It happens every spring. Some unknown kid shows up for camp, just happy for the opportunity to hang out with the big club before
he’s shipped out to the minor-league complex. Only when he takes the mound, he surprises everyone by throwing harder and better
than he ever has before. And when he toes the rubber in an early March exhibition game, he creates a huge buzz by overpowering
hitters and lighting up radar guns from here to Kissimmee.
This year, the kid is Jeremy Affeldt. On March 3, the southpaw took the mound for his first appearance and put on a
pitching performance so astonishing that it headlined not one, but two separate columns in the Kansas City Star the next
day. Affeldt struck out five of the six hitters he faced, and since these were the Pirates, one or two of them might have even
been threats to put the ball in play. One observer, not normally given to hyperbole, told me that Affeldt’s outing was, in a
word, Koufaxesque. (This from someone who saw Sandy Koufax pitch many times.)
Of course, it was early March, a time of year which, unless you’re the Red Sox, guarantees nothing but good press. The guys who
put on 10 pounds of lean muscle over the winter always get the headlines in March; the guys who put on 10 pounds of Haagen-Dazs
don’t get outed until April. In March, it’s hard to separate reality from dreams, and the real prospects from the kids who put
it all together for one ephemeral moment. March is a month when we’ll believe that Jeremy Affeldt looks like Sandy Koufax. It’s
also when we’ll believe that Barbaro Garbey really can be a Hall of Famer.
One great outing doesn’t make my heart race… but it’s a lot harder for me to dismiss six of them in a row. Affeldt has now
thrown 12 innings, getting nicked for a single earned run, allowing just six hits, walking two and striking out 14. His fastball
is still getting clocked around 94 mph, and his curveball is still dropping as fast as the jaws of those scouts who watched him
in his first outing. Last week he was brought in to face a tough lefty with the bases loaded and two outs, and blew a 2-2
fastball right by Jim Thome. (This sounds more impressive than it is, given that Thome has never been a world-beater
The Royals, who a month ago had given exactly zero thought to starting the season with Affeldt on the roster, are quickly
running out of reasons to send him down. While there has been no talk of putting him into the rotation, the team’s acute need
for left-handed relief has made Affeldt a candidate for that role. To their credit, the Royals aren’t talking about pigeonholing
him into the role of lefty specialist, but instead as a long reliever, continuing to prepare him for his future as a starter.
This strikes me as an eerily intelligent decision. One good month aside, I’m not convinced that Affeldt wouldn’t be served by
another month in Triple-A to prove that he is, in fact, ready–especially if that month paid future dividends by delaying his
eligibility for arbitration and free agency. Affeldt hasn’t really come out of nowhere; he has been my favorite sleeper prospect
on the team for two years running. Since I’ve long advocated that teams ease their future starting pitchers into the major
leagues by using them in long relief, it would be unfair for me to rip the Royals for doing just that.
With Opening Day less than a week away, the rest of the roster is coming into focus. Here’s a quick look at the other jobs that
are still being contested:
- Backup catcher
On most teams, the identity of the backup catcher is hardly front-page material, but most teams don’t employ the services of
Brent Mayne as a first-stringer. Aside from his questionable offensive resume, Mayne has never played in more than 117
games, and has caught over 100 games just three times in his 11-year career. Given that he bats from the left side and that all
the backup candidates are right-handed, it seems reasonable to assume that whoever wins the job will be a de facto platoon mate
and enjoy all the at-bats that lay therein.
The candidates are Danny Ardoin, Hector Ortiz, and A.J. Hinch. No, really. A 27-year-old with four
major-league hits, another catcher who turned 30 before getting his first major-league hit, and the hot prospect of the three,
hot enough to get invited back for another try even after batting .157 last season.
There are no right answers here, but the Royals may get partial credit if (as it appears) they give the job to Hinch, who
re-discovered his stroke in Omaha last summer, hitting .321/.365/.583 and restoring some of the gloss he had while coming up
with the A’s in the late 1990s. Few players in the past decade have struggled more in translating their Triple-A performance to
major-league success than Hinch has. Interestingly, one of those players is David McCarty, who finally established
himself on a major-league bench with the Royals two years ago. Given the competition, Hinch deserves a similar opportunity to
show that he doesn’t belong to that rarest of species: the minor-league hitter.
- Fifth starter
The Royals entered the spring with a clear front four of Jeff Suppan Paul Byrd, Darrell May, and Chad
Durbin, and those positions were only cemented
when Jose Rosado was released.
Like most every team, the Royals put
way too much weight on spring-training performances, though, so Durbin’s 11.37 ERA in two starts has put his rotation spot in
jeopardy. (Byrd, who continues to do no wrong in the Royals’ eyes, has heard nary a whisper about his 9.00 ERA). The
role of fourth starter has been handed to Dan Reichert, who is throwing strikes consistently for the first time ever,
leaving Durbin to fight with Chris George for the #5 spot.
George still has an excellent long-term outlook, but given his age, his performance last year, and his lack of a consistent
breaking pitch, I think he would benefit from another couple of months in Triple-A working on his command and on developing
something with a bend to it. Durbin is much too young to give up on. Sure, he was a disappointment last year when he went just
9-16; three years ago, the Royals gave up on another 24-year-old pitcher who had gone 6-15 the year before. Guy named Glendon
- Back of the bullpen
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the release of Jose Rosado
was the first sign that Allard Baird had learned the meaning of sunk
costs. His next test is whether he decides to cut bait with Doug Henry as well. Unfortunately, it appears that the Royals
have no intention of releasing the 38-year-old pitcher with the 6.07 ERA last season. Henry’s continued presence, along with
Roberto Hernandez, Jason Grimsley, and Cory Bailey, means there are only two open spots in the bullpen.
At least one spot is going to go to a lefty. While Affeldt has received all the hype this year, journeyman Brian Shouse
has matched him almost pitch for pitch, surrendering just three hits and one run in nine innings so far. Shouse is a 33-year-old
pitcher who has spent nine straight seasons in Triple-A, and has just 12 innings of major-league experience. Since 1997, he has
been one of the best relievers in the minors; with the exception of a terrible performance in 1999, his ERAs since 1997 read
2.27, 2.90, 2.81, and 2.89. Moreover, last year he changed his delivery to more of a side-arm, herky-jerky motion that makes him
even more effective against left-handed hitters. If ever there was a rookie cut out for the role of lefty specialist, Shouse is
the guy. So what if he’s 33? Cory Bailey was 30 when he got a shot last year, and he was the team’s second-best reliever. I
honestly think that, given the shot, Shouse can be this season’s Cory Bailey.
The other spot might–and should–go to Blake Stein, who has been curiously forgotten all spring, even though he is the
best power pitcher on the roster. This puts the Royals in a pickle, because they would really like to
keep Rule 5 pick Miguel
Ascencio, especially since there’s no way the Phillies wouldn’t take him back if they got the chance. The answer to this
dilemma is to carry 12 pitchers, a decision which is tactically indefensible in that it would leave the Royals with just four
bench players, but strategically reasonable in that the Royals aren’t going to win this year anyway, so why not hold on to
Ascencio and see if he can develop into something for the future?
And speaking of the bench? Not much of a battle there. Aside from the slot given to the backup catcher, the Royals are set with
David McCarty, Luis Alicea, and that master utility player, Donnie Sadler.
You may commence laughing now.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by