(Mike Sweeney deserves his own tribute column at some point, but for now, in light of all the Hall of Fame discussion the last few weeks, let’s just say he’s a shoo-in.)
Opening Day is just four days away, and as much as we’d all just like to skip ahead to the five straight AL Central titles that we’ve all been promised, there’s still at least one more season of pain and suffering ahead. The final roster is coming into view, so lets it break it down.
There wasn’t supposed to be a whole lot of drama or unresolved questions regarding the rotation, and so far that storyline has played out. Luke Hochevar, as expected, has won the Opening Day job. As expected, he’ll be followed in the rotation by Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, and Bruce Chen, as the Royals alternate right-handers and left-handers in the rotation order.
The one question going into spring training was whether Vinny Mazzaro or Sean O’Sullivan would win the fifth starter’s role. Italy defeated Ireland, as Mazzaro will be the fifth starter once the Royals need one on April 16 (he’ll be optioned to the minors and pitch in extended spring training until then), while O’Sullivan will work as a long reliever, at least until Mazzaro is added to the roster.
The Royals made the right decision, although really it shouldn’t have been much of a decision. O’Sullivan throws a few more strikes (a career average of 3.1 walks per nine innings, to Mazzaro’s 3.7 BB/9), but Mazzaro is a better pitcher in every other way. He strikes out a full man an inning more than O’Sullivan, and he gives up homers about 30% less often. Mazzaro at least brings the possibility of being a groundball pitcher – as I covered before, the results haven’t backed up his reputation yet – while O’Sullivan has a pronounced flyball lean. O’Sullivan is a year younger, but at a beefy 6’2”, 230, he’s already physically maxed out.
If they were hitters, their youth – O’Sullivan is 23, Mazzaro is 24 – would lead you to think that they still had a lot of development ahead. But pitchers are frequently as good as they’re going to be in their early 20s. If there is improvement ahead, it’s more likely to be in terms of improved command rather than improved stuff. Mazzaro has the better stuff, and has more to gain from improved command than O’Sullivan does. I don’t think he’s going to match his 4.27 ERA from last season, which was both fluky and unrepresentative of his performance (he gave up 12 unearned runs in just 122 innings). But I think he’s a viable fifth starter.
I still don’t see what it is in Mazzaro that convinced the Royals to part with David DeJesus. O’Sullivan, at least, came with Will Smith, a young lefty with terrific control and decent stuff – many scouts think Smith will be the better of the two in the long term. And O’Sullivan was acquired for Alberto Callaspo, who for whatever reason the Royals could not find much of a trade market for. But there were a lot of teams in on DeJesus, and Mazzaro seemed like a thin return, particularly since he came paired with Justin Marks, another left-handed pitcher who doesn’t project as well as Smith does. The fact that it took the Royals until mid-March to even decide that Mazzaro was worthy of the fifth spot in the rotation doesn’t speak well of their decision to trade for him.
I’ve said this before: someone needs to block all phone calls with a 510 area code from getting through to Kauffman Stadium.
A lot has been made of the fact that the Royals have one of the worst Opening Day rotation any team has had in years. I think the criticism is overstated, if for no other reason than it’s not the worst Opening Day rotation the Royals have fielded in recent years. Yes, Luke Hochevar has not earned an Opening Day assignment in any way, shape or form. But in 2006, the Royals started Scott Elarton on Opening Day. I knew Scott Elarton. I rooted for Scott Elarton. Luke Hochevar is no Scott Elarton.
It got worse. You know who started the second game of the season that year? Joe Mays. Mays had gone 6-10 with a 5.75 ERA with the Twins the year before, and somehow, the Royals thought he had something left in the tank. He didn’t; he had already won his last major league game. In his brief time with the Royals that year, Mays would start six times with a 10.27 ERA. Their third starter was Jeremy Affeldt, who would make nine starts for the Royals that year before being permanently banished to the bullpen. Their fourth starter was Denny Bautista, who made eight starts that year before meeting the same fate. And when they finally needed a fifth starter in 2006, the Royals turned to Mark Redman – who made the All-Star Team. He also had a 5.71 ERA that year, and is included on any list of the worst All-Stars of all time.
At least in 2011, all five members of the starting rotation are credible major-league starters. None of them should be fronting a rotation, or starting on Opening Weekend at all. But while the Yankees are scrambling to figure out the back of their rotation, the Royals are already set with their fifth starter. The problem is that they have six of them.
Joakim Soria and Robinson Tejeda had spots locked up before Spring Training, which left five open spots. The Royals were clearly hoping that two of those spots would go to a left-handed pitcher, going so far as to give Danny Duffy a credible shot at earning a bullpen spot after just seven games in Double-A.
