Royals Help in the Minors

 

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

With it becoming more and more apparent that the Kansas City Royals will be buying and not selling this month, the question has arisen more and more on who they might be buying. Names like Jaime Garcia, Brad Hand, Dee Gordon and Pat Neshek have all been bandied about and I’m sure more will be tossed out there before the trade deadline at the end of the month. While Kansas City does appear to be buyers, the honest truth is that they won’t be able to buy much, as a combination of a depleted farm system and a need for almost everyone on the current roster leaves them few options for dealing. With that in mind, I thought today we would look at a few options in the Royals farm system that could help the team down the stretch run. Now there is no guarantee we will see these players, but they would fill a need and are currently just a call away.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s start with a former first round draft pick in Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer has been able to stay healthy over the last month and has been converted to the bullpen for the Royals AAA club in Omaha. His numbers are less than spectacular so far ( 7.52 ERA, 5.52 FIP & 4.87 walks per 9) but his velocity has been stellar and can be dominate when he is around the strike zone. He has given up one run or less in 8 out of his 12 outings this season, but the last few appearances have seen Zimmer get lit up (7 runs over 3 2/3 innings). I’m sure the Royals would like to see a bit more success before recalling him, but with his stuff (he was clocked between 94-97 mph in his last outing) he could be a nice addition to the pen down the stretch.

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Credit: Kansas City Star

Brian Flynn pitched on the big league club in 2016 but has spent most of this year on the disabled list. He returned near the end of May to the Royals AAA team and has been superb over his last four appearances (2 runs given up over 9 1/3 innings). Flynn has the ability to get both righties and lefties out and could be a trusted arm out of the pen as a situational lefty or a guy to eat a few innings for the pitching staff. I do think we will see Flynn in Kansas City before the year is out.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Raul Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Bubba Starling would all be good additions to the Royals bench/DH/outfield situation. Unfortunately, all three are dealing with an assortment of injuries and while I can see a scenario where we could see them this season, I doubt we do before September. Mondesi has found his groove in Omaha before the injury, hitting at a .316/.346/.544 clip with a wOBA of .372 and wRC+ of 121. Mondesi still swings at too many pitches and hardly walks, but his strike out rate is the lowest of his career (20.9%) and well below his career major league rate. I talked a bit about Starling last month and he would be an interesting option in the OF/DH situation for Kansas City. Scouts still think he will struggle mightily once he finally gets to the big leagues, but his adjustments this year have given the team a sign of hope and his defense has been major league ready for years. Don’t expect to see any of these guys in the next month, but we very well could see all three in September.

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Maybe the most intriguing prospect that entered into Royals’ conversations is left-hander Richard Lovelady, a reliever stowed away down in AA Northwest Arkansas. The 6 ft. twenty-two year old is only in his second professional season and has been dominating this year between Wilmington and NW Arkansas. He is averaging over 11 strike outs per 9 and has not allowed an earned run since May 1st. In 42 innings this season, Lovelady has an ERA of 0.86 in 42 innings, allowing only 4 earned runs and striking out 52 in that span. His name has been tossed about more and more as a possibility in the Royals bullpen come September and could be in the vein of a Brandon Finnegan and his contribution to Kansas City back in 2014. I would say at this point the likelihood we see him in September is very good, so keep your eye out for the young lefty with a fantastic name.

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A couple of names in AA to keep an eye on the next couple of months are Foster Griffin and Nicky Lopez. Both are currently playing at Northwest Arkansas and have had fantastic years. Griffin just appeared in the MLB Futures Game, getting both of the batters he faced out. He has started 19 games this year, posting a 2.89 ERA, striking out 108 batters over 109 innings. I doubt we see him in Kansas City this year, but the former first round draft pick has an outside shot of seeing time with the big league club in 2017.  Lopez has been a rising star in the Royals farm system, racking up a .299/. 378/.402 line, 122 wRC+ and a wOBA of .357. Lopez is a shortstop and while he isn’t going to take Alcides Escobar’s job this year, it might not be long before he is in the middle infield for Kansas City, possibly forming a double play team with Mondesi. He started the year in Wilmington and while I’m not expecting him in Kansas City yet, he could at least be in the discussion come September. If there is a name you should be keeping an eye on in the next year, it’s Nicky Lopez.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

