On February 11th, Royals pitchers and catchers finally reported to Surprise, Arizona for Spring Training. Keeping with the spirit of focusing on pitchers, I thought it would be interesting to focus on four Royals pitchers who are out of “minor league” options that would be worth watching in Spring Training this year.
A player on the 40-man roster who is out of Minor League options tends to be in an interesting dilemma: basically, they have to stay on the 26-man roster, or they are at risk of being designated for assignment, which could result in them being picked up by another club. Often times, these “out-of-options” players are Four-A types, meaning that that are players who are probably too good for the Pacific Coast League, but maybe not good enough to keep a spot on the active 26-man roster.
This spring, the Royals will have four pitchers on the 40-man roster who will need to make the active 26-man roster this Spring, or else they will be designated for assignment. While it is possible they could return to the club (i.e. not claimed on waivers by another team), and returned to the minors (this happened to Cheslor Cuthbert a year ago), often times these players find another organization in the end. While these four pitchers have some potential, they have certainly had their share of struggles recently, and it may be a challenge for them to make the active roster, especially with the amount of interesting prospects (i.e. Brady Singer) and free-agent pickups (Trevor Rosenthal, Greg Holland, etc.) waiting in the wings, ready to take their spots on the 40-man.
Thus, here are the four pitchers whom Royals fans should be paying close attention to this spring as they fight for a spot on the 26-man roster to keep their Royals and perhaps Major League dreams alive in 2020.
Jorge Lopez, RHP (6.33 ERA, 5.55 FIP, -0.2 WAR in 2019)
One of the two prospects acquired in the Mike Moustakas deal (the other being outfielder Brett Phillips), Lopez has been a polarizing figure in the Kansas City rotation. Lopez has solid stuff overall, and he has showed on occasion that he could be a dependable arm in the rotation, as his near no-hitter in 2018 had Royals fans salivating that he could eventually develop into a top-of-the rotation arm for the Royals for years to come. After all, Lopez was a highly regarded pitching prospect who struggled with consistency in the Brewers system, and there was some thought that when he came over in 2018 to the Royals, the change of scenery would do him good and perhaps give him the opportunity he needed to succeed.
Unfortunately, 2019 was a bit of a disaster for the 27-year-old Puerto Rican-born pitcher. While Lopez made 18 starts and threw over 123 innings for the Royals in 2019, he posted a 6.33 ERA and accumulated a minus-0.2 WAR, not exactly metrics that give Royals fans comfort that Lopez can be a long-term option for the Royals pitching staff. Despite Lopez’s solid 2.60 K/BB ratio and a fastball that averages near 95 MPH, his propensity to give up the long ball was his undoing last year. Lopez’s 20.6 HR/FB percentage was the fourth-worst mark on the team, behind only Jacob Barnes, Mike Montgomery, and Heath Fillmyer (only Montgomery remains on the 40-man roster). While Lopez can flash decent command, his tendency to throw mistakes on the mound hurt him too often last year to convince Royals management that he can be a dependable option in the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation long term.
It seems like the Royals will be moving Lopez to the bullpen, hoping that the lessened workload and more defined role will help him gain the confidence he needs to be a valuable pitcher for this organization. Though the fifth spot is unsettled, it seems unlikely that Lopez will compete for the vacancy unless something drastic happens (i.e. injuries to other options). Lopez certainly has the stuff, and his fastball-curve ball combo could be better utilized in a relief role than as a starter. But he will need to prove this spring he deserves a spot in the bullpen, which seems a bit crowded with closer Ian Kennedy, and set up men Scott Barlow, Tim Hill and Kevin McCarthy slated for the 7th and 8th innings (Hill being the lefty-specialist, most likely).
If Lopez struggles, and the Royals designate him for assignment after Spring Training, it is unlikely that Lopez will return to the Royals organization. Considering his former top prospect status, it is likely that another club will make a waiver claim on him if he is available and give him another chance.
Jesse Hahn, RHP (13.50 ERA, 6.86 FIP, -0.1 WAR in 2019)
Hahn has always been seen as somewhat of a “project” by the Royals brass ever since he was acquired prior to the 2018 season with Fillmyer from Oakland in a deal that sent Brandon Moss to the A’s. Hahn has constantly dealt with injuries over the past two seasons in Kansas City, as he has only pitched a total of 4.2 innings with the Royals since 2018, which all came at the end of last year in September. Considering the Royals expected to get a guy who could solidify the end of the rotation when they acquired him from the A’s prior to 2018, it is safe to say that Hahn has been a disappointment so far in Kansas City.
Last year, Hahn’s numbers looked pretty bad, as a 13.50 ERA and 11.57 BB/9 don’t look good to even the average baseball fan. However, one has to remember that those numbers were only over 4.2 innings, and that his stint in Kansas City should be seen more as a “rehab” assignment rather than anything evaluative. The fact that Hahn was still hitting 95 plus on his fastball consistently, and still striking out 13.5 per nine innings demonstrates that at the very least, Hahn still has some swing and miss stuff left in the tank at 30 years old.
Much like Lopez, it seems like the Royals will plan to use Hahn out of the bullpen this Spring. Unlike Lopez however, Hahn has little to no experience as a reliever, as he has only pitched three times in relief in his career prior to last year. However, considering his arm issues and injury history, it seems unlikely that Hahn will return to the rotation, and the Royals may hope that he could bounce back as a “starter turned reliever” in the Ian Kennedy-mold, who resurrected his career as the Royals’ closer in 2019.
