After picking Bubba Starling fifth overall Monday, Royals GM Dayton Moore said there was “no external pressure” to draft the local star. The Royals may have ignored that pressure, but it was certainly there. Kansas City-area sports fans have been hearing about Bubba Starling’s exploits on the diamond and the gridiron for a couple of years now. The Kansas City Star has written a handful of feature stories on him already. So, of course, he was the people’s choice and, in part because of the raid on pitching in the first four picks, Starling was the choice that made the most sense for the Royals.
I have no doubt the Royals will spend the money necessary to entice Starling to sign. It will take the biggest signing bonus in club history to get it done, in the neighborhood of $7 million-$9 million, and I don’t think the Royals pick Starling if they aren’t prepared to pay. It also helps that Starling is a two-sport athlete and baseball rules allow the signing bonus for such athletes to be paid over five years, easing the financial blow for the Royals.
Starling’s being advised by agent Scott Boras, whose negotiating skills and tactics are legendary – and, in some cases, reviled – in baseball circles. It’s typical for high-profile draft picks represented by Boras not to sign until right before the August 15th deadline. That’s when Boras clients, and previous Royals first-round picks, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer got their deals done. And, Starling has even more leverage than those two, since he also has the option to play quarterback at Nebraska.
Boras advises his high school clients to enroll in college and to start taking classes until a deal is done, thus increasing their leverage and letting teams know his clients are prepared to walk away from the negotiating table if need be. But will Starling have that same leverage? The reporting date for Nebraska football players is July 10th. Will Cornhuskers head coach Bo Pellini want Starling working out with his team if Starling still doesn’t know for sure if he will sign with the Royals? Could Nebraska put pressure on Starling to make up his mind by July 10th rather than August 15th? I think that’s a possibility and, if it happens, Starling’s leverage decreases significantly.
Everyone talks about the pressure on the Royals to get Starling signed, but I think more pressure is on Starling. The Royals picked him and are prepared to pay what it takes, just like they’ve been prepared to pay what it takes to sign all of their high-profile draft picks under Dayton Moore, including Boras clients. If Starling doesn’t sign, the Royals won’t look bad, plus they’ll get the sixth overall pick in next year’s draft if they lose him.
The Royals will do their part. Will Bubba Starling, provided he wants to play professional baseball right now, do his?
My first few weeks covering the Royals were a blur. I was hired early in March of 2009 and arrived in Kansas City for the first time in my life the day after St. Patrick’s Day. There was a lot of moving, people to meet and ropes of sports-talk radio to learn (which I’d never done before). There was even a blink-and-you-missed-it trip to Arizona for Royals spring training. I was really looking forward to the start of the season when things would settle down, or so I thought.
The Royals opened ’09 on the road, in Chicago, a game many Royals fans remember for two reasons: Jim Thome’s go-ahead two-run homer off Kyle Farnsworth in the 8th inning (why wasn’t Juan Cruz pitching!?) and Paul Splittorff not sounding like himself and leaving the television broadcast.
I didn’t listen to the TV broadcast of that game, choosing to put it on mute to listen to the radio broadcast instead, so I didn’t hear how Splitt sounded that day. However, I was inundated with text messages and, later, phone calls wondering what was up with Splitt (good thing I wasn’t on Twitter yet). As a result, I found myself in an awkward position. Here was a broadcaster I had never heard call a baseball game, a local icon, not sounding like himself. Yet, I was an out-of-towner with no perspective to offer on the matter. The next day, Frank White became the TV analyst and, several days later, the Kansas City Star printed an article revealing Splitt’s vocal problems were the result of a virus that would hopefully clear up down the road.
As the 2009 season wore on, Splitt started spending more time around Kauffman Stadium. I introduced myself to him once and he never forgot my name or what I did, something that amazed me in part because he didn’t need to know who I was and in part because I’m terrible at remembering names. He was easily approachable and loved talking baseball. And, with Splitt, it was truly talking about baseball not him telling you about baseball. He was just as interested in what you thought or had to say about a particular aspect of the game as he was in giving you his opinion. He listened as well as he talked, not an easy feat for any human being, let alone a successful athlete. And, he always wanted to know more. Twice, I asked him a question he couldn’t answer at that moment. Both times, he approached me a couple of weeks later with an answer to questions I’d forgotten I’d asked in the first place.