I am still expecting the Royals to buy and acquire someone for the back of the rotation, but for now those are the names within the system that could provide some help over the next couple of months. I would love to add top prospect Josh Staumont to this list, but he has struggled mightily at AAA over the last 6 weeks or so and was shipped down to AA recently. His arm is electric but he is still battling the control issues that have plagued him for years. Even without him in the discussion, the Royals have some arms to count on during the pennant race if they so choose. There is no one there that will steal the show and become household names, but every winning team gets contributions from player one to player twenty-five on the roster. If the Royals are serious about heading back to October, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let a few of these kids shine.

So About That Royals Farm System…

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Last week I was posed the question of whether there was anyone in Kansas City Royals camp that could surprise the team this spring. I discussed a few non-roster invitees, but no prospects and there are a few reasons for that. For one, this team is pretty close to a set roster and will only have a few spots open for competition. The other reason is that there are very few Royals prospects on the verge of breaking into the big leagues. If you look at the top of most prospect lists for Kansas City, you will see Raul Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer and even Bubba Starling taking up space. Starling is probably (at the least) another year away, while Zimmer has to stay healthy first before he can be considered to help Kansas City this year. I do believe we will see Mondesi this year, in fact I wouldn’t be shocked if he is the starting second baseman by August. Defensively he is ready, but his offense is still a work in progress. But after these three? Well, the farm system has taken a hit the last few years, and is currently anywhere from 18 to 23 in most MLB depth lists. Is that a fair position to put the Royals farm system in?

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I believe so, since the team lost a number of top prospects this past summer in the Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist trades. Sean Manaea  went to Oakland for Zobrist and he is now the A’s top prospect. Cody Reed was a part of the Cueto deal and he is currently number two on the Reds prospect charts. This is all without mentioning Brandon Finnegan, the former number one draft choice who was dealt with Reed to Cincinnati last summer. It sounds like a lot of talent dealt, and it was, but think of it this way; without those trades, the Royals probably aren’t world champions, so at the end of the day it was worth it. The other thing to remember is that a number of main talents are in the lower minor leagues for Kansas City, players that have been stockpiled over the last few drafts. Guys like Foster Griffin, Nolan Watson, Ashe Russell, Ryan O’Hearn and Chase Vallot are all players you should store in the back of your mind for future reference, although none will be seeing the major leagues anytime soon. The Royals front office and scouting department has done a nice job over the last few years re-stocking their minor leagues with players who will hopefully be the next wave of talent that rises through the minors together, but they won’t be part of the big picture for a few more years. So who could we see this year in Kansas City?

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There are obvious choices, like Cheslor Cuthbert and Miguel Almonte, players we saw off and on throughout the 2015 campaign. A few other prospects worth mentioning are Matt Strahm and Alec Mills, two pitchers who have steadily risen through Kansas City’s farm system. Strahm is a lefty who could see some time out of the bullpen this year, while Mills is another power arm with a nice array of pitches in his arsenal. Mills finished the year in high A ball, striking out 111 batters while walking only 14. Either guy could be contributing for the Royals out of the bullpen by the end of the year.

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So there are prospects that can contribute this season, but not many. Just looking at the surface, it appears the Royals have neglected the farm. But in reality it is a steady process that will take a few years to fully bloom. This is what happens when you win; you don’t get the higher draft picks that are on the fast track to the big leagues. Instead you accumulate arms and athletes and hope a few over-exceed expectations. The future is bright, but it gleams brighter the deeper you look.

Kansas City Gets Their Ace: Cueto Now a Royal

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Well, they did it. After much discussion and even the tease of a deal on Saturday night, the Royals pulled the trigger on strengthening their rotation, acquiring Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds for minor leaguers Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed, all left-handed pitchers. The Royals now have a legitimate ace for the rotation and have more than likely increased their odds of not only reaching the playoffs this year, but possibly even the World Series. The fact that Kansas City has the best record in the American League without Cueto makes one wonder just how high this team can soar. So now that the deal is official, the question remains: was this a smart trade by Royals GM Dayton Moore? I think so and will explain why.

