The Kansas City Royals have passed the halfway point in their Cactus League season. They started their 2014 campaign with 59 players in camp in mid-February, but have already reduced that number by 19 over the past week. More on that below.
Unlike 2013 when the team ran away with the Cactus League title, this year’s Royals have plodded along at a modest .500 rate going 7-7 with two ties as of Friday’s game against the Athletics.
We have seen plenty of ups and downs so far this spring as the Royals prepare for opening day in Detroit on March 31st. Below is a review of some of the more eventful changes thus far.
Mike Moustakas – Moose continues to show power and plate presence; maintaining an excellent slash line of .483/.556/1.000 through 13 games. He also added another home run and four RBIs this past week.
However, it is best to wait for April and May before anyone gets too carried away and pronounces Moustakas cured. Moose had similar numbers last spring then finished the season with a .233/.287/.364 slash line that included just 12 home runs and 42 RBIs. His first three months were even worse when he struggles just to break the Mendoza Line (.200 batting average). Based on that history, Royals fans and club executives may be thankful if Moose achieves a .250/.300/.400 final line for 2014. But the Royals need much better than that if they want to see October baseball in KC this year.
Lorenzo Cain – Lo is taking special instruction from both hitting coach Pedro Grifol and revered Royal George Brett this spring as noted by Troy Olson in this week’s Kansas City Baseball Vault podcast. It seems to be working too as he has a .344/.405/.375 slash line thus far.
However, Cain also had an even bigger 2013 spring at .450/.529/.700. Hopefully the one difference is that Cain carries this spring’s solid start into the season. Like Moustakas, the Royals need Cain to improve on his 2013 slash line of .251/.310/.348 if the Royals are to contend for a post season spot. What will also help immensely is for Cain to stay healthy for more than 115 games giving the Royals solid defense in center field as well.
Jason Donald – Signed to a minor league free agent contract over the winter with an invite to major league camp, Donald has made the most of his time in Surprise with solid defense and above journeyman hitting at .333/.419/.370. While the Royals may start with Danny Valencia the only infield backup, Donald could play his way into a prime call-up spot, especially with ongoing health concerns about shortstop Alcides Escobar and 2nd baseman Omar Infante. Donald’s other advantage is his ability to play more positions – he has played every fielding position but 1st base and catcher in his career – than other Royals middle infield options like Johnny Giavotella, Pedro Ciriaco or Christian Colon.
James Shields – Shields has been beyond efficient so far this spring. In three starts, he has pitched 8.2 innings giving up just one earned run while striking out eight and walking none. As the anchor of the staff and proclaimed clubhouse leader, Shields is critical to the Royals 2014 success. No one can argue that he is done his part thus far.
Jason Vargas – As good as Shields has been, Vargas has been even better, pitching nine innings over three outings while giving up just one run and one walk. His only downside is giving up one more hit than inning pitched. Vargas seems to have ignored Santana’s shadow just fine so far. Hopefully, he continues to toss zeroes throughout the season as the Royals number two starter.
Yordano Ventura – In competition with Danny Duffy for the final starting spot on the pitching staff, Yordano set the bar this week with a solid start on Wednesday that included 4.1 innings, one earned run, no walks and nine strikeouts. Oh, and did I mention the top speed of 102 mph.
Meanwhile Duffy did the opposite on Saturday, giving up five runs over two innings that also featured hitting a batter and walking in a run. There are still two weeks left in spring training, but unless the wheels fall off Ventura’s cart, he will be the number three starter to the detriment of all major league batters who must face him over the next six months.
Donnie Joseph – In competition for the second southpaw spot in the bullpen, Joseph has picked up where he left off last spring when he struck out the first half dozen batters he faced. Joseph’s stats so far in 2014 include five games, four innings, two walks, eight strikeouts and zero runs. Probably the only thing stopping Joseph achieving a final 25-man roster spot to start the season is his available options versus others like Francisley Bueno with no options left. Either way, fans can expect to see Joseph in a KC uniform very soon. And following his learning experience over two brief call-ups in 2013, it is likely the next call-up may be his last as Joseph claims a permanent KC bullpen chair for years to come.