When Splitt started calling a handful of games again in the 2010 season, I felt bad for him because I knew what high standards he had for himself as a broadcaster. He wasn’t an ex-player who figured leaning on his fame and success was enough to satisfy the fans and the powers that be – even if it would’ve been, especially after his vocal problems. It was very important to Splitt to be the best broadcaster he could possibly be, just as I’m sure it had been important to him to be the best pitcher he could possibly be. And, if you could get past how Splitt sounded, there was some great information. He worked hard not only to know the Royals and their opponent that given day, but the entire league. I’ve been fortunate enough to listen and to meet to a lot of broadcasters over the years and I can say, without hesitation, that none were more informed or better prepared than Splitt. There are some who are as informed and as prepared, but none better. So, even though I never heard Splitt call a Royals game prior to his speech problems, I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for how he did his job.
Now that Eric Hosmer has arrived, I thought I’d put together a list of frequently asked questions about the talented prospect. After all, a Royals prospect hasn’t prompted this much excitement since Alex Gordon opened the 2007 season in Kansas City’s lineup. So, without further ado…
Why now? I thought the Royals were going to wait until June 1st, at the earliest, to call him up?
Calling Hosmer up now does start his service-time clock as far as arbitration is concerned, making him a likely candidate for a fourth year of arbitration, which could cost the Royals a few million dollars more than if they waited until early June. So, what’s a few weeks, anyway?
You can go into a season with a plan for your prospects but, sometimes, they exceed your expectations. Coming into spring training, the talk was Mike Moustakas’ imminent arrival, as it seemed Hosmer would simply get his feet wet in Major League camp before preparing to start the year at AA Northwest Arkansas after getting 195 at-bats there last season. However, Hosmer went 9 for 20 with six extra-base hits in Major League camp, probably staying longer than expected and ensuring he’d open the year with AAA Omaha. Then, Hosmer goes out and hits .439 for the Storm Chasers, making the Pacific Coast League his playground. I think it got to the point where there was nothing to be gained by leaving Hosmer at AAA any longer. Sure, he’s not going to hit this well all year, but you’d like for Hosmer to come up to the Majors on a high note and you want to keep challenging the guy generally considered the best position-player prospect in the system. Hosmer’s done everything the Royals have asked him to do, and more. Now is the time.
I don’t think Hosmer’s call-up has anything to do with how well the Royals are playing. The Royals could be 10-21 right now and Hosmer still would be up here because of what he’s done so far this season. Certainly, Kila Ka’aihue’s struggles help prompt Hosmer’s promotion, but he would’ve been in Kansas City at some point in May anyway, with the way he was hitting.
Where will he bat in the Royals lineup?
Seventh. Jeff Francoeur and Wilson Betemit will bat fifth and sixth, respectively. Hosmer will be followed in the lineup by the catcher and Alcides Escobar.
I think seventh is where Hosmer should bat at this point. Batting him higher puts too much pressure on him and Francoeur and Betemit have both been hitting well, so why move them? I could see Hosmer moving up to sixth if one of them struggles or if one isn’t in the lineup. Potentially, Hosmer has a chance to be a number-three hitter, but no need to put him there before he’s proven anything in the Majors. What’s nice is that the Royals lineup, despite some holes, has performed well. As a result, there’s less pressure to bat Hosmer in a key run-producing spot.
What should we expect to see from him offensively?
Hosmer’s most impressive trait is his ability to hit for power to all fields, thanks to a balanced and level swing that stays in the zone for a long time. He hasn’t shown much power so far this season – only 8 of his 43 hits at Omaha went for extra bases – but he cranked 20 homers and 43 doubles in 520 at-bats between High-A and AA last season, so the power is there. I think it’s unrealistic to expect Hosmer to hit for power right away. The power will come as he learns more about his swing, gets used to Major League pitching and adjusts to what pitchers are trying to do to him. Right now, you want to see Hosmer hit the ball where it is pitched and use the whole field. If he does that, then he’s on the right track.
What does this mean for Kila Ka’aihue and Clint Robinson?