 

Sep 23, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) pitches during the first inning against the New York Mets at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with Cueto. The Royals have acquired one of the top starters in all of baseball since 2011:

The Royals starters are last in the American League in WAR(4.3), 2nd to last in BB/9(2.90), 13th in K/9(6.08), and last in innings pitched(530). If there has been on weakness on this Kansas City team so far this year, it is the rotation and everyone has known that for quite awhile.

Outside of the great work that Edinson Volquez has done for 3/4 of the season, the rest have been less than reliable. Yordano Ventura has encountered the ‘Sophomore Slump’, Danny Duffy has dealt with injuries and control issues and Jeremy Guthrie has finally come back down to earth. Chris Young has been a great fill in for most of the season, but the Royals coaching staff have long discussed him returning to the bullpen and Jason Vargas is done for the year as he will have the dreaded Tommy John surgery. All that being said, there have been some glimmer’s of hope as of late. Duffy has looked more like he did in 2014, his breakthrough season, and seems to be solidifying his place in the rotation. Ventura pitched great on Sunday and there is hope it is a return to form for the youngster rather than the outlier of his starts. Adding Cueto to this group can only help this Royals team and there will be two notable differences he will realize very quickly:

As well as Cueto has pitched so far this season(2.62 ERA, 145 ERA+, 3.12 FIP and 0.934 WHIP) just imagine how he will do with the best defense in the AL and in a ballpark like Kauffman Stadium? One would think his numbers would only improve from where they are and it leaves only one other question: is he healthy? There has been some concern about Cueto’s health this season, but apparently Royals management feels comfortable with it:

So Cueto is a big upgrade to what has been a struggling rotation. What about the three pitchers Cincinnati acquired?

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Brandon Finnegan is the most familiar pitcher going to the Reds. Finnegan was the no. 1 draft pick last year of Kansas City and by September was throwing out of the Royals bullpen. Finnegan was even a big part of the Royals postseason run, pitching in 7 playoff games and outside of a bad World Series game, he performed admirably. So far this year he has bounced back and forth between the minors and the majors, as the Royals have flip-flopped on his role. Originally Finnegan was supposed to stay in the minors and work on being a starter, building up his arm to throw more innings. That didn’t last long as he was recalled early in the season and dispatched to the bullpen. In 14 major league games this season, Finnegan has an ERA of 2.96, 138 ERA+, 4.67 FIP and a WHIP of 1.192 over 14 games. Some in the organization had soured on him, partly because of his conditioning during the offseason(Finnegan had noticably put on weight when he arrived at Spring Training) and partially because some in the organization saw him as a reliever, not a starter. Finnegan has a good arm and is still early in his career and it will be interesting to see just what Cincinnati does with him going forward.

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The resurgence of John Lamb has been one of the bigger stories in the Royals organization this past year. Lamb had Tommy John surgery back in 2011, back when he was one of Kansas City’s top prospects. Lamb would return in 2012, but not as the same pitcher he was before. In fact Lamb had struggled these last 3 years, throwing with less velocity and even having issues with his off-speed stuff throughout that span. After an up and down 2014 where Lamb would sometimes look like the guy that would one day be a part of the Royals rotation with Mike Montgomery, the question became ‘what now’? Well, Lamb has been nothing short of great this year in Omaha, a 2.67 ERA, and a 1.155 WHIP over 94.1 innings in 17 starts. Lamb made the AAA All-Star team and his name had been mentioned quite often when discussions were had about possible starters in Kansas City. Unfortunately, management looked at Lamb as almost a last resort, as the team preferred starting a veteran like Joe Blanton over calling Lamb up. Like Montgomery, I believe Lamb deserves a shot. Cincinnati might accomodate him on that, since Kansas City didn’t seem willing to.

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Finally, there is Cody Reed. Reed is a 22 year old, 6’5 lefty that is in his third professional season and recently was recalled to the Royals AA team in Northwest Arkansas. Reed is a hard-throwing southpaw, throwing in the mid-90’s with a curveball with good movement. He has had some issues with control so far in his career, although his BB/9 this year has hovered around 2.5, an improvement over the7.0 during his first pro season. Reed has been climbing up the Royals prospect list and there have been solid comparisons made to another Royals farmhand, Sean Manaea. If there is a steal in this deal for the Reds, it would be Reed. I can see him being in the majors at some point in 2016 if things go right for him.