That hasn’t worked out. The Royals will probably start the season with just one left-handed reliever on the roster – they’re desperate enough for a second that they claimed Rule 5 pick Robert Fish off waivers from the Yankees. (Fish has plus-plus velocity according to the scouts; he also had an 8.93 ERA in Double-A last season according to the stats. As I write this, he was just returned to the Angels.)
Fortunately, that one left-hander is tiny Tim Collins, who rumor has it has already won a roster spot. Collins was the prize of the Kyle Farnsworth/Rick Ankiel trade last summer, and by himself made it a win for the Royals. Before spring training began, I said that Collins was the prospect I felt was most ready to break camp with the team. It’s not just that he’s ready, although he pretty clearly is – last season, in 71 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, he struck out 108 batters and had a 2.02 ERA. It’s also because the Royals should feel much more comfortable with starting his service time on March 31st than they would with their more-hyped prospects.
For someone like Mike Moustakas, even if he’s ready, it would be madness for a team with no realistic playoff hopes in 2011 to start with him on the roster. While everyone talks about the “Super-Two” deadline that usually comes in early June, the more important date is the one in mid-April, after which point a player can not be credited with a full year of service time. If Moustakas were to start in the majors on Opening Day, he would be a free agent after 2016. If the Royals wait even two weeks before bringing him up, they could keep his rights until 2017. Keeping him now would not only waste a season on a team going nowhere, but it would sacrifice a season of Moustakas in 2017, when he would be 28 – presumably at his peak – in exchange for a season when he’s 22 and still developing.
That’s not nearly the issue with Collins, simply because it’s rare for any reliever to be effective for more than three or four years. If Collins is still a prized free agent after the 2016 season, the Royals ought to be thankful for what they got. And again, whereas hitters generally improve until age 27 or so, a reliever like Collins is probably as good now as he’s ever going to be, so the Royals might as well see what they have now.
The added bonus of starting the season with Collins is that he gives the Royals a chance to give their fans a teaser of The Greatest Farm System In The History Of Whatever. “See that kid out there? He throws in the low 90s, has a power curveball a devastating changeup, and a deceptive motion. He struck out 13 batters per nine innings in the minors. Oh, and he’s 5-foot-7. You think he’s good, just wait until you see our 6-foot-5 guys.”
That leaves four open spots, all of whom are likely to go to right-handed pitchers. The options include:
- Jeremy Jeffress, who is sort of the right-handed equivalent of Collins – a trade acquisition with tremendous strikeout rates but iffy command. Jeffress has touched 100 all spring, but he’s still walking too many guys and has been prone to the big inning. Jeffress is not quite the finished product that Collins is – he averaged 5.5 walks per nine innings in the minors, while Collins averaged only 3.9. He’s also fairly new to relieving. I have a feeling he’ll be sent back to Omaha, and I have a feeling that it’s in his long-term best interests.
- Kanekoa Texeira, who is sort of the forgotten man of the Royals bullpen. He was a Rule 5 pick of the Mariners last year who actually pitched very well for Kansas City after he was claimed on waivers – until August, when he tried to pitch through some arm soreness with predictable results. He’s pitched very well this spring, and more importantly his velocity has ticked up into the low 90s with a healthy arm. He’s the least sexy option for the pen, so his odds of making the team depend more on the success or failure of the other relievers than his own.
- Nate Adcock, who was a surprise pick in the Rule 5 draft last December, and is even more surprisingly in excellent position to make the team. Like Texeira, there’s nothing sexy here – Adcock throws in the low 90s on a good day, but he has decent off-speed stuff and throws strikes. He’s acquitted himself well in spring training, but has only four strikeouts in 13 innings. I think he’ll make the team; I’m not nearly so certain that he’ll last the season.
- Louis Coleman, who after a long and distinguished career as a starter at LSU – he came back for his senior year – closed out the College World Series for the Tigers in 2009, and has been an outstanding reliever for the Royals’ minor league affiliates ever since. Last season, split between Double-A and Triple-A, Coleman threw 92 innings, allowed 62 hits and 25 walks, and struck out 103. In 7.2 spring training innings, he’s whiffed 12 batters. He throws from a low three-quarters angle and will always be vulnerable to left-handed hitters, but he should make for an excellent situational reliever. However, he’s not on the 40-man roster, and the need to potentially waive a player – even a relative non-prospect like Kevin Pucetas – to add him to the roster might be the tiebreaker that keeps him in Omaha to start the season.