If Hosmer performs well, and he and Billy Butler stay healthy, we may never see Ka’aihue in a Royals uniform again. Even if Ka’aihue tears it up the rest of the year at Omaha, I still think his chances of returning to the home clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium are remote. The prevailing opinion among baseball talent evaluators before last season was that Ka’aihue was a “4A” player: good enough to produce at AAA, but not good enough to be a Major League regular. The Royals gave Ka’aihue an opportunity to dispel that notion, but he’s failed to do so. At the very least, you hope the demotion doesn’t wreck Ka’aihue’s confidence to the point where he struggles even in the Pacific Coast League.
Robinson’s situation is a lot more compelling. After winning the Texas League triple crown at Northwest Arkansas last season, Robinson has continued to produce at Omaha, hitting .340 with 8 homers and 20 RBIs in 26 games. If Robinson continues to produce, he gives the Royals a fallback plan should Hosmer struggle. If Hosmer plays well, I see the Royals leaving Robinson in Omaha the entire year. After all, an excellent year at AAA would increase Robinson’s trade value. I think he’ll get his opportunity in the Majors, but it probably won’t be with Kansas City as long as Hosmer doesn’t get hurt or fall flat on his face.
Will the Royals retire his number now or wait until next season?
Eric Hosmer is incredibly talented and has a chance to do some special things if he stays focused and stays healthy. However, it’s important to remember Hosmer’s just a 21-year-old rookie. Very few players get to the Major Leagues and start hitting from Day One; off the top of my head, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols come to mind as notable exceptions.
I think it’s unfair to expect a specific amount of production from Hosmer this season. I’m sure he’ll look great at times, but I’m also sure he’ll struggle at times. All you should hope to see from Hosmer is improvement. What’s most exciting to me is that Hosmer is the first of what will be a wave of talented prospects getting to the Majors.
In his relatively brief time as Royals manager, Ned Yost has been pretty clear about his managerial philosophy and how he likes to run a game and run a team. Ask Yost why he didn’t pinch-run for Billy Butler when he represented the tying run in the eighth inning of the Angels series and he’ll tell you he would’ve done it in the ninth, but the eighth was too soon an inning to risk losing his best hitter. Ask Yost if he’ll use Joakim Soria in the eighth inning and he’ll tell you that’s extremely unlikely, the set-up guys have to get the job done before the ninth.
One topic I’ve found Yost to be very steadfast on is the lineup. He doesn’t like moving guys around too much and he prefers the lineup to be set, more or less. Yost also says he doesn’t like to move guys in and out because of a minor slump, choosing instead to follow the advice of his mentor, Bobby Cox: “when you’re ready to make a lineup change, wait another week.”
Knowing Yost’s philosophies on managing and lineups makes his handling of Mike Aviles rather curious, at least on the surface. After beating out Wilson Betemit for the everyday third-base job, Aviles got off to a slow start, hitting .115 with three errors over the first six games (five at third base), Aviles was benched over the weekend, as Betemit started all three games in Detroit. That doesn’t make sense, you might say. How could Yost, a manager whose been pretty clear about sticking with guys even when they struggle, jettison Aviles after only six games? However, I see what Yost is doing and it makes perfect sense to me.
Yost didn’t decide to sit Aviles based on six games. I think Yost’s been evaluating whether Aviles can play third for over a month. Aviles got an opportunity to play third base pretty much every day during spring training, especially since Betemit was limited early with an elbow injury. It was pretty clear Aviles was going to struggle there. He seemed to have difficulty adjusting to the shorter reaction time a third baseman has and it wasn’t always easy for Aviles to make the plays that should be routine at the hot corner. Yet, I think Yost was willing to give Aviles a shot to open the season at third because of his bat. Aviles has hit pretty much everywhere he’s been and, at the end of last season, showed a little more pop than he’d shown in the past. You could argue Betemit would have been a better option for everyday duty at third, but Betemit isn’t great defensively either and he has more experience coming off the bench than Aviles does.
So, the season starts, Aviles continues to struggle defensively and adds putrid offense to the mix as well. Part of the problem with being a suspect defensive player, as Aviles has been throughout his career, is when you aren’t hitting, there’s little reason for you to be in the lineup. Every hitter goes through slumps, of course, but those slumps are much more noticeable when you aren’t fielding well either.