First Down – literally – is the first set of players sent down to minor league camp on Tuesday. The reassigned included pitchers Kyle Zimmer, Jason Adam, Aaron Brooks, and Sugar Ray Marimon; catcher Juan Graterol; infielder Brandon Laird; and outfielders Jorge Bonifacio, Gorkys Hernandez, Melky Mesa and Paulo Orlando. Also optioned to AAA Omaha was pitcher Chris Dwyer while pitcher John Lamb, infielder Chester Cuthbert and outfielder Lane Adams were optioned to AA Northwest Arkansas.
The reason some are reassigned to minor league camp while others are optioned to a specific location has to do with the 40-man roster. Dwyer, Lamb, Cuthbert and Lane Adams are on the roster so must be optioned off the major league team; something that also starts their three year option clock allowing them to be transferred between the majors and minors. The other ten are not on the 40-man roster and are just reassigned to minor league camp with their eventual location for the year decided at a later date.
Second Down – Subsequent to the Tuesday cuts, the Royals further reduced the roster early Friday by sending lefty pitchers Justin Marks, Scott Alexander and Everett Teaford to minor league camp. Marks – on the 40-man roster – was optioned to AAA Omaha while Teaford and Alexander were reassigned, although both should end up in Omaha depending on the final decisions for several minor league signed free agent pitchers.
Third Down – In a day of ups and downs, the Royals made a second cut late Friday, optioning catcher Francisco Pena, infielder Christian Colon and pitcher Michael Mariot to AAA Omaha. Pena and Mariot were expected to go soon as both are slated for important roles at Omaha to prepare them for promotion to the Royals in the future. Pena will most likely become the primary backup for starting catcher Salvador Perez while Mariot is being groomed as a closer, possibly to take over for Greg Holland when Holland’s contract becomes too expensive for the Royals budget.
Christian Colon is a surprise, not that he is being optioned but that it happened so early. That leaves only Donald, Ciriaco and Giavotella as potential replacements for Infante or Escobar should they start the season on the disabled list.
Although a number one draft pick, Colon has never received the attention or opportunities that previous number one picks Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas or Luke Hochevar received. As such, Colon and Giavotella might both be better served as part of a trade since it appears the Royals just do not have faith in either to give them a full shot at the ML level.
Additional Downs – Besides the minor league moves listed above, the Royals also released free agent pitcher Brad Penny while pitcher Guilermo Mota decided to leave camp on his own. Penny, a one-time major league all-star caliber pitcher, took 2013 off to rebuild his arm. The Royals took a flyer on Penny hoping the rest rejuvenated the Penny of old. However, the comeback fell well short after Penny gave up seven runs over four innings this spring.
The 40-year old Mota- a long career in the major leagues behind him – decided to leave camp after two weeks to spend time with his family.
Dynamic Duo – The Royals expect their two middle infielders, Escobar and Infante, to contribute solid defense and much improved offense over the coming season. However, when that contribution will start is in question at present as both players are suffering shoulder tightness that has kept them out of games the last two weeks. In fact, the two have not occupied the same infield in the same game as yet. Escobar’s injury reached the point on Thursday that he received a cortisone shot to alleviate the pain and inflammation.
The Royals definitely need both players healthy and playing the infield for 145-150 games this season if they want to give Detroit and Cleveland a run for the Central Division crown. Having one or both on the disabled list to start the season could also significantly change manager Ned Yost’s plan to go with Danny Valencia as the lone backup infielder.
Danny Duffy – As stated above, Duffy is competing with Ventura for the remaining starting pitching spot. Danny did himself no favors today (Friday) with his poor start. It will take near perfection in Duffy’s two remaining starts to have any chance of making the rotation.
