
A few Royals fans have asked me how realistic Mendoza’s chances are of securing one of the two open rotation spots; I think Mendoza’s chances are very good. He had a great year in the Pacific Coast League last year with Omaha and pitched well in two late-season starts for the Royals. The argument against Mendoza is that he’s 28 years old and hasn’t distinguished himself to this point; he opened 2010 in the Royals bullpen and was horrendous before being sent down and he has a 7.36 ERA in 38 Major League games between the Royals and Rangers. But, sometimes, pitchers figure it out later in their career after a few years of struggle. I think, if the Royals had their druthers, they would like to send Mendoza back to Omaha if he has a good spring to see if he continues to be successful. But, Mendoza is out of options and the Royals would have to send him through waivers if they wanted to send him back to Omaha, and there’s a high probability another team would claim him.
General Manager Dayton Moore has said more than once that he doesn’t want the Royals’ young players to be blocked; he wants to be able to call them up when they’re ready. Would Mendoza really be blocking anyone? What if Danny Duffy, one of those young players the Royals don’t want to block, and Felipe Paulino, who’s out of options, also pitch well enough to make the ballclub this spring? The Royals could find themselves in a bit of a quandary then but, frankly, it would be a nice problem to have. It’s the sort of problem the Royals haven’t had in a long time, because they haven’t had much depth. But, when you have depth, sometimes, you have send players down or risk losing players who are very good and could help you win games. If you’re a Royals fan, you want them to continue to have problems like this; it’s certainly better than much of the last 15 years, when it was a matter of picking from several mediocre-to-bad options.
Today was the last day of Royals camp without any games; their spring exhibition schedule starts tomorrow afternoon with a contest against their complex mates, the Texas Rangers, at Surprise Stadium. And, tomorrow is when the real competition for 25-man roster spots begins. Like most managers, Ned Yost doesn’t start really evaluating players until the exhibition games start. Let’s take a look at what the 25-man roster may look like at the close of camp.
Most of the everyday position players are set, barring injury. Salvador Perez is the catcher. Eric Hosmer is at first, with occasional starts at designated hitter. Billy Butler will be the primary DH and play first when Hosmer is the DH. Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas will hold down shortstop and third, respectively. Jeff Francoeur will be in right and Alex Gordon will be in left (Gordon will also back up first, since either Butler or Hosmer will DH most days, and you don’t want to lose your DH during a game because you need him to play first). The Royals are reluctant to say Lorenzo Cain is a lock in centerfield – probably because he only has 49 games of Major League experience and just six games last year – but Cain is far and away the best, and most likely, option. If Johnny Giavotella hits, he’ll start at second base; if he doesn’t, Chris Getz will be at second.
Most of the bench is set as well, as long as health isn’t an issue. Brayan Peña is the backup catcher (there was a school of thought that, before he tore the meniscus in his right knee, good-field, no-hit Manuel Piña had a shot at the backup role over the defensively-challenged Peña, but Peña’s out of options and teams rarely carry two rookie catchers. Of course, it’s a moot point now, with Piña likely to miss the rest of camp and the early part of the regular season). Yuniesky Betancourt was signed to be the righthanded pinch hitter and to back up second, short and third, getting starts for Moustakas against tough lefthanders. Betancourt could also find himself playing second everyday if Giavotella and/or Getz falters during the season. Mitch Maier will be the lefthanded pinch hitter and backup outfielder. The fourth bench spot will likely go to Jarrod Dyson, who can play the outfield and is invaluable as a pinch runner in late-game situations.
Barring injuries, the Royals’ top three starters will be Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez in some order. I think Hochevar has the inside track to be the Opening Day starter but, if it isn’t him, it will be Chen. Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino are the most likely candidates for the last two spots in the rotation, but they need to have solid springs. Paulino has a hamstring injury that’s set him back slightly, but the Royals have raved about his improved command, which will need to continue in exhibition games. Paulino is also out of options. Duffy has smoothed out his delivery – making it easier to repeat, a problem for him last year – and has done a nice job of keeping the ball down and he, too, needs to bring those adjustments into spring training games. If Duffy and/or Paulino falter, Luis Mendoza could be next in line. Every Royals official I’ve talked to seems convinced Mendoza “figured it out” last season, when he led the Pacific Coast League in ERA and impressed in two late-season starts with the big club. Not to mention, Mendoza is out of options and the Royals are wary of losing someone they think can be a back of the rotation starter, so he could find his way on the team as a bullpen arm if he doesn’t make the rotation. All-Star reliever Aaron Crow is also being looked at as a starter, but the Royals have said, even if he does break camp as a starter, they aren’t likely to keep Crow in the rotation all year, so he would be a short-term solution, at best. Non-roster invitee and top prospect Mike Montgomery will get a long look this spring, but he would have to be really impressive and the other candidates would have to falter for Montgomery to get a shot to open the year. Sean O’Sullivan and Vin Mazzaro are even longer shots, even though O’Sullivan doesn’t have options left. Keep in mind that, unlike most years, the Royals will need a fifth starter for most of April; they only have two off-days that first month.
The competition for last year’s bullpen spots was stiff, with Greg Holland and Louis Coleman opening the year at Omaha despite impressive springs, and this year’s reliever competition figures to be even tougher, especially since Yost has indicated he’ll open the year with 12 pitchers, rather than 13 – so seven relievers, as opposed to eight. Joakim Soria is the closer and Jonathan Broxton is the eighth-inning guy. It will be tough for the Royals not to go north with Holland after he excelled in the eighth-inning role last season. Jose Mijares was signed to be the situational lefty, so his job is probably safe, barring an implosion (Mijares is also out of options). Tim Collins or Everett Teaford will make the team as the second lefty, and I’d give the edge to Collins if he continues to show improved command and reduces the walks. Both Collins and Teaford have options remaining. As for the other two spots? Likely someone out of the group comprising Coleman, Kelvin Herrera, Jeremy Jeffress and Blake Wood, all of whom have options. However, if Crow doesn’t open the year as a starter – a strong possibility – he’ll be in the bullpen. Also, Mendoza could find his way to the ‘pen since he’s out of options. The Royals also want to look at Mazzaro as a reliever, but I think he’s a long shot at this point.