I think the message Yost is trying to send to Aviles is that, if you want to play, you need to field your position well. Aviles isn’t the only Royals player whose gotten off to a slow start offensively. Kila Ka’aihue (.176), Matt Treanor (.211) and Alcides Escobar (.200) haven’t exactly set the world on fire at the plate, but they’ve all played outstanding defense. Therefore, you can live with their slumps a little while longer. In a nutshell, I think Aviles got benched because of his defense, not because of his offense.
To me, the best place to put Aviles is second base. From what I’ve seen, his footwork on the double play still needs work, but his range and quickness play the best there. Going into spring training, I thought the Royals best infield would be one with Aviles at second and Betemit at third. Chris Getz is better defensively than Aviles, but I don’t think he’s so much better to make up for the lack of offense he’s shown in his career thus far. But, it seems like the Royals decided early in camp that Getz was the guy at second. He and Escobar played together up the middle almost exclusively during spring training while Aviles saw very little time at second, which seemed odd to me.
One more note on defense: I’ve heard many people talk about Aviles’ “defensive slump” to start the year. That’s baloney. Defense never slumps. Sure, even the best defenders will have bad games or boot a ball every now and again. However, solid defensive players don’t have several games in a row in which they struggle with the glove, like Aviles has. So, don’t let anyone goad you into thinking Aviles – or anyone else – is in a “defensive slump.” Aviles just isn’t very good with the glove at third and the best place to play him would be second base. Regardless, it appears that, if Aviles wants to play every day, his glove work needs to improve.
When I arrived in Surprise over three weeks ago, I mentioned four things I planned on watching closely because I thought they were big keys to the 2011 Royals. With today being the last day of spring training, let’s revisit those four keys. What I originally wrote is in italics.
I don’t think the Royals will open 2011 with Alex Gordon, Mitch Maier and Gregor Blanco on their active roster. Which one(s) will go? The Royals don’t have much patience for Gordon, and a rough spring could punch his ticket out of Kansas City. Maier has been a good soldier who’s done whatever the Royals have asked him to do, but the Royals have several outfielders who could give them at least what Maier has given them – if not more – that have greater upside. Plus, a lefthanded-hitter who can play all three outfield positions always has value on the trade market. Blanco is a speedy, leadoff-hitter-type outfielder, but so are Derrick Robinson and Lorenzo Cain, who are younger and have a better chance of being part of the Royals future. Between Gordon, Maier & Blanco, one or two of them will be on the team at the start of the year, but not all three.
Gordon has had an excellent spring and the Royals seem cautiously optimistic about his chances at a breakout 2011. For the third year in a row, Maier’s had a great spring and, for the third year in a row, the hope is that excellent spring translates into more regular-season success. Blanco is the one who figures to be the odd man out. He was outplayed by Jerrod Dyson in all facets of the game. Royals haven’t officially announced who will make the team, but I think Blanco winds up getting moved. Cain had a solid spring as well, but the Royals want him to play every day and they want Robinson to play every day as well. Dyson should be a nice addition as a fifth outfielder who can pinch-run and be used for defense in the late innings, if necessary.
How good, or bad, is the starting rotation? All 100-game losers have horrendous starting pitching that can’t consistently get them through six innings. While the Royals rotation doesn’t figure to be great, if Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, Vin Mazzaro and Bruce Chen appear to be serviceable, than the Royals won’t be horrendous. They will still probably be bad, but they won’t lose 100 games.
Even after three weeks of camp, I’m still not sure how good or bad the 2011 Royals rotation will be. They’re certainly hurt by not having a sure-fire ace, a stopper who prevents long losing streaks, but that doesn’t mean the Royals can’t win with this group. Hochevar has number-one-starter stuff, but will he stop getting in his own way mentally? Francis is a veteran who knows how to pitch, but he doesn’t have the velocity he once did and needs to have pinpoint control every time out to be effective. Plus, can Francis handle a full-season workload, two years removed from shoulder surgery? Davies is a mistake-prone power pitcher, but can he make fewer mistakes this year? Mazzaro’s spring numbers weren’t great, but he has a lot of upside. Will the Royals see that upside this season? Chen is another veteran who knows how to pitch but, at this point in his career, is he a sure bet to give you five or six innings every fifth day? The rotation is the Royals biggest question mark and it may not be until mid-season before we have a firm grip on how good, or bad, the starting five are. On the plus side, the Royals have more starting pitching depth than they’ve had in quite some time, with Sean O’Sullivan, Mike Montgomery and, possibly, Aaron Crow or Nate Adcock capable of moving into the rotation.