Now, Hahn probably is not going to have that kind of career resurrection like Kennedy in 2020. However, Hahn’s swinging strike percentage generated was 12.6 percent a year ago, and his contact rate was under 70 percent, all career bests for the right-hander. While it will be interesting to see if these metrics carry over a larger sample size, it would not be surprising to see Hahn thrive in this new role, especially since there seems to be a lot of opportunity in middle relief once you get past the regular relievers of Kennedy, Barlow, Hill, and maybe McCarthy (and even then, he’s not much of a sure thing).
It was surprising to see the Royals bring Hahn back, as he was eligible for arbitration this winter, and the Royals released him, only to bring him back on a more team-friendly deal. However, if Hahn struggles with his command in his first healthy spring in almost two years (he still gave up some big mistakes on the mound last year, which is why his ERA is so bad), it would not be surprising to see the Royals release him again…only this time for good.
Randy Rosario, LHP, (4.40 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 0.1 WAR in 2019)
Rosario was claimed off of waivers by the Royals after the Cubs released him, and much like another former Cub turned Royal in 2019 (the other being Mike Montgomery), he held up okay in Kansas City. Rosario didn’t pitch much, as he only threw 3.2 innings and made six appearances with the Royals after being acquired in mid-September. However, there is a dearth of left-handed relievers available for the Royals on the 40-man roster, and Rosario kept his spot this off-season after the Royals failed to sign any left-handed free agent relievers this Winter.
As of now, Fangraphs projects that Rosario will be the only other left-handed reliever on this Royals 26-man roster on Opening Day, with the other being Hill, who had a breakout of sorts in the second half a year ago. While Hill had some middling success against both righties and lefties in 2019, Rosario was strictly a LOOGY, as left-handed hitters only hit .150 with a .262 wOBA against him last year, while right-handed hitters correspondingly hit .316 with a .348 wOBA. Granted this was only over a 14 inning sample a year ago, but his career numbers project the same picture. Against left-handed hitters, Rosario is more than adequate: LHH have hit only .172 with a .270 wOBA over 27.1 innings of work at the Major League level, while RHH have batted .338 with a .369 wOBA over 36.1 innings.
So Rosario fills a LOOGY role in KC, which is not exactly a bad thing to have…if the LOOGY is incredibly effective. After all, Javier Lopez made a career with the San Francisco Giants in such a role during the 2010’s. But is Rosario worth a spot in the bullpen if he can only be effective against one kind of hitter? And furthermore, how really effective is he? Yes, the left-handed hitters are not hitting great against him, and he does strike out lefties at a higher rate (21.7 percent) than righties (12.8 percent), but he also does walk them more (11.3 to 8.7, LH to RH, respectively) and gives up the long ball more as well (1.33 to 0.99 HR/9). So, it is possible that in a larger sample this spring, Rosario gets batted around on both sides of the plate, which makes him a less attractive asset in the bullpen going into 2020.
Rosario is a classic low-risk waiver pick up that Moore is hoping can turn into more this Spring. However, it is surprising that he has lasted this long. Hopefully, Richard Lovelady, who is younger, has more years of club control, and honestly, a better overall pitcher, will get a more extended shot this Spring and make the active roster, which most likely would come at the expense of Rosario.
Kyle Zimmer, RHP (10.80 ERA, 5.78 FIP, -0.1 WAR in 2019)
Finally, the former first round pick and Baseball America Top Royals prospect made it to the show a season ago. It wasn’t easy: constant injury issues dogged Zimmer ever since he was drafted No. 5 overall by the Royals in 2012. Once thought as a potential No. 1 starter for the Royals when drafted, Zimmer broke into the Majors out of the pen, and considering his wildness as well as his injury issues, it seems likely that will be his role with the Royals as long as he is with the club.
Zimmer pitched 18 innings over 15 appearances with the Royals in 2019 and unfortunately for Royals fans the numbers are not pretty. Zimmer not only walked 9.33 per nine innings in limited relief duty, but he also posted an awful 0.95 K/BB ratio to boot (anything under 2 is sub-par…under 1 is atrocious). While his fastball was one of the fastest on the team (it averaged 96.7 MPH a year ago), it was also incredibly straight and ineffective, as hitters still hit .385 with a .500 slugging percentage against that particular pitch in 2019. Considering he threw it about 61 percent of the time, it is not a good sign that Zimmer’s most used pitch is one that hitters routinely knocked the crap out of at the plate.
However, much like Hahn, Zimmer’s debut has to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, much like Hahn, Zimmer didn’t pitch in 2018, and he only made three appearances in the minors in 2016 due to injury as well. The fact that Zimmer isn’t out of baseball all together is a minor miracle. So, the Royals as of now are just looking for him to build confidence and feel at the Major League level, and as of now, 18 innings (in mostly low leverage situations), is still not enough of a sample size to make a definitive decision on Zimmer’s future in Kansas City.
Zimmer will probably be the most intriguing reliever on the mound this Spring for the Royals. He throws gas and lots of it, and unfortunately for him and Royals fans, he doesn’t always know where it’s going to go. Zimmer is a real life Rick Vaughn or Nuke Laloosh, only he’s a reliever, not a starter like those two Hollywood counterparts. That being said, while Zimmer may never live up to the “frontline” starter projections prospect experts had for him when he was drafted, he still can be a solid middle reliever at the Major League level. His stuff is that good and dominant, but he just has to adjust his command and pitch repertoire a bit, which undoubtedly will occur this Spring.
There is a lot of “boom or bust” in Zimmer’s projection, and I think it will always be like that for him gong forward due to his wildness. This Spring should give Royals fans an idea of whether 2020 for Zimmer will be a “boom”, which will continue to help him resurrect a career that seemed DOA two seasons ago, or if it will be a “bust” which probably means him finding the a minor league team at the start of 2020…only this time with an organization that is NOT the Royals.