There are some other players Royals fans should keep an eye on during camp, because they could wind up playing a role at some point because of injuries to or the ineffectiveness of others. Tony Abreu has 146 games of Major League experience with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks and, like Betancourt, can play second, third and short. Catcher Max Ramirez combined to play in 45 games with the Rangers in 2008 and 2010 and could get the call should the Royals need another catcher, especially if Piña is still sidelined. David Lough is on the 40-man roster, can play all three outfield positions and has put up solid numbers at Omaha the last two years. Kansas City native Tommy Hottovy has opened some eyes with his sidearm delivery from the left side and pitched in eight games for the Red Sox last season as a lefty specialist. Starting pitching prospects Chris Dwyer and Will Smith are both lefties and could find themselves with the Royals if they pitch well in the minors. Righthander Zach Miner spent four years starting and relieving for the Tigers, but hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2009, undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010. Outfielder Wil Myers is considered by many to be the top position-player prospect in the system, and he could find his way to the Majors late in the year with a strong minor league campaign.
It’s been a while since the Royals went into camp knowing, barring injury and/or ineffectiveness, who most of their 25 will be, a sign the organization is headed in the right direction. However, spring training is always filled with injuries, surprises and, sometimes, a trade or two. But, as things now stand, the Royals are in a good position to compete in the AL Central and appear to have a decent amount of depth at most spots.
The Royals played their second, and final, intrasquad game today and, once again, the pitching dominated in a 3-0 win by the “white” squad. The pitchers were helped by a strong wind that was blowing in. Joakim Soria, who gave up all three runs, struggled with his command. Afterward, manager Ned Yost said Soria’s delivery was a little out of sync and his arm was a little too far behind the rest of his body – an issue that plagued him at times last year – but he said pitching coach Dave Eiland picked up on in quickly and they don’t expect it to be a lingering problem. However, it is something worth watching the rest of spring training and into the regular season.
The pitcher who impressed me the most was Danny Duffy. Duffy showed promise last year, but had trouble repeating his delivery and throwing strikes consistently. Every time I’ve talked to Duffy this spring training, he’s been adamant that he’s corrected a lot of the issues that plagued him last season and, the more I watch him, the more I believe him. Duffy’s delivery looks much smoother and easier to repeat than it did last season. He’s commanding the ball effectively and keeping it down in the zone.
I think the Royals need Duffy in the rotation all year to be successful. Duffy in the rotation increases the chances Aaron Crow pitches out of the bullpen, where he was successful last year. Also, because of the limited innings he worked as a reliever in 2011, Crow won’t be able to pitch as starter the entire season, whereas Duffy would. While the Royals have plenty of pitching depth, I don’t think there’s any secret that their best-case scenario is Duffy and Felipe Paulino anchoring the back end of the rotation. I also think that, at some point, they’ll need contributions from one of their talented lefties slated to begin the year in Omaha – Chris Dwyer, Mike Montgomery or Will Smith – to have the sort of success they think they’re capable of having. Guys like Luis Mendoza, Vin Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan are intriguing – especially Mendoza and O’Sullivan, who are out of options – but it’s doubtful any of them are the answers in the rotation long-term. So, if 2012 is about getting back to around .500 and 2013 is about being a legitimate contender for the AL Central title, the Royals need to see at least one or two of their talented pitching prospects take a step toward being a long-term solution in the rotation.
Today was the first of two Royals intrasquad games and the first opportunity to take a look at the Royals players in a semi-competitive situation. The game lasted 6 ½ innings and every pitcher who came in worked exactly one inning. Offensively, it was good to see Alex Gordon continue to hit the ball the other way, with two singles to left. Salvador Perez continues to show tremendous power, driving a ball to deep left-center for a double. Chris Getz, who has a more upright stance, picked up a pair of hits.
The pitcher who opened the most eyes was Tim Collins. He worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the fourth and showed superb command. Manager Ned Yost raved about how well Collins kept the ball down during his appearance. Collins and pitching coach Dave Eiland have been working on some slight mechanical adjustments and they seem to be paying off for Collins early in camp. If Collins throws strikes consistently, he’s going to make the Royals as one of the two lefty relievers.
I also liked the way Jeremy Jeffress threw the ball, especially since he didn’t throw a single curve, sticking to his fastball and changeup, a pitch he barely used during his Major League stint last year. I was impressed with Mike Montgomery’s breaking ball and, after a few pitches up early, I thought he commanded his fastball well down in the zone. Non-roster invitee Tommy Hottovy had a lot of movement on his pitches and continues to look like someone who has a future as a situational lefty, but it’s going to be very difficult for him to make the Royals out of spring training.
The reason Hottovy is going to have trouble making the Royals out of camp is because Jose Mijares was signed this off-season to be the situational lefty. Mijares was a late arrival to camp and, as a result, is a little behind the other pitchers. But, he did throw live batting practice before the Royals’ intrasquad game. Mijares showed a good fastball and solid command, but he seemed to struggle with his breaking-ball command. Eiland – who was standing behind Mijares as he threw – told Mijares he needed to do a better job with his follow through on his breaking ball, and it looked much better after that.