Is Mike Moustakas ready for the Major Leagues? We know he likely won’t start 2011 in the Majors because of the financial implications tied into Major League service time. However, will Moustakas make it clear he’s ready to play everyday whenever the Royals call him up? First and foremost, Moustakas needs to show he can hold his own against lefthanded pitching. He hit just .218 against southpaws at AAA Omaha last season. And, if you can’t hit lefties in AAA, you’re not hitting them in the Majors. Moustakas doesn’t have to dominate lefties or hit a ton of homers off them, but he needs to be competitive enough against them so that he can ensure his name is in the lineup every day and that he isn’t platooned or pinch-hit for when a lefty reliever comes in to face the Royals. If Moustakas has a strong spring, he may still begin the year in Omaha, but he could force the Royals’ hand before early June.
This spring didn’t change my opinion on Moustakas’ readiness. I still think, regardless of service-time implications, that he needs to begin the year at AAA Omaha. Also, I don’t think it’s automatic that Moustakas is called up in early June. The Royals want to see him hold his own against more advanced pitching and against lefties. Moustakas doesn’t need to put up the sort of numbers he put up at AA Northwest Arkansas last year, but the Royals want him to force their hand, as GM Dayton Moore likes to say. I also think Eric Hosmer could get to the Majors before Moustakas, something I seriously doubted before camp began. Hosmer’s excellent spring is why the Royals are putting him at AAA, rather than AA, to start the season.
Which of the Royals’ heralded starting pitching prospects appears closest to the Majors? Everett Teaford, Danny Duffy and Aaron Crow have an outside chance of going north with the club, but Mike Montgomery, John Lamb and Chris Dwyer will certainly start the year in the minors. All six have a shot of getting up to Kansas City before the year is out. It’s worth watching who impresses and who doesn’t. Spring training performances aren’t everything, but they can go a long way toward determining who the club calls up when they’re in a pitching pinch.
The answer to this question is Montgomery, and it’s not even close. The hard-throwing lefty showed three above-average pitches and, if his command continues to improve, there’s little doubt in my mind he’ll finish the year in Kansas City. Duffy’s probably the second-closest among the starters. Crow will be used out of the bullpen this season with a starting spot more likely for him come 2012.
Thank you to everyone who read my blog all spring. I appreciate the feedback both on Twitter (@raford3) and in the comments section. Keep checking this space and my Twitter feed for future blog postings. I won’t blog every day during the regular season, but I do plan on posting something at least once a week.
The last few days of spring training are generally accompanied by a flurry of moves as teams try to shore up spots they see as weaknesses while other teams try to unload guys at positions where they have depth. The Royals’ acquisition of catcher Matt Treanor from the Rangers for cash considerations was along those lines. The Rangers had a surplus of catchers (they’re sending Taylor Teagarden and Kevin Cash, two guys with plenty of MLB experience, to AAA) and the Royals felt catching was a weakness they needed to address.
But is catching a weakness for the Royals? Coming into camp, it certainly seemed like the Royals had a lot of depth at that position. Jason Kendall was coming off shoulder surgery, but progressing ahead of schedule and seemed on-target for a mid-to-late-April return. Brayan Pena was serviceable as the everyday catcher over the last two months of the 2010 season, after Kendall went down. Lucas May was an intriguing prospect, who projected as an above-average offensive catcher. Plus, Manny Pina was a defensive stalwart on the verge of being a Major League contributor. So, what happened?
For starters, it’s become pretty clear that, despite his hard work and determination to improve, Pena just isn’t very good defensively and he probably isn’t going to get much better. I think Pena would be best as a third catcher, which would allow him to DH, pinch-hit and occasionally catch. The Royals are reluctant carry three catchers, so Pena’s Treanor’s backup for now but, once Kendall returns, Pena could be – and probably will be – the odd man out. What’s hurt May the most is the fact he’s out of options. With an option left, the Royals probably send May to AAA Omaha to get more experience calling a game. After all, May’s only been catching for four full seasons and he’s still a work in progress defensively. GM Dayton Moore said today they’ll probably look to move May and there is a good chance the Royals will lose him. Pina is probably ready, or close to ready, to contribute defensively. But, his offense needs work and it isn’t a bad idea to send him to Omaha to work with the Royals’ crop of talented young arms. Also, Salvador Perez is widely acknowledged as the catcher with the highest ceiling in the Royals system, but he still has yet to play about A ball and is probably a year or so away.
