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Kyle Farnsworth and the Royals: the ultimate spring training story


Of course, I love early spring training. Love spring training for the same reasons that everyone loves it. Love how every team has hope again. Love watching the players do drills in the sun -- reminds you that winter is almost over. Love all the corny stuff -- the green grass, the crack of the bat, the baseball chatter, infield practice, the first sign of outfielders unwinding their arms, pitchers working on covering first, and on and on and on.

Most of all, I love the stories. This is the time of year for stories. The aging veteran is trying to squeeze one more year out of his tired body -- he looks better than he has looked in years! The phenom is looking better than the manager ever dreamed -- he might actually make the club! This legend is visiting camp -- all the kids ask him questions! The stories rarely pan out, of course. The wrinkles in the aging veteran's face tend to show up in late March. The phenom starts striking out as the curveballs tighten up. The legend goes back to his home and the kids return to their same habits. The spring training stories are usually illusions. But like many illusions. they're a lot of fun.

My favorite spring training story so far comes from Surprise, Ariz. -- the best name ever for a spring training home -- where according to my good friend Bob Dutton, the Kansas City Royals look serious about trying to make Kyle Farnsworth a starter.

I like this story so much because it has a little bit of everything that a spring training story needs. Unrealistic hope. Aging veteran. A pitcher with a new pitch. I like this story so much because it's thisclose to desperation. But in February, desperation can feel a lot like promise. In February, the unreal can feel real. In February, you are still in the middle of the dream... and you don't know that you're dreaming.

Kyle Farnsworth, who turns 34 in April, has been one of the crazier baseball stories. He was a non-prospect -- he was drafted in the 47th round by the Chicago Cubs in 1994. And to be honest, he did not pitch especially well in the minor leagues. In 1998 he had a good half-season in Double-A (8-2, 2.77 ERA, 73 K's, 21 walks) but then got smacked around in Triple A. The Cubs saw that he had a great arm. His fastball could hit the high 90s, even 100 mph. When you can throw 100 mph, people will look past so-so numbers. People will see great things in you. This has been the Kyle Farnsworth Story.

The Cubs gave him 21 starts in 1999, and like most 23-year-old pitchers with great arms, he was overmatched. He did throw a two-hit shutout against the Dodgers. But his zippy fastball went awfully straight -- he could not strike out anybody then -- and he had no second pitch. The next year, Farnsworth made only five starts, the club lost four of them, he punched up an 8.13 ERA and everyone decided that it might be for the best if he went to the bullpen, where he could throw his fastball as hard as he wanted.

That's where Farnsworth has been for 10 years, throwing serious gas out of bullpens across America. For a while, there was a fun, life-is-a-box-of-chocolates quality to Farnsworth's career. You never knew what you were gonna get. In 2001, for Chicago, he struck out 107 in 82 innings and the league hit .213 off him. He was especially good in high-leverage situations -- the most important situations -- when the league hit a Tony Pena Jr.-like .176/.207/.236 against him. He looked for all the world like a potentially dominant closer of the future.

The very next year, in Chicago, Farnsworth went 4-6 with a 7.33 ERA, and in those high-leverage situations the league hit .309/.415/.603. Though, to be fair, they hit Farnsworth at all levels of leverage in 2002.

So it went. He was pretty good in 2003, lousy in 2004, almost unhittable for two teams in 2005 -- he had a 28-game stretch where he allowed a total of one run -- and mediocre in 2006. Along the way, Farnsworth would do a few looney-bird things, like the time he body-slammed Kansas City's Jeremy Affeldt for reasons that only made sense to him (after the game he would admit that he mistook Affeldt for someone else, though he never revealed who he was hoping to body slam) or the time he went on the disabled list after kicking an electric fan. He was exactly what he was -- a hard-throwing reliever with a fastball that would straighten out in the biggest moments, shaky control and a hair-trigger temper that was both intimidating and self-destructive, depending on the moment. He threw hard enough that he always had suitors. And he had enough problems that marriage never seemed viable.

