Spring Postcard: Kansas City will ride solid pitching staff in 2009

Tuesday March 17th, 2009

1) Zack Greinke has been throwing a lot of changeups in camp. Greinke is coming off a breakthrough season, finishing fifth in strikeouts (183) and 10th in ERA (3.47). He paired with Gil Meche to win 27 games, the most by two Royals starters since -- you won't believe this -- 1998, when Tim Belcher and Kevin Appier won 29 games combined. Greinke, though, believes he has a real breakthrough year coming, and he thinks mastering his changeup could take him to a whole other level. His results have been mixed so far, but as he says, "When I throw it right, it's a pretty good pitch."

2) The Royals spent big money (for them) on the bullpen. The Royals' bullpen last season was a pleasant surprise. Not only did Joakim Soria become one of the best closers in the game, but the Royals got outstanding years from Ramon Ramirez (2.64 ERA, 70 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings) and Leo Nunez (2.98 ERA). During the offseason, to fill other needs, they traded away Ramirez and Nunez (to Boston and Florida, respectively).

And in their place, the Royals signed Kyle Farnsworth (two years, $9 million) and Juan Cruz (two years, $3 million). For a team that has had notoriously low payrolls the last decade or more, that's a huge chunk of money for two middle relievers. But Royals GM Dayton Moore thinks that it's worth it. "When teams play us, you want them to say, 'We better get them early because it's going to be tough to beat that bullpen.' "

Farnsworth had a shaky year last season, and Cruz has pitched his whole career in the National League, but they both have power arms and the ability to miss bats, something the Royals and Moore really cherish.

3) Billy Butler looks locked in. Butler won't turn 23 until mid-April, but already in his young career he has been viewed as a prospect, a phenom, a flake and a disappointment. Butler is limited. He can't run -- though he will sometimes injudiciously still try to run -- and efforts to make him a first baseman have been mixed at best. But the kid sure can swat. He won two minor-league batting titles, and after a trip back to Triple A Omaha last year, he closed out the final two months by hitting .309 with some power. People have noticed a new seriousness in Butler during this camp, and while those sorts of observations rarely mean anything, he has been hitting the ball hard all spring. "It's a perfect swing," one Royals official says. "There are multiple batting titles in that swing."

Coco Crisp is the Royals' new center fielder and leadoff man, and it seems like everyone in camp talks about the winning attitude he brings over from the Red Sox. His range in center field should make a big difference because Kauffman Stadium has a huge outfield. The only downside has been his arm which led one scout to say, "It's even worse than I thought."

Mike Jacobs has also been impressing Royals management with his attitude. "He doesn't take [bleep] from anyone," an official said. Unfortunately, [bleep] also includes walks -- with the Marlins last year Jacobs walked only 36 times. But he did hit a career-high 32 home runs in a tough ballpark on lefties, so the Royals are hoping for similar power numbers out of him.

Willie Bloomquist battles with Alberto Callaspo for the Royals' starting second base job. Mark Teahen is in the mix as well, though his transition from third baseman to outfielder to first baseman and finally to second baseman does not appear to be going well. He also left camp to play for Canada in the World Baseball Classic, which can't help his chances. So, the battle is probably down to Callaspo and Bloomquist, with Callaspo the superior hitter and Bloomquist the better fielder and runner. A platoon of some sort is the most likely ending.

The Royals top three in the rotation appear to be set with Meche, Greinke and Kyle Davies, who seemed to cash in on his promise with a brilliant September. The fourth spot will probably go to Horacio Ramirez because the Royals desperately want a lefty in the rotation; so desperately, they paid $1.8 million to Ramirez, even though he has not started more than 20 games in a season since 2005 (he started exactly 20 games in 2007, but his 7.16 ERA indicates they weren't particularly successful). So that means the fifth spot will probably be a battle between Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar. Bannister -- who is probably the most statistically savvy player in the game -- finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2007. But he really struggled in 2008 (9-16, 5.76 ERA) and some think his stuff is just not good enough to consistently get Major League hitters out. Stuff is not the problem for Hochevar, who was the first pick in the 2006 draft (a draft that included Tim Lincecum, Andrew Miller, Joba Chamberlain and Clayton Kershaw). But he has had trouble repeating his delivery and harnessing his stuff. Hochevar, because of his upside, is probably the favorite.

Kila Ka'ahuie was a fringe prospect at best before last season. But last season, in Class AA, AAA and the big leagues, he combined for 38 homers, 101 RBIs, 107 walks and only 69 strikeouts. The Royals were thrilled, but not entirely convinced. They traded for Jacobs in the offseason and they plan to send Ka'ahuie down to Triple A Omaha to test if he is for real. But they have watched him closely this spring and while his long swing has some a bit concerned, his strike-zone judgment -- which allows him to both draw walks and get himself into good hitting counts -- is the better than anyone on the Major League club.

The bullpen. With three dominant strikeout relievers -- Farnsworth, Cruz and Soria -- the Royals believe that the bullpen should get them out of jams and finish off opponents. "We want to shorten the game," Moore said.

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