Treanor doesn’t figure to amaze anyone in Kansas City, but he’s proven to be a decent backup catcher who, by all accounts, calls a good game and is solid defensively. With he and Kendall, the Royals will have a solid veteran tandem behind the plate to mentor their young pitchers. The Royals catching, which went from being worst in the Majors in passed balls and wild pitches in 2009 to being decent in 2010, should be even better in 2011.
The acquisition of Treanor today and the signing of Kendall prior to last season emphasize the need to develop catching in your system. You don’t want to have to deal with another organization to find a backup (like Treanor) nor do you want to spend significant free-agent dollars on a past-his-prime veteran (like Kendall). You also want continuity at the catching position, guys who know your staff and know what you expect from them. Changing catchers every year or two can affect your pitching in the long run. Fortunately, the Royals are close to being in a position where they won’t have to go outside the organization for catching.
Even though they struggled to stay motivated all season, it seemed like the University of Kansas basketball team was coming together at the right time, during the NCAA Tournament. Needing one win to get to the Final Four and facing a favorable opponent in 11-seed VCU, everything seemed to be in Kansas’ favor. Heck, after Kansas won, they’d face 8-seed Butler in the Final Four, all but assuring them of a chance to play for a national championship.
But, it didn’t come together for Kansas. They were upset by VCU and their season ended two games short of their goal. Fans were pointing fingers at many things: Kansas’ horrendous three-point shooting, VCU’s great three-point shooting, you name it. After all, there had to be a simple explanation for a Kansas loss to VCU, right? Rarely do such happenings boil down to something simple.
When it comes to baseball, you see the same thing: people counting their chickens before they hatch, assuming victory (or defeat) before the game begins (or games begin). People sometimes forget there’s a reason the games are played, that you never know what will happen. Of course, baseball seasons rarely come down to one game. Part of what makes baseball great (or, to some, boring), is the fact that the season is long, games are played everyday and a season’s success or failure isn’t determined by one game.
Nevertheless, in baseball, it isn’t uncommon for fans to count teams out before the season even begins or crown teams champs before a pitch is thrown. This year, as has been the case for many years, the Royals are being counted out. While the farm system is improved and the Royals are better than they have been in several years, there’s still little reason for most to believe 2011 will be any different than the last two decades. Most people don’t believe change is going to occur until they actually see it occurring. And, even then, some still don’t believe it.
I think it’s a mistake to count the Royals out, just like I think it’s a mistake to count any team out before Opening Day. Even though it may not seem like it, there isn’t much difference in talent between the 30 MLB teams. Every team is filled mostly with guys who’ve earned the right to play in the Majors and every team has at least a handful of good players. The Royals, like every team has its share of question marks. Will the rotation be good enough? Can the young bullpen get it done? Is there enough offense?
All of the concerns about the Royals are valid, but I also think many would agree they should get better, or at least be more fun to watch, as the season progresses. There’s little doubt some of the Royals top prospects will start making their way to the Majors by mid June, at the latest. It isn’t inconceivable the Royals could tread water at or around .500 for a couple of months before getting a boost from their prospects. Maybe those prospects feel less pressure to be the answer because other guys around them are getting the job done as well. And maybe, just maybe, the Royals make some noise in the AL Central.
I know, that’s a lot of “maybes.” But, as a fan, it’s important to have hope and it’s important to realize nothing’s decided until the games are played. Just ask Kansas or VCU.
With only three spring training games left after today, the Royals are holding meetings this weekend to finalize their 25-man roster. Right now, the Royals have 36 players in camp, so they’ll need to cut 11 to get down to 25. One of those 11 will be Vin Mazzaro, who will begin the year in extended spring training until the Royals need a fifth starter, on April 16th. Another one of the 11 will be catcher Jason Kendall, who will begin the year on the disabled list. Here’s a look at who I think will make the club.
