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Restocking the rotation through trades and an unlikely success story

Some odds and ends on the week.

Cincinnati Reds v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The last couple of seasons we have seen the method to Dayton Moore’s free agent madness. It’s not revolutionary. Nor is it particularly inspired. It is instead driven by necessity. A vital task for a team in a rebuild. And with the trade deadline approaching and the waiver trade period eliminated, there is an urgency to the wheeling and dealing.

First to go, Homer Bailey. Bailey was the kind of acquisition that for a team like the Royals, you just nod your head because you immediately can see into the future - health pending, of course. In Bailey’s case, the return was a middle infielder very much in the mold of the burners the Royals so covet. Kevin Merrell was a supplemental pick in the 2017 draft by the Oakland A’s and is a both good enough and a recent enough acquisition to find a spot on lists of Oakland’s top prospects. For Baseball Prospectus, he was ranked #12 in the organization last winter where he was profiled as a “speedy utility infielder.”

Merrell is the player who, had he made it to the majors with the A’s, Royals fans would’ve seen play and immediately slotted him into the category of “destined to play for the Dayton Moore Royals.” That’s not usually complimentary. Yet as the game has changed and bullpens are so stocked with relievers you can’t find a place to sit during the games, players like Merrell have some usefulness going forward. Currently a shortstop, it’s not difficult to see him shagging a few fly balls in due time to further increase his value. That may up his ceiling to “speedy super-utility man.”

With Bailey and his surprisingly effective innings departing for the Bay Area, the Royals were in need of some starting pitching help. The rotation hasn’t been anything to write about this year—their collective ERA is 5.24, 10th best in the AL—manager Ned Yost has leaned on them quite a bit. Their 510 innings pitched through Monday is the fifth-most thrown by an AL rotation this year. They’ve employed eight different starters this year, a number that ticked up by one when Brian Flynn was pushed into an emergency start on Sunday following in the Bailey deal.

There’s a comfort in knowing you can generally count on your five starters to give you innings. Especially when your bullpen options look as appealing as what’s out on the seafood buffet at the Bellagio when the refrigeration has been down for several hours. So 24 hours after sending off Bailey, the Royals swung a deal sending catcher Martín Maldonado to the Cubs for prodigal Royal Mike Montgomery.

My initial thought on the deal was confusion. On the surface it didn’t make sense. The Royals are rebuilding (they are NOT tanking!) and can use as many able-bodied minor leaguers they are allowed. Montgomery, who once fell into that category, is not the trade target one would imagine.

Yet apart from filling what could’ve been an innings void, Montgomery comes with two more full years of team control. He’s earning $2.44 million this year and is in line for a modest bump to just above $3 million for 2020. This means the trade does two very important things:

1) It keeps Dayton Moore away from the starting pitching free agent market this offseason. Barring catastrophic injury, the top four are set.


2) It gives the Royals another tradeable asset this time next year. A starting pitcher with a year of club control (which is what the Royals are hoping for from Montgomery) should bring a better return than a defense-first catcher. It’s as if the Royals moved up the ladder of the trade spectrum.

Pitching, it turns out, is still the currency of baseball.

Entering play Tuesday since 2013, the Royals had had six starts where their pitcher threw a complete game shutout. The list is now seven.

Rk Player Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R ER BB SO Pit Str GSc
1 Glenn Sparkman 2019-07-16 KCR CHW W 11-0 9.0 5 0 0 1 8 116 76 84
2 Jason Vargas 2017-06-02 KCR CLE W 4-0 9.0 7 0 0 1 3 103 69 75
3 Johnny Cueto 2015-08-10 KCR DET W 4-0 9.0 4 0 0 0 8 116 86 87
4 Jason Vargas 2014-08-13 KCR OAK W 3-0 9.0 3 0 0 0 4 97 65 85
5 James Shields 2014-08-09 KCR SFG W 5-0 9.0 4 0 0 1 5 109 72 83
6 Jeremy Guthrie 2013-08-05 KCR MIN W 13-0 9.0 4 0 0 1 7 106 71 85
7 Jeremy Guthrie 2013-05-04 KCR CHW W 2-0 9.0 4 0 0 1 3 106 74 81
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/17/2019.

Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie? Twice? Baseball is forever weird.

And now Sparkman is another unlikely candidate for the shutout list.

He certainly didn’t look to dominate at the start. Sparkman said he didn’t feel particularly good in the bullpen warming up and couldn’t get into a groove the first couple of innings. After struggling with his fastball command in the early frames, he altered his finish. “Making sure I’m driving towards the plate and not spinning off. That’s where I was getting into trouble with my fastball flying out of the zone and my off speed was inconsistent because of that,” Sparkman said.

Once the right-hander was able to make the mechanical tweak, he was untouchable. Following a Jose Abreu single to open the fourth, Sparkman retired the next 11 Sox batters. His fastball maintained its mid-90s velocity and his curve kept Sox hitters off balance. He was able to collect 18 swings and misses on 116 pitches. Twelve of them were on the curve.

He worked the edges with his fastball and kept the curve down in the zone, retiring the last seven. He finished with a Game Score of 84, the highest by a Royals starter this season. Naturally.

A rarity for the Royals. And from an unlikely pitcher. “I’ve never done it (pitched a complete game). Never. This was my first one,” Sparkman said after the game. “I still feel great.”

Revisiting the list above, it may be awhile before we see another one at The K.