Winning the Arms Race

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With the Royals continuing their winning ways and stretching their lead in the American League Central(2.0 games ahead of the Tigers) there has been some talk of plans for the team come September, preparing themselves for a stretch run to the playoffs. One of the most discussed ideas has been that of calling up some of their top arms in the minors and using them to help in the last month of the season. Think about that for a minute; a team that prides themselves on having one of the best bullpens in baseball is talking about adding more arms. You might be asking yourselves right now ‘why?’ and that is a valid question. But what Kansas City is considering is not a new concept.

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Let’s start with the two main arms that have been mentioned to be part of the Royals pen come September. Brandon Finnegan is the Royals #1 Draft Pick this year but has been progressing through the Royals farm system this summer, currently at Double AA Northwest Arkansas, where he has been pitching out of the pen, working 2 innings at the most in those games. The initial thought when he was drafted from TCU was that his future might be in the bullpen, the thinking that his size would hold him back from being a consistent major league starter. Finnegan has a plus fastball, plus slider and a good changeup to boot. He seems to be in the vein of a Billy Wagner type pitcher, small stature with some high heat. Finnegan even throws across his body like Wagner. The 21 year old isn’t even a year removed from college but has a chance to be pitching in games that matter come September for Kansas City.

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The other prospect that has been discussed for bullpen work this September is Christian Binford. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because I discussed him earlier this season. In fact, out of the current crop of minor league arms in the Royals system, the only other pitcher that has me as excited as Binford is Miguel Almonte. Binford started the year in Wilmington, moved up to Double AA Northwest Arkansas after 14 starts, pitching in 8 games there before being called up to Triple AAA Omaha this past week. Binford isn’t a guy who will light up radar guns, but he has tremendous command of his pitches and a superb walk ratio. Binford has mainly been a starter since the Royals drafted him, and I’m pretty sure he takes the place of Jason Adam, who the Royals had shifted to the pen awhile back before trading him to Minnesota in the Josh Willingham trade. I’m not entirely sure how Kansas City would use him out of the pen(long reliever if needed? Help rest the other relievers?) but he would be different after seeing the smoke thrown by guys like Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. I don’t think this role is really in Binford’s long term future, but for this year he might be just what the Royals need.

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So what about Kyle Zimmer? Most of us are aware of how 2014 has been a wasted season for Zimmer, as he has been battling a lat injury these last few months. Before that the Royals were taking their time with him, as he has dealt with injuries since the Royals drafted him in 2012. At this point, Zimmer has appeared in one game this season for Idaho Falls in the Rookie League. At one time there was some talk that we could see him in September, but that was before the lat injury stripped him of playing time this season. At this point, the best thing is for Kansas City to let him get some innings in the minors the rest of the year and chalk up this year to a lost cause. We will see Zimmer soon enough, just not this year.

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Earlier I mentioned that the concept of using youngsters in your farm system to help out the relief corp in September wasn’t a new idea. Off the top of my head I can think of two times it has helped a team further their chances in the postseason. The first is the Los Angeles Angels using Francisco ‘K-Rod’ Rodriguez to help them gain a World Series title in 2002. Rodriguez only appeared in 5 games that season, but was a key part of their bullpen come October. K-Rod would appear in 11 games for the Angels that fall, giving up only 4 earned runs in 18.2 innings. It had to be hard for teams that year to really get a scouting report on this kid that the Angels had barely used in the season. The other instance I can think of is the St. Louis Cardinals using their young arms these last few years in the playoffs. Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, and Carlos Martinez all were used off and on during the postseason and were live arms that could go out there and just throw heat in short outings for the Cardinals. More than anything it helped the team in 2011, as the Cardinals were able to come away with a World Series title in Tony LaRussa’s final season. These are both prime examples of teams that used young arms in their farm system to help their bullpen in postseason play and use them to help gain the richest prize of them all.

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So with just over 5 weeks left in the season it appears as if the Royals are making plans to make the team the best they can be if they are headed to October. Adding a couple of young arms to the pen might not seem like the most obvious paths to take for guys like Finnegan and Binford, but it would give them the opportunity to experience a pennant race(and possibly postseason) while getting big league experience. It’s not a guarantee we will see these two youngsters next month but I would bet money we see at the very least one of them, if not both. The Royals bullpen is a juggernaut and has been the last few years, but adding these two could make it even stronger. With all of us hoping for a “Blue October”, I love the out of the box thinking, especially with some of the struggles as of late for Aaron Crow, Francisley Bueno and Bruce Chen. Finnegan and Binford might be future rotation mainstays for Kansas City, but for now their value might be pitching late in the game during the most exciting September Royals fans have seen in three decades.

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