Catchers (2) – Brayan Pena, Lucas May
No surprises here, since they’re the only two catchers (other than Kendall) left in camp. It could get interesting when Kendall returns (mid-April at the earliest) since the Royals are loath to carry three catchers and neither Pena nor May has options remaining. Manny Pina will be lurking at AAA Omaha as a backup possibility.
Infielders (6) – Billy Butler, Kila Ka’aihue, Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar, Mike Aviles, Wilson Betemit
Butler and Ka’aihue will alternate between first base and DH with Getz, Escobar and Aviles starting at second base, shortstop and third base, respectively. Betemit will back up third and first. I think non-roster invite Lance Zawadzki just misses making the club, but he’ll probably find his way to Kansas City at some point during the year. Pedro Feliz started hitting late in camp, but I’d be shocked if he goes north with the club. Feliz will probably exercise the out in his contract and become a free agent. I don’t think Irving Falu had a realistic chance to make this team, even though he’s still in camp. If Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas perform well at Omaha, they’ll find their way to Kansas City by June, at the earliest.
Outfielders (5) – Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur, Mitch Maier, Gregor Blanco
No surprises here, either. Gordon will play leftfield and Cabrera and Francoeur were signed to play centerfield and rightfield, respectively. Maier and Blanco are out of options, so they’ll be on the club. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Royals opt to take Jerrod Dyson over Blanco and designate the latter for assignment. I could also see Maier or Blanco being involved in a trade right before the season starts.
Starting Pitchers (4 – 5 by 4/16) – Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, Bruce Chen, Vin Mazzaro
The only question coming into camp was whether Mazzaro or Sean O’Sullivan would win a fifth-starter spot. O’Sullivan looms as an option here and Mike Montgomery could find his way to Kansas City this season with a strong showing at Omaha.
Relief Pitchers (8) – Joakim Soria, Robinson Tejeda, Jeremy Jeffress, Sean O’Sullivan, Tim Collins, Kanekoa Texeira, Louis Coleman, Nate Adcock
The biggest battle of camp was in the bullpen. The lack of a fifth starter for the first couple of weeks allows the Royals to start the year with eight relievers. Soria and Tejeda were the only bullpen locks entering camp, with Jeffress’ job fairly safe. O’Sullivan becomes the long man/spot starter after losing the fifth-starter battle. Collins was the most impressive of the lefty bullpen candidates. Texeira and Coleman both have been fantastic all spring. I think Adcock wins the final spot, in part because he is a Rule 5 pick. However, there’s some duplication there with he and O’Sullivan both being capable of going long, so it’s possible Luis Mendoza grabs this final spot. Lefty Robert Fish, another Rule 5 pick acquired late in camp from the Yankees, will be on the outside looking in. I also think Aaron Crow begins the year in the minors and I’m curious as to whether the Royals keep him in the ‘pen (giving them more depth this season), or move him back into the rotation (the long-term plan). If Crow stays a reliever, he’ll probably go to Omaha. I see him going to AA Northwest Arkansas if they want him to start.
It’s rare when a professional athlete gets to leave the game on his or her terms. But, that’s what Mike Sweeney got to do today. The former Royals captain announced his retirement from baseball, signing a one-day contract with the club that drafted him and for whom he played in 13 of his 16 Major League seasons.
Even though I arrived in Kansas City after Sweeney left, I’ve heard quite a bit of ire directed toward Sweeney and the five-year, $55 million contract he signed with the Royals just before the start of the 2002 season. The Royals traded Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon in the two seasons prior because they couldn’t afford to keep them and they locked up the wrong guy, some have said to me. That line of thinking sounds a bit like revisionist history to me since, at the time, there was little reason to believe Sweeney wouldn’t be an extremely productive player over the life of the deal. Sweeney didn’t go on the disabled list with the back problems that proved to be his undoing until that ’02 season, a year in which he still managed to hit .340, second-best in the AL. At the time of the deal, there was reason to believe the Royals were getting Sweeney at a bargain rate.