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The best part of this trade for Kansas City was they were able to acquire a top level arm for the rotation and gave up no top prospects or major parts of their roster. None of the three players traded to Cincinnati were going to be major fixtures for this team anytime in the immediate future and top prospects in the Royals farm system(Kyle Zimmer, Raul Mondesi, Manaea) were untouched. To me, this is a big success on Moore’s part and should definitely be chalked up as one of his better trades. I also really loved that the Royals front office did whatever needed to be done to get this team back to October. Myself and many others have lambasted Moore and the rest of the braintrust in the Kansas City front office over the years, but they have done their part and no one can blame them for not trying their hardest to help this team win. Us Royals fans have been spoiled since late September, as almost every move on and off the field has worked out for this organization. If we are celebrating a World Championship in late October, we can point to this acquisition as a major step in getting the Royals to that point. Knowing the organization will go out and strengthen this team is a great feeling and I hope when Alex Gordon has his time to negotiate a new contract he keeps this in mind. Johnny Cueto is a piece of a large puzzle that Kansas City has been patiently working on. Now it is time to finish the puzzle and just watch it in all it’s glory.

 

New York State of Mind: Royals Swept by Yankees

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My, how a week will change things. About ten days ago the Royals took a series from the New York Yankees in Kansas City, a series where the Royals looked to be playing at a different level than the ‘Bronx Bombers’. Jump forward to this week and there was very little in this series that the Royals did good. The defense was there. The bullpen was pretty solid. The offense…well, it was pretty much M.I.A. The starting pitching? Eek. So with that said, lets take a look at a series that will hopefully be forgotten by the end of the weekend.

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Series MVP: Mike Moustakas

Honestly, a part of me just wanted to leave this spot blank. No one really stood out in this series as the offense basically took a powder in this series. Alcides Escobar and Kendrys Morales both got 4 hits in this series but didn’t provide much in the form of runs. Moustakas went 3 for 11, including his 5th home run of the year on Wednesday afternoon:

Moustakas has been one of the ‘feel good’ stories of the year so far and nothing says ‘improvement’ like a spray chart:

It almost feels like every week Moose will fly by some other accomplishment that surpasses his dreadful 2014 season:

Look, we all scoffed when manager Ned Yost said he was going to bat Moustakas second in the order to start the year. What started out as Yost trolling us(hey, it felt that way) turned into motivation for Mike and it has paid off in spades. Unfortunately, this series saw very little offense from the Royals despite the efforts of Moustakas, Escobar and Morales.

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(Worst) Pitching Performance of the Series: Jeremy Guthrie

Look, I’m not happy about picking on Guthrie here, but Monday’s start was so bad for Jeremy that it felt like it should get it’s own section. Since no one else really went out there and stood out(besides one reliever who I will discuss in just a bit) I figured we would point out how monumentally bad Guthrie performed. The numbers in just a moment; first, take a look at the destruction:

Alright, that was just as painful as the first time. It was obvious early on that Guthrie was going to be left out there to take the beating, although apparently 11 runs was all the bleeding Yost could muster watching(I was done after the first 8 runs). 1+ inning, 9 hits and 11 runs while walking 3, hitting a batter and striking out 1. Oh, and 4 home runs given up. Hey, at the least there were some eye popping stats that came out of his outing:

Just an ugly performance all the way around. Guthrie has long been an anomaly; a pitcher who allows a lot of baserunners yet allows very few to score. That has not been the case this year and honestly he hasn’t put up numbers this bad since his short stay in Colorado. Before this start it had seemed like maybe he had gotten behind some of his struggles but Monday it appeared as if he was leaving the ball out over the middle of the plate and the Yankees made him pay for it. The numbers right now are staggering: An FIP of 6.01, ERA+ of 61(lowest total since 2006 for Cleveland, where he appeared in 9 games), he is allowing 11.9 hits per 9 innings, and 3 walks per 9. Most of the numbers so far are very comparable to his stay with the Rockies, where he was rescued by Kansas City for infamous space-waster Jonathan Sanchez. I still feel like Jeremy has value and still feel like he can bounce back from this. But the longer it goes on, the more you ask two questions: ‘how long can the Royals continue to throw him out there?’ and ‘when is Kris Medlen expected back?’. Hopefully Guthrie chooses to rise like the Phoenix.

