"With me, Greinke and Banny, I think that's three pretty good guys going up against anybody," - Royals' All-Star Starting Pitcher Gil Meche.
"Brett Tomko is No. 4 for me. I told Brett before we ever signed him, before he chose us over Cincinnati, 'You need to know, in a perfect scenario, what I want as a manager and what we are looking for as an organization. And that's for you to be a part of our rotation.'" - New Fearless Leader Trey Hillman.
"You go to Jorge De La Rosa," Hillman said. "We'd love to have a lefty in our mix and I'm not going to try to hide the excitement of having either him or a John Bale moving out of the bullpen." - Hillman again, kind of scaring yours truly.
As a blogger, one of the things you often here is that we're too negative as a species. After all, it's so much easier to critique the people who actually get paid for their jobs--sportswriters, players, managers--than it is to actually do work on par with one of these people. Think Tony Pena's a bum, do you? Get out there and hit that spheroid yourself. Think Hillman's already a bad manager? You don't have the first clue how to manage a clubhouse. Think you're a better writer than Woody Paige or Jay Mariotti? You are. Sorry, the sportswriter thing is a bad example.
So I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea about the quotes above. I recognize that I've takne all three from an mlb.com article that ran at the end of last month and that Hillman's mind could have changed. I'm not judging--or condemning--Hillman based on the idea that he'd like Brett Tomko and and Jorge de la Rosa to do well. I'm simply looking to try and sort out the competition for the fourth and fifth rotation spots for the Royals. I've no doubt Hillman knows more about these players than I do, of course. But don't mistake thinking critically for thinking negatively. With any luck, our hero Gilgameche is correct in his quote. If that's so, then we can look forward to a nice 1-2-3 punch in the rotation in 2008. What's clear is that those three are virtually entrenched unless there's some kind of injury or other shocking development in ST (please no).
With Meche, Bannister, and Greinke penned in, that leaves the fourth and fifth sports. Today we'll look at the hopefuls for those spots. While it's true that hardly any team has good enough depth to boost a truly "good" fourth starter and that the fifth starter can be skipped quite frequently, who these innings go to and how they do with them will still have an impact on the Royals this year.
Hillman's Hero: Brett Tomko
2007 Stats of Note:
131.1 IP, 40-19 G-GS, 88 ERA+, 5.55 ERA, 10.24 H/9, 7.20 K/9, 3.29 BB/9, 1.24 HR/9
Okay look, I'm not seriously suggesting that Hillman has a mancrush on Brett Tomko, but I'd feel a lot better if Hillman had said something to the effect or "Tomko will compete for a rotation spot" instead of that line about being the fourth starter. The problem is that Tomko might actually be one of the best options available...Hillman might be depressingly right about Brett's spot on the Royals' pitching depth chart.
The above stat line, coming from the soon-to-be 35-year-old Tomko, looks like that of a pitcher who is losing his ability to work within the zone and not pay for it. That K-Rate is actually pretty nice, but it may have received a PETCO-induced boost towards the end of the year. Really, if Tomko is in the Royals' rotation...there are worse things, but here's hoping someone forces him and his $3 million dollars to the bullpen. There was, I'll argue, nothing really wrong with his signing, as the Royals allgedly have more cash to burn and it's only a one-year deal. Committing to him in the rotation should only happening if the younger possibilities aren't ready or just make no sense. You remember how Gil Meche brought his HR rate down moving to the K? Don't count on that happening with Mr. Tomko. This could be the end of an...er...undeniably persistent career from ol' Brett, during which his ERA+ has been above average only twice in eleven years, but then again pitching out of the 'pen might extend his career a couple more years.
Token Lefty Possibility: Jorge de la Rosa
2007 Stats of Note:
130.0 IP, 26-23 G-GS, 81 ERA+, 5.82 ERA, 11.08 H/9, 5.68 K/9, 3.67 BB/9, 1.38 HR/9
Ouch. I just basically took Brett Tomko apart, and even single rate listed here for de la Rosa is markedly worse than Tomko's own numbers in pretty much the exact same amount of pitching. To be fair, de la Rosa hadn't carried this type of workload since he made it to the majors, but the line between "giving him starts to see what he's got" and "know when to cut bait" was passed last year when Kansas City kept a struggling de la Rosa in the rotation while Zack Greinke lit it up in the bullpen. de la Rosa displayed better control than he has in the past, and could make a passable lefty reliever. We can only hope that Hillman and Co. figure out that having a passable starter in the rotation is miles better than having a crappy lefty penciled in just because he's left-handed and "gives the other team a different look."
Really, the problem for de la Rosa can be summed up with the platoon split for 2007:
Lefties Vs. JDLR: .234/.305/.299
Righties Vs. JDLR: .321/.384/.557
That is a darn strong argument that this guy should be arm-wrestling Jimmy Gobble for the LOOGY job rather than competing for a starting job.
Last Year's Deadline Prize: Kyle Davies
2007 Stats of Note:
136.0 IP, 28-28 G-GS, 73 ERA+, 6.09 ERA, 10.26 H/9, 6.55 K/9, 4.63 BB/9, 1.46 HR/9
While Davies is regarded to have more upside as a starter than either de la Rosa or Tomko (of course), very few pitchers in baseball did less to earn 20+ starts than Davies did. After coming over from the Braves for a damaged Octavio Dotel, Davies' ERA was an abysmal 71 and he continued to hand out walks like they were going out of style. Even more troubling, he wasn't even "effectively wild," as he gave up a home run every five innings in a Royal uniform. It's tough to see Davies succeeding without a major overhaul of the way he was pitching last year. Even at just 23, his stock has fallen quite a bit since he broke into the league at age 21. Whether it's injuries, bad mechanics, or--likely--a combination of both, this is a kid who needs some serious help from the Royals coaching staff and some serious work ethic if he's going to turn things around. His 2007 line just isn't major league quality, and certainly is befitting of a guy with "three good pitches."