I, like most of the civilized world, was entirely baffled when the Royals signed Farnsworth to a two-year, $9.25 million deal before the 2009 season. By the time the Royals signed Farnsworth, he had lost his spontaneity -- he was about to be 33 years old, and he had been decidedly blah for three years. These are the worst kinds of signings, I think: the "name" signing, when the "name" isn't much good in the first place. I think that's why I was so frustrated by this Royals off-season... because the signings of Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel and Jason Kendall are backward-looking -- and they look back to a past that wasn't all that glorious to begin with.

Still, Dayton Moore was not the first general manager seduced by an arm that can still hurl fastballs in the high 90s. And Farnsworth gave Moore and the Royals exactly what they paid for -- no false advertising here. In low-leverage situations, the league hit .200/.241/.247 against him. He would look so good when it did not matter that Moore would find himself struggling to find the words for how good it made him feel.

In high-leverage situations, the league hit .548/.605/.774 against Kyle Farnsworth.

I'll repeat that: In high-leverage situations, the league hit .548/.605/.774 against Kyle Farnsworth.

I'm going to repeat that one more time: In high-leverage situations -- those situations where the game was on the line -- the league hit .548 against Kyle Farnsworth. They got on base 60.5 percent of the time. They slugged .774. Now, this was only 39 plate appearances. This was a small sample size. This was undoubtedly due in part to bad luck and bad mojo. But it's so preposterous that you can't just say it once.

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So what do the Royals do now? Signing Farnsworth was clearly one of those winter meetings panic moves -- when the Royals brain trust sat in a closed room in Las Vegas and freaked out because their bullpen needed a power arm*.

This is the sort of thing that baseball types freak out about in the off-season.

*The Royals needed a power arm in the bullpen because they had traded away two power arms -- Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez -- in ill-conceived moves to acquire Coco Crisp (who got hurt) and Mike Jacobs (who was inexplicably allowed to face lefty pitchers).

And so, undoubtedly, they talked about it and talked about it and talked about it until it somehow seemed to make sense. My own view of what followed I would put in free verse. I call it:

How Kyle Farnsworth Makes Sense

What power arms are out there?What power arms?Gotta have a power armNeed a power armCan't live without a power arm

Hey, Kyle Farnsworth's out there.What do you think about Kyle's styleHe throws hardBut he puts up mediocre numbersBut he throws hard

Would he come here?Check with his peopleSee what they wantThey say he might come hereFor the right deal

What's the right deal for Kyle?He's not really that good.He throws hardBut he puts up mediocre numbersBut he throws hard

He wants a two-year dealHe wants more than nine milSeems like a lot.But, for that, he will come here!Kyle Farnsworth will come here!

We need a power armKyle Farnsworth is a power armHe will come here!All we have to do is write a checkWrite the check

Yes, in the chill of the moment, in the excitement of the chase, the Royals signed Farnsworth, and they talked a lot about his great arm, and they did not talk at all about his mediocre numbers, and they pitched him in the bullpen for a year and lost the requisite number of games that come with such decisions. And then they realized that they had him for A SECOND YEAR. Who the hell signed this deal anyway?

And now, they're trying to make Farnsworth into a starter. Like I say, it's the perfect spring training story. Farnsworth comes into camp with a brand new change-up -- and the Royals are AMAZED by how advanced that change-up looks. "I couldn't believe it," pitching coach Bob McClure says. Farnsworth comes into camp enthused -- he LOVES the opportunity to start again for the first time in 10 years. And the Royals talk on and on about how this makes perfect sense. Farnsworth still has the great arm! He might be reborn as a starter!

Of course, it has about a 1.3% chance of working -- that's on the high end (and also depends on what you mean by "working.") Kyle Farnsworth will be a 34-year-old pitcher with a career 98 ERA+ and a strong tendency to not get people out when he's throwing 98 mph -- hard to see how he's going to get people out throwing 92.

But it's February. It's spring training. It's that time to hope for the impossible. And, so, I love this story. Can Kyle Farnsworth become a successful starter? Hey, crazier things have happened! Though, I must admit, none immediately come to mind.