The Royals also often speak of Duffy starting the season in the bullpen. However, that has been seriously questioned by about every knowledgeable Royals baseball pundit. If Duffy fails to win the starting spot, he should be in Omaha, pitching every fifth day and keeping the arm stretched out in case one of the five major league starters struggle or get injured. As it stands now, the Royals have announced no firm decision on Duffy’s eventual location. Hopefully, logic will prevail and he will find himself in Omaha to start the season, ready to step in when needed.
The Surprise Summary
More players are on the cusp and will probably go in the next culling including several free agents signed to minor league contracts like pitchers PJ Walters, Cory Wade and Jon Rauch and catcher Adam Moore. Waiver claim outfielder Jimmy Paredes could also go. Walters, Wade and Rauch will get reassigned to minor league camp if not released outright, while Moore is essentially a lock at Omaha to back up Pena. The out-of-options Paredes must clear waivers before he can be assigned to Omaha.
The above moves will leave just two non-roster invitees in camp: catcher Ramon Hernandez and infielder Jason Donald. Donald may stick until the final days as the Royals wait to see what happens with Escobar and Infante’s health. This will also give the Royals additional time to assess Donald’s hitting ability versus that of Ciriaco and Giavotella.
Hernandez has not caught a game yet due to a sore knee, the worst injury for a catcher. However, he is hitting well above .500 in his first seven games while playing 1st base and designated hitter, so may stick around a while longer. If Hernandez is healthy enough to catch come April, he may supplant Brett Hayes as Sal Perez’s backup due to his better upside at the plate and more experience as a mentor to Perez.
While the Royals have seen far less success in the spring training win column in 2014 versus 2013, they are making steady progress toward being ready for opening day. Starting pitchers like Shields, Vargas and Ventura are achieving the success that powered the team through 2013 while the bullpen is not in question thanks in large part to the vast array of power arms available.
Hitting on the other hand has started to reveal its ugly side yet again. While the Royals lead all spring training teams thus far with a .305 batting average, their hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) has suffered lately with just a .202 batting average over the past seven games.
While many hitters have high batting averages, their ability to hit with RISP has been decidedly less satisfactory with players like Justin Maxwell, Norichika Aoki, Hosmer, Cain, and Intante all hitting below .200. In fact the only regulars above league average are Moustakas, Gordon and Perez; although Moose still must prove he can match his spring training numbers over multiple months of a regular season.
Most pre-season forecasts state the 2014 Royals will improve their hitting and run scoring by as much as a half run per game over 2013’s disastrous season. Most also predict the pitching staff will regress by up to a half run per game as well. While that may be the case when the Royals reach Detroit; it has proved the opposite through the first half of spring training games with the pitching and batting staffs showing more similarities to 2013 actuals than 2014 predictions. Add in the concerns over Infante and Escobar’s health and it could be another rough start for Royals fans this April.
The good news as I said at the start is that the Spring Training campaign is only half over. Lots of time for improvement. The Royals roster now sits at 33 active players in camp. Eight more must go before March 31st. There is also potential for a trade or two in the final two weeks if Hernandez is unable to squat behind the plate and General Manager Dayton Moore decides a more adequate backup is required over Hayes. Or if Infante and Escobar end up on the DL and a better infielder is sought over Donald, Ciriaco or Giavotella.
As everyone knows, 2014 is a critical season for this club. Ace starter Shields will most likely be gone after this season as will new right fielder Aoki if he cannot be resigned. Additionally, some players like closer Holland might become too expensive and go on the trade block to maintain owner David Glass’ budget limitations.
The Royals need a successful spring that leads into a solid start to the regular season. Twenty-eight years without October baseball has left Royals fans across America and the world with much dissatisfaction. Making the playoffs this year could cause a frenzy like only the Pittsburgh Pirates saw after ending their own decades long drought last year.
The Royals have the talent. They now have to put that talent to its most effective use and finish the job started in 2013.