- Luis Mendoza, who apparently looks like a new man this spring. I’m sorry, but I’ve heard this song before. Last season, you might recall – I won’t blame you if you don’t – the Royals acquired Mendoza on the eve of the season from the Rangers, for a player to be named later known as “cash”. Thought they had something on their hands, I suppose. What they had was a guy who gave up 10 runs in four innings, doing his part for a bullpen that was on a historically bad pace in April. Mendoza went to Omaha and pitched okay as a starter, but struck out just 59 batters in 132 innings.
So sorry, but I ain’t buying it. If Mendoza wants to prove he’s a new pitcher, he can go back to Omaha and wait his turn. Fortunately the tea leaves suggest the Royals will do just that, in part because Mendoza, like Coleman, is not on the roster.
- And finally, there is Aaron Crow, who was not expected to be in this discussion for a number of reasons. For one, he’s not supposed to be a reliever. For two, he got his ass handed to him in Double-A and even A-ball last year. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to see my pitchers get their ERAs under 5.50 in the minors before I bring them up to the majors.
What’s weird to me is that a lot of people – people whose opinion I respect – seem to like this move. The dichotomy in opinions stems from the fact that a lot of people think Crow’s future was in the bullpen anyway. There’s no doubt that, while the results weren’t there last season, his stuff was – Crow still threw in the mid-90s with a knockout slider, he simply didn’t throw enough strikes to set up his breaking ball. And in relief, presumably his fastball would be a little faster, his slider a little sharper, and he might well find immediate success in that role, even in the major leagues.
If Crow does make the roster – and rumors are swirling that he has made the team – it still won’t sit right with me. The guy was the Royals’ #1 pick in the 2009 draft, #14 overall, and he was supposed to be the quick-to-the-majors right-handed starter the Royals were lacking. Maybe his future is in the pen, but I think it’s premature to consign a former #1 pick to relief after just one season in pro ball. If he struggles again this season, you can move him – even after just a few months if it’s clear he isn’t making any progress as a starting pitcher. I just think it’s foolish to give up on a potential above-average starting pitcher this soon.
And even if his future is in relief, and I know some scouts think he has upside as a major-league closer, why on earth wouldn’t you let him find some success in that role in the minors first? Everything I wrote about Moustakas above applies here – the Royals are going nowhere, so what’s the rush?
Maybe I’m reading too much into things. Maybe the Royals plan on starting Crow out in the bullpen, and after he finds success in that role they might stretch him out as a starter again. (You know, like the Rangers are doing with Neftali Feliz. No, wait…) But the Royals are hurting Crow’s future value in two ways – they’re moving him to the bullpen, perhaps permanently, and they’re rushing him to the majors Allard Baird-style. Maybe Crow has pitched so well this spring that they’re certain he’s ready for the majors – but the better he’s pitched, the more that’s at stake with his future.
As a side note, why on earth are the Royals going with eight relievers in the first place? I realize that the major-league standard now is that teams carry 12 pitchers, because they think they need a seventh reliever more than a fifth bench player. But if the Royals don’t need a fifth starter for the first two weeks of the season, why the hell would you give that roster spot to another pitcher instead of to a hitter on your bench? The reason you don’t need a fifth starter is because there are three off-days in the first two weeks of the season. Guess what? Relievers get to rest on off-days too. If you can construct a scenario in which the Royals would need eight relievers, that doesn’t involve a 20-inning game, I’d love to hear it. Send O'Sullivan down to the minors - you're probably going to do that anyway in two weeks - and keep an extra bat off the bench, someone that can pinch-hit for Chris Getz or Alcides Escobar in a tight spot.
As I write this, it looks like the Royals will break camp with Soria closing, Tejada and Collins setting up, Crow, Texeira, and Adcock in the middle innings, O’Sullivan in long relief, and either Jeffress or Coleman as the eighth pitcher on the roster. (I have a feeling Coleman will beat out Jeffress, but it’s only a feeling.) Texeira and Adcock are strike-throwers who don’t do anything special, but the other five pitchers all have the ability to be dominant relievers out of the pen. I fully expect the bullpen to be one of the strengths of the team.
Moreover, if Aaron Crow takes to relieving as well as some people expect him to, and if Jeffress irons out his control problems in relief, come 2012 the Royals could have one of the best bullpens in their history, and one of the best in baseball. Soria is Soria. Tejada, when his mechanics aren’t out of whack, is dominant. Collins has video-game numbers to go with an utterly unique set of skills. Coleman has been successful at every stop. The Royals are one more left-handed reliever away from shortening games to six innings. And God knows they have a lot of left-handed options to sort through this season.
Tomorrow, look for my breakdown of the offense. And Tuesday, well, I may have something special planned that day.