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All-Star Dominance

There was some good news that came out this week in the form of the the All-Star balloting being announced and it looks like the Royals have something else they are leading in; votes! There are 5 Royals leading their respective positions and so far Salvador Perez is the overall vote-getter. I’m sure there will be some talk about Royals fans stuffing the online ballots, but like many others, I could care less:

If anything else, this is happening for one reason; the Royals are winning. Winning does this, especially for a fanbase that has been dormant for a number of years:

Look, I would be happy with one Royal starting in the All-Star game. Five Royals? That would just be awesome. I have reasons to cheer for each of the five guys who are leading but a start for Alex Gordon would mean a lot, especially considering how his tenure as a Royal has been over the years. Escobar also seems to be cherishing the idea of being in his first ‘Midsummer Classic’:

So Royals fans, if you have not yet voted, what are you waiting for? Go vote here and let your voice heard. I also have yet to vote; just wait until I get my 35 votes in for all 8 of my e-mail accounts! I can’t wait to vote for Gordon 280 times!

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Now onto the news and notes section of this series:

  • I mentioned earlier how there was one stellar pitching performance in this series and that was the outing Brandon Finnegan had on Monday following Guthrie’s awful tribute to Memorial Day. Finnegan came into the game in the 2nd inning and threw 3 shutout innings, allowing zero hits, 1 walk and 1 strikeouts. It was exactly what the Royals needed and lowered Finnegan’s ERA below 2.00 on the year. For a guy who has been bounced around this year, between the rotation and the pen, between the minors and the majors, he has managed to excel in the situations the Royals put him in. Now if the team could decide on a role for him and stick with it…
  • Finnegan had been recalled earlier in the day as Danny Duffy headed to the disabled list. I had actually mentioned this after the last series against the Cardinals and how it wasn’t a bad thing for this to happen:

There are a lot of theories out there about what is wrong with Duffy and it could be the shoulder stiffness that landed him on the DL, or it could be overthrowing or it could be him overthinking. Actually, I tend to lean toward all 3 to be honest with you. I’ve heard he could get up to 5 starts down in Omaha before coming back, so I wouldn’t expect to see him anytime soon, unless he is needed before then.

  • Finnegan was sent back down to the minors after Monday’s game to make room for Jason Vargas’ return from the disabled list. Vargas was on a strict 75 pitch limit(which was apparently not relayed to Steve Physioc in the Royals radio booth) and struggled out of the gate in his return. Vargas threw 4 innings, giving up 4 hits and 2 runs while walking 1 and striking out 6:

Vargas had a rough 1st inning but settled down and it would have been interesting to see how he did if he hadn’t reached the pitch limit imposed on him. The Royals need Vargas to pitch closer to his performance in 2014 than what we have seen so far this year and hopefully this was the first step toward that.

  • I mentioned a moment ago about Physioc not knowing about Vargas’ pitch limit on Tuesday night and it was just one of many miscues he made on air that night. Maybe it was because I was following the broadcast closer than normal, but Physioc was atrocious that night and he seemed to not do any homework at all. I’ve never been a fan of his work, but this series really highlighted how bad Physioc is as a broadcaster. I’m sure he is a nice guy, but nice guys don’t always make good on air talent.
  • Speaking of the broadcasters, if I had to hear them say ‘well that wouldn’t have been a home run at Kauffman Stadium’ one more time in this series I was ready to pull my hair out. Yes, Yankee Stadium has smaller dimensions than ‘The K’; but these games weren’t played in Kansas City so it didn’t matter. The Royals had the same advantage the Yankees had in this series, so comparing the two stadiums is ignoring the fact that the Yankees took more of an advantage of the shorter porch in right field. It came across as sour grapes.
  • Paulo Orlando hit his first career major league home run on Tuesday. Orlando has seen a lot of playing time this year thanks to Alex Rios’ injury, and while his average has slipped the last few weeks, he is still one of the best feel good stories of the year. Even if he never hits another one over the fence, he will always have his one at Yankee Stadium.