As I said at the time of the trade, it was near impossible to lose when all we gave up was Mr. 23-innings-as-a-Royal Dotel, but it's not clear if there's even going to be a winner here at all. I'd be appreciative if you all could let me know how Davies looks if you get a chance to catch him on TV. Right now, he profiles as AAA to start the year.
Golden Boy: Luke Hochevar
While it might not be fair to Luke to compare him to Miller or Lincecum, it's pretty darn fair to ask if he's going to make it as a major league pitcher. I'm noy privy to Hochevar's attitude or work habits, so I'm not going to be the one who's going to stand up and tell you he's too lazy or whatever to become a major league starter. I am going to be the one who tells you that unless he finds a way to bring down his hits and home runs allowed, he's going to do nothing but throw-and-duck on a major league mound. Oddly enough, his K-rates and BB-rates actually look pretty darn good. This suggests to me that Hochevar had been pretty good at blowing pitches by minor league hitters, but needs to get better at locating within the zone and making less "hit this, chump!" pitches. It remains to be seen if he's capable of that, but he should get a long look in ST to give the Royals an idea of how close he is. Keep in mind, the dude turns 24 this year. He's pretty close to make or break. I don't root against Hochevar. Far from it, in fact, but he needs to get his butt in gear or he won't make anyone forget Steve Andrade. Yeah, that's right: I went there. Time to trade that 9+ K-rate for a couple less base knocks, Luke.
Not to be a broken record about this, but Bob McClure has his work cut out for him with all these projects. And we're not even counting Greinke as project-ish in this article, which he kind of still is until he's proven otherwise.
Token Lefty Possibility #2: John Bale
2007 Stats of Note:
40.0 IP, 26-0 G-GS, 116 ERA+, 4.05 ERA, 10.12 H/9, 9.45 K/9, 3.83 BB/9, 0.23 HR/9
We can't really laugh at this possibility, because there's a pretty good chance that Bale would be as good as JDLR would be in the rotation. If we have to have a lefty, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give someone other than Mr. 5.82-ERA a shot. The thing is, Bale's track record suggests that he's always handled lefties well and struggled against righties. He actually did pretty well against both last year, but it was 40 innings so we really don't have much to go on. Suffice to say that if he doesn't make the rotation he can K a lot of batters coming out of the 'pen as one of the southpaws. If he does make the rotation...temper your expectations, since he's 33-year-old reliever who's always had a platoon split. Still, on a team where Brett Tomko looks like a fine back-of-the-rotation option, you could do worse than to root for Bale to dark horse his way into the five-man.
Beloved, But Absolutely Not To Be Counted On: Brandon Duckworth, Luke Hudson
Both don't really have 2007 stats that I feel comfortably saying reflect any "true ability." Neither one has shown any skill at staying healthy, and while I like them both...I'm not going crazy here. Both are longer shots than Kyle Davies, in my estimation.
The Sleeper: Joakim Soria
2007 Stats of Note:
69.0 IP, 62-0 G-GS, 189 ERA+, 2.48 ERA, 6.0 H/9, 9.78 K/9, 2.48 BB/9, 0.39 HR/9
There's pretty much nothing in that line that suggests to me that Soria couldn't be a successful major league starting pitcher if he can be eased into the role without the injury nexus claiming him. He did very, very well as closer last year, showing the ability to pitch multiple innings and close out strong line-ups. He's a smart pitcher too, as it's not as if he's just pumping 98-MPH fastballs by everyone. Soria has more than one good pitch, locates well, and seemed to thrive on the challenge of pitching in the majors as a Rule 5 pick.
The question is what the Royals want to do with him in the future. Given the other options listed, you can count me on the bandwagon of people who'd like to see what he could do with 100+ innings. It'd be an interesting out of the box idea if the Royals had Soria closing some games and starting others as the de facto fifth starter (who can be skipped a lot) to keep his workload down and get him starts at the same time. I don't think that's what will happen--I think he's 'pen bound this year--but I really think the Royals need to entertain this possibility sometime. One out of every twenty times, it proves the better idea to leave a younger, talented starter prospect in the bullpen. The other nineteen it's a waste of value.
All together, thosee are my thoughts on the competition for the fourth and fifth starter spots. It is very important to remember, when reading this article, that all teams have trouble filling out the back of the rotation, as the competition for the 4-5 spots might seem a little depressing otherwise. In terms of the Royals specifically, I'm not going to be so bold as to be make a prediction, because ST is going to play a big role here. While I'm on board with the idea that ST stats mean hardly anything at all, I'm so naive as to dismiss ST entirely. After all, if the organization didn't use some of their observations of ST play to fill out the roster, what exactly would they have to go on? No, sorry, like it or not, spring training play a role in forging the opening day roster and that's not going to change. Take the stats with a grain of salt, yes. But look for who's gained velocity and who's lost it, who's got a tight shoulder and who's lost weight, and who suddenly developed a split finger fastball. This may be a somewhat frustrating time of year for sabermetricians, but it's a fun time of year for all baseball fans.
Spreadsheet Baseball returns next week, hopefully rounding up some ST info. In the mean time, questions/comments on this effort are welcome/encouraged. Happy reading, and Don't Panic.