One of the great things about Spring Training every year is that it’s the beginning for younger players to show what they can do. It’s also a proving ground for wily veterans to work with a clean slate and start anew. Every year there is a surprise(Arizona) player(or players) that the big league club didn’t have penciled in as a part of the major league team that leaves them with no other choice than to bring them up north to begin the season. There is no guarantee that any of the players I am going to bring up here will be with the team on Opening Day against Chicago but they are all interesting cases that are with the Kansas City Royals this spring for a variety of reasons. Some you will have heard of, others this will be the first time. But what they all have in common is they want to be in Kansas City to start the year.
1) Christian Binford
If you follow this blog even mildly you know this isn’t the first time I have mentioned Binford. In fact last year I mentioned he was a prospect to keep an eye on and the Royals had even considered him to be a September call-up out of the pen. This spring is his first in Royals camp but he comes in as the Royals 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year and has a good shot of getting the call to the big leagues at some point this year. Binford isn’t going to break any radar guns but he throws strikes(and has a great walk ratio) and great command. The Royals had tried him in the bullpen late in the season at Omaha with less than spectacular results but that doesn’t tarnish his abilities or how the organization views him. Binford compiled 8 starts in AA last year before the experiment in Omaha, and it is a good bet he starts this year back in Northwest Arkansas. But honestly, probably not for long and there is a chance if the Royals need a starter at some point later in the summer Binford could be the one who gets the call. In fact Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland has liked what he has seen from Binford this spring, as he wonders if some of the tinkering with his delivery would add a few miles an hour to his fastball:
“What I’ve seen, I like,” Eiland said. “He’s a strike thrower. He’s got movement. He’s much more downhill, better angle now, once we moved his hands a little bit.”
Binford won’t ever be a top of the rotation starter but could very well fill out the back end of the rotation sooner than later. Binford’s ability to throw strikes and pitch to contact should be a plus with Kansas City’s defense. So don’t be surprised if you hear Binford’s name again before this season is over.
2) Bubba Starling
Let me clarify here–Bubba Starling will not be on the Royals 25 man roster on Opening Day. That is not why Starling is in camp this spring. He is in camp to get a feel for what goes on at big league camps and learn from the Royals coaches and players. It at least sounds like he is getting adjusted, as Starling started hitting the ball finally in a game, as he struck out his first five plate appearances this spring. The Royals are still holding out hope for the 2011 first round pick, as he is still only 22 years old. Starling’s struggles have been well documented and there is some concern that he might never reach the majors, at least with the numbers he has compiled so far in his minor league career. The hope is that rubbing elbows this spring with the likes of George Brett, Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer will light something under him and will at least bump his career in an upward trajectory. No matter what, the experience of being at big league camp this spring has to be viewed as a positive for ‘The Man They Call Bubba’.
3) Ryan Madson
Madson is an interesting case for the Royals. On one hand, he is a former closer for the Phillies who has a lethal change-up. On the other hand, he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2011 and last pitched in a regular season game back in 2013 for the Angels in A ball. Finally, on the other other hand(yep, he has three hands; deal with it), Madson is fighting for a spot in what is already a jammed pack bullpen. Even if the Royals decide to go with 8 pitchers out of the pen to start the season, Madson might be on the outside looking in. The best chance for Madson this season might be to get some velocity back in Omaha and wait for a bullpen arm to get injured. There is some positive to Madson’s story so far this spring, according to the Kansas City Star:
“Madson lacked accuracy with his four-seam fastball, but scouts still clocked the pitch at 91-92 mph, a tick below the 94-mph heater he unleashed with regularity for the Phillies through 2011. His changeup fooled his adversaries, even if they were of the lower-level variety. Manager Ned Yost referred to the offspeed pitch as “a real weapon.”
Hopefully the Royals are able to retain him and keep him stowed away until he is needed. He could be an interesting add to a bullpen late in the season, if the team is making a playoff push. Nothing like another solid arm for an already elite bullpen, if you ask me.
4) Francisco Pena
I find Pena to be an interesting case. For one, he is the son of former Royals skipper Tony Pena. Two, Pena has been in the minors since 2007 and has cleverly avoided the “prospect” term for the majority of that time. In fact you almost wondered when the Royals acquired him before the 2014 season if they did it because a)of who his dad is or b)they thought his brother, Tony Jr.(former Royals SS) had changed his name or c)they just needed some depth at the catchers position. C seems to be the most likely answer but little did we know that Pena would put together a solid offensive season last year in Omaha, compiling 27 home runs, a.515 slugging percentage and an OPS of .795. Hey, not ‘blow you out of the water’ numbers, but impressive for a guy who had hit a combined 40 home runs the previous 7 minor league seasons. At this moment it appears that Salvador Perez’s personal caddy, Erik Kratz, will be the Royals backup catcher, but if something were to happen to Kratz while sitting on the bench(or getting Perez a cup of water), Pena could see some action in the big leagues. There is also the possibility that Perez will break down like an old Buick due to all the innings manager Ned Yost makes him catch, but I hate the idea that this thought even creeps into my brain. Instead know that Pena is an outside shot to make the big league club but a possibility to warm the bench later in the season.
5) Franklin Morales
Morales might have the best chance of this group to make the Royals this spring, if for no other reason than because of an injury. Royals left handed reliever Tim Collins has ligament damage in his left elbow and very likely could have Tommy John surgery and miss the 2015 season. That would leave Kansas City with a decision to make in their bullpen, including whether the team should go with another lefty to take Collins’ place in the pen. If they go the route of adding another lefty, Morales very well could be the answer. Morales has flipped back and forth between being a starter or a reliever the last few years with Boston and Colorado, so he is familiar in either role. But the Royals specifically signed him to work out of the pen and that is his best shot at a job for the team. Last year Morales pitched well against left-handed batters, with his splits showing a noticeable difference. In fact if the team wanted to use him as a LOOGY(a left-handed specialist who would primarily pitch to left-handed batters) I think he would be quite successful in that role. A lot of factors will determine whether or not he goes north with the team in April, such as whether or not Luke Hochevar is ready or whether the Royals plan on carrying an 8 man bullpen or not. The other factor is whether or not the team wants to keep Brandon Finnegan as a reliever or if he gets sent to the minors to begin the process of starting again. Either way, a good spring from Morales would go a long way to deciding his fate. A good spring makes the Royals decision harder. A bad spring and Morales is either in Omaha or on the unemployment line, although not for long; I mean, he is left-handed.
A few weeks still remain in Spring Training, so things could unwind even more before the team heads back to Kansas City to start the season. There’s a good possibility we see a few of the names mentioned here at the least or maybe even most of them. It’s one of the great things about baseball; you never know how a season will unfold. All we know at this point is most of these players are fighting for a spot and want to be with the team the first week of April at Kauffman Stadium. It’s been said before and will be said again; hope springs eternal.