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Tweets of Royalty

 

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As far as I am concerned the best thing to do about this series is forget about it and move on. The Royals will venture to Chicago this weekend for 3 games at Wrigley Field against the Cubs. I am pretty excited for this series, since I grew up watching tons of Cubs games on WGN(as did a lot of people my age) and have a deep fondness for Wrigley and the ballclub. I am also looking forward to seeing some of Chicago’s young talent, guys like Jorge Soler, Addison Russel and Kris Bryant; I’m looking forward to seeing them, even if I don’t want them to do very good in this series. The Royals will be throwing Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez and Jeremy Guthrie in this set and hopefully the pitching and offense can put forth some solid effort. It is only May folks, so I am not worried at all. We knew a slump would happen; the question is just how long it will last, especially with Minnesota playing so good. It’s going to be a fun 3 games and my plan is to just enjoy the Royals being at Wrigley, since this only happens about once every six years. I can’t imagine this series will be worse than what we just saw…

 

Royals’ Spring Hopefuls

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Royals Spring Baseball

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.

 

A Team Tailored for the Playoffs

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As the Kansas City Royals inch closer and closer to their first postseason berth since  1985, it becomes harder and harder to not play out scenario’s in your head. What if they win a Wild Card spot? What will the starting rotation look like? Who do you leave off the playoff roster? These might all seem like minor details, but for us Royals fans it is foreign territory. Hey, we’ve spent close to 30 years just asking for a game that really matters; these questions seem to matter more to us than they should. With all that said there are a few things that not only make me feel confident that we could not only be witnessing a number of playoff games but that this team could be a great fit for what is headed their way.

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Obviously the preference for most of us is for Kansas City to win the American League Central, as the Royals would avoid the one game playoff that is the wild card. Winning a wild card is still playoffs, but there is always the possibility that the Royals have an off night and that would leave them one and done. Also, unless the Royals finish above or tied with Oakland in the Wild Card race they will be playing that game on the road. The thought of only getting one playoff game and not getting October baseball at ‘The K’ saddens me in ways you don’t even know. Like watching the end of Toy Story 3. I’m not alone on that, right? Anyway, there has been lots of discussion on whether the Royals playing in one game would be satisfying enough, and I can easily see why one game would not be enough. Either way, playoffs are playoffs, whether you play 1 game or 21. Bottom line is that the Royals need to reach the Division Series for any of the following points to even matter.

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There are normally three key things stressed for a team to go deep into the playoffs: pitching, defense and timely hitting. The good thing is the Royals are good for at least two of those, with the third coming and going. Let’s start with the pitching. This has been one of the bigger factors in the Royals success this year and without it we probably aren’t even talking playoffs right now. It will be interesting to see if the Royals will go with a 3 or a 4 man rotation to start out. I would imagine the top three goes James Shields, Danny Duffy, and Jeremy Guthrie. I would like to think Yordano Ventura would be the third rather than Guthrie, but my gut tells me they won’t want to push him real hard, as he has already pitched the most innings in one season of his career(179.0 as we speak). You also have to wonder where Jason Vargas is in this conversation, as he has had a really good season but in his last 7 starts he has a 5.89 ERA/1.66 WHIP and Kansas City has lost 6 of his those starts. Since I can’t see either Guthrie or Vargas being a part of the bullpen(unless they are a long reliever, and sweet baby Jesus, let’s hope we don’t need one of those) they will probably either start or not be on the playoff roster. This will lead to some interesting dilemmas for Royals management, as they will want to get the most out of their rotation without killing Ventura’s arm or using a starter who is regressing(I’m staring at you, Vargas!).

