At the start of Spring Training, the jury was still out in terms of whether Randy Rosario and/or Glenn Sparkman would make the Royals 26-man roster by Opening Day. While Rosario looked good in limited work with the Royals after being released by the Chicago Cubs in September it seemed like the new “Three Batter Rule” instituted by Major League Baseball would limit his effectiveness as a possible LOOGY (Left-handed only guy) out of the pen. In addition to the new rule, and the presence of Tim Hill as the Royals’ primary left-handed reliever, it seemed like Rosario, who was out of Minor League options, would be a casualty from the Royals’ 40-man roster.
As for Sparkman, he still does have two minor league options, so the Royals have the option of sending him down to Omaha if they would like. That being said, he did pitch 136 innings a season ago and made 31 appearances. with the Royals. Furthermore, at nearly 28 years old, it doesn’t seem like Sparkman has much to prove or develop in Triple-A, so if he was sent down, it might have made more sense for Dayton Moore to DFA Sparkman so he could at least have a shot of pitching for a Major League club instead of a Pacific Coast League one.
However, while neither will probably be put in a major role this year (or at least not yet anyways), both Rosario and Sparkman have been dealing this Spring, and are each making the case that they not only deserve spots on the 26-man roster, but could also have a positive impact on the Royals’ chances this year out of the pen. Let’s take a look at Rosario and Sparkman individually, and whether or not Royals fans will see more of them in Kansas City this season.
The Royals claimed the 25-year-old left-handed reliever off waivers after the Cubs released him in September to make room for top infield prospect Nico Hoerner. For the most part, the move was a low-risk, “flier” acquisition by Dayton Moore and the Royals: it gave the Royals another left-handed reliever for the last month of the season (as Richard Lovelady was out, and Gabe Speier was meh), and it gave them an opportunity to see if Rosario could provide some value to the bullpen in 2020 as well.
Rosario only saw limited work in Kansas City in 2019, as he made six appearances and pitched 3.2 innings total in 2019. However, he did not allow a run over the 3.2 innings, gave up only three hits and struck out three batters in his limited tenure as a Royal in 2019. While Rosario did not “wow” Royals fans, his solid limited work merited him to keep