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.
Of the four Royals spring trainings I’ve covered, this year’s camp was the most enjoyable. For the first three years, if I wanted to see top prospects and the future of the organization, I had to go to the back fields and watch the minor leaguers. Now, the organization’s future is in Major League camp, playing in Major League games. In the past, the Royals often had to choose between two or three undesirable options to fill a spot. Now, they have several great options at many spots and have to send quality players to Omaha. There’s a completely different mindset around the Royals organization now than there was when I got here and the morale of the Royals coaches, players, front office staff and scouts is as high as it’s been in a long time. The Royals have talked about 2012 as the year they might finally be able to make some noise in the AL Central for at least the last two years and we’re now less than a week from the start of the 2012 campaign.
With winning comes expectations and pressure and no one with the Royals will be facing more pressure than manager Ned Yost. Yost has enjoyed a honeymoon period longer than that of most managers; in 2010, he took over during the season and it wasn’t his team and in 2011, the focus was less on strategy and winning and more on development. Now, winning is the only focus. Can Yost make the right in-game moves and push the right managerial buttons? Can he help the Royals take the next step? Can he stay out of the way when he needs to? Fairly or unfairly, if the Royals struggle, Yost will likely get most of the blame. And, if the Royals struggle, the whispers will start about whether Yost can lead a young, talented team to the playoffs, especially since Yost led a young and talented Milwaukee Brewers team that imploded down the stretch in 2007 and seemed to be on its way to imploding in 2008 before Yost was fired with 12 games remaining.
No group of Royals players will be watched more closely than the five who make up the rotation. Starting pitching is the Royals’ biggest question mark and how well the team does in the standings is tied directly to how the starters do. More than anything, the Royals need Luke Hochevar to show that the pitcher who performed well in the second half last season can perform well over an entire year without the lapses of focus that seemed to plague him in the past. Hochevar needs to be the anchor of the staff. Jonathan Sanchez has to prove that his solid 2010 with the Giants was no fluke. And, Danny Duffy needs to take a step forward and establish some consistency.
Duffy is one of many young Royals players who will be watched closely. Can Eric Hosmer be the elite player everyone thinks he can be? Will Mike Moustakas pick up where he left off at the end of last season, when he was hitting everything? Can Lorenzo Cain hit enough to be a productive everyday centerfielder? And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There figures to be some regression as well as some progression; the Royals need the former outweighs the latter.
Regardless of how things turn out, 2012 will be the most exciting Royals season since the out-of-nowhere 83-win year of 2003. I’m not worried about the Royals offense, defense or bullpen, but I’m not sure how I feel yet about the starting pitching; I do know the Royals will need at least one, maybe two, of their young pitchers – whether it be Duffy, Mike Montgomery or even Jake Odorizzi or Will Smith – to win them some ballgames. I don’t see the Royals toppling the Tigers in the AL Central, but I do see the Royals being competitive all year and maybe even in the race into August. This looks like a team that will finish right around .500 which, for the Royals, would be a tremendous achievement.
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