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But it’s not just the starters that will guide this team in October. The Royals bullpen has been a major force over the last few years and this year has added an element of dominance to the late innings. With Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland you are seeing a back portion of the pen who will slow down the best of offenses. Three guys with upper 90’s heat, nasty off-speed pitches and the ability to make a Royals game be over if they are leading after 6 innings. Add in the likes of Jason Frasor, Brandon Finnegan(who was drafted by Kansas City this summer) and just for the hell of it Francisley Bueno and Louis Coleman and you have the making of a playoff caliber pen. It will be interesting to see if Aaron Crow makes this squad, as obviously manager Ned Yost still thinks fondly of him, despite his disappointing season where inherited runners abound and velocity decreases. Add in the possibility of Ventura being in the bullpen and you could make the case that Kansas City will make opposing teams want to strike early or pay for it when HDH enter the game.

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians

Defense is also a major plus for Kansas City and something that will help them in their hunt for gold. This has been about a solid of a unit as the Royals have had in a very long time, although there have been a few hiccups these last few weeks. For the Royals to play deep into October they need the ‘D’ to step up and return to their earlier levels of excellence. It shouldn’t be hard to muster, but this team has also showed the penchant to let pressure affect their play on the field.

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The timely hitting is the only thing that could be a worry. The Royals are hitting at a .270 with runners in scoring position, which is in the top 5 in baseball this season. It does drop to .214 with 2 outs in the inning, which lowers them to the middle of the pack in both leagues. They are also doing well when they get past the 7th inning, hitting at a .252 clip which is good enough for 6th in all of baseball. So this is a team that can hit and hit in the clutch if needed. But if you are a Royals fan you know how streaky they can be as well. One minute this team looks like an offensive juggernaut, the next you wonder if even Kent Murphy or Domingo Ayala(Google them; go ahead) could hit better than Kansas City’s hitters. They also aren’t a team that takes a lot of pitchers, so it is rare when you see them work a count and attempt to wear a pitcher down. Surprisingly they don’t strike out much either, although this means a lot of ground balls that don’t get past the infield. There is also a reliance on bunting when they start to struggle, which can be both good and bad. Letting a speedy player bunt early in the game for a hit? Fine by me, although I would prefer they hit. Sacrifice in the first 6 innings? Awful and something the Royals are notorious for doing. More than anything this team needs to hit in the clutch and attempt to be moderately consistent to reach the next level. I hope this can happen, but if there is anything I worry about it is this very issue that has hampering the team for the last couple seasons. Bottom line, this is a team of hackers who have both good and bad nights.

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Oh, there is one more positive that will be amplified in October; speed. The Royals are almost a team that harkens back to the 80’s, one built on speed, defense and pitching. The Royals like to flaunt this speed whenever possible, especially with both Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore on the bench for late inning heroics. This is a team that needs to use that speed to their advantage when they get to the postseason, if for no reason than that it is a plus for the team. This is a team full of speedy guys(Dyson, Gore, Cain, Aoki) and guys who are good base runners(Gordon, Escobar). If the offense is struggling? Use your speed by stealing bases and utilize the hit and run. The Royals aren’t a team that can bunch up a few hits and then expect a big three run bomb, so causing some damage on the basepaths would seem to be a solid game plan. I’m not saying do this all the time, and obviously I think they need to be smart about when they do take advantage of the speed, but there are times that this team strands runners on base, runners that could be in motion. Making opposing pitchers and defenses feel uneasy should be a regular part of Kansas City’s offense this October and one that could gain them a slight advantage.

White Sox Royals Baseball

Look, there are areas of concern when it comes to this Royals team, like the much maligned offense, a non-threatening bench or Ned Yost’s tactical decisions. All could cost this team in the playoffs. In fact the ideal scenario for the Royals would be for them to get a lead by the 6th inning and then let Yost throw HDH out there for the last 3 innings. The less Yost has to manage, the better. But putting that aside, there are many teams in the American League who have already said they don’t want to play Kansas City in postseason play because of the way they are built. This is a Royals team that is used to playing in low scoring affairs and have shown a penchant to be a team that doesn’t give up late in the contest. So as much as this Royals team isn’t the team you or I would have built and despite logic telling us they shouldn’t have gotten this far with what they have, they are here. Watch out American League playoff teams; the Kansas City Royals are coming no matter how unorthodox or old school their game plan is.             

 

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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