The Royals mistake wasn’t in signing Sweeney but, rather, neglecting the rest of the organization. Throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s, the Royals didn’t spend much on their farm system or scouting. What little money they did spend in free agency was usually spent unwisely. They were a team without a plan and, other than Sweeney, little identity. Because of the way the Royals handled that era, signing Sweeney (who struggled to stay healthy) and letting Dye, Damon and Carlos Beltran go (who went on to productive careers), there are many fans convinced the Royals will continue make the wrong choices when their current crop of prospects reach free agency.
Perhaps the Royals will again be cursed by a lengthy contract to a star-crossed player. Perhaps they will trade away some of their talented young players when they get close to free agency because they can’t afford to sign them. But, those moves don’t have to be a death knell for the Royals if they continue to spend money on scouting and player development and continue to work to produce quality Major League talent. No matter what the Royals do going forward, maintaining a top-notch farm system has to be a big part of it. If it is, they won’t have to worry about having another retirement ceremony for a once-promising player, wondering what might have been for him and for the Royals.
Coming into spring training, most of the Royals infield spots were set. Manager Ned Yost announced early in camp that the Royals would carry six infielders (some teams carry seven). Billy Butler, Kila Ka’aihue and Alcides Escobar were locks and Mike Aviles was going to make the club as long as he didn’t have an awful spring (he hasn’t).
That left two infield spots up for grabs. Chris Getz came into camp with a pretty good shot of winning one of those spots even after a disappointing 2010. At the beginning of the spring, I thought Aviles had a chance to take the everyday second base job from Getz, who still has an option remaining. However, the more I watch spring training, the more I realize it’s going to be difficult for Getz to lose his starting spot. Getz is better than Aviles defensively; not necessarily in terms of range but in terms of footwork, especially when it comes to turning the double play, and instincts around the bag. You could argue that whatever upgrade Getz gives you defensively is bettered by what Aviles gives you offensively (and, in turn, what Wilson Betemit would provide as the starter at third), but I can’t fault the Royals for thinking defense first. Especially since Aviles is going to be in the lineup no matter what, whether it be at second or third.
The final infield spot seems to be Betemit’s to lose. Betemit hasn’t helped his chances this spring, struggling to swing the bat for much of camp after being slowed early by an elbow injury he suffered in winter ball. Not to mention, Lance Zawadzki has had a very strong spring, showing some pop and solid defense at second base and shortstop. Going on sheer numbers, the final spot should go to Zawadzki, but there are a few things working against him. For one, Betemit is on the 40-man roster and out of options, and Zawadzki is a non-roster invitee (the Royals originally got Zawadzki on a waiver claim from the Padres, but dropped him from the 40-man in December to make room for Melky Cabrera). Also, most of Zawadzki’s professional games have been at either second base or shortstop and he hasn’t played much third base. If the Royals take Zawadzki, they don’t have anyone to back up third base who has much experience there (and, if you’re thinking the Royals would consider Alex Gordon as a backup third base option, think again. Royals have been steadfast in their stance that Gordon’s an outfielder only and will not play third for them again). Taking Betemit gives the Royals someone who can back up third and first and can provide some pop off the bench.
Technically, Irving Falu and Pedro Feliz are also in the mix for an infield spot. However, Falu hasn’t been very impressive either defensively or offensively (7 hits – all singles – and 2 walks this spring) and I’m a little surprised he’s still in Major League camp. Feliz has struggled to swing the bat and has an out in his contract that gives him the option of becoming a free agent if he isn’t on the Major League roster by the end of camp; I think Feliz will wind up exercising his out.
Looking ahead at the infield picture, I’m curious to see when Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer make their Royals debuts this season. Entering the spring, Moustakas was seen as being ahead of Hosmer but, now, there’s a good chance Hosmer arrives first, especially if Ka’aihue struggles. Moustakas’ arrival as the everyday third baseman could push either Aviles or Getz to the bench, which Aviles moving to second in the latter scenario. Both lefthanded-hitting, corner-infield prospects will start the year at AAA Omaha. You want to see them put up good numbers there first, but keep a close eye on how they hit lefties, especially Moustakas. It’s unlikely either will be up before June, but how they hit lefties will be a big factor in determining when they arrive in Kansas City.
I would like to thank those who have commented on my blogs; I appreciate the feedback whether we agree or disagree. However, I must admit I don’t check comments on here as often as I should. The best way to get ahold of me is on Twitter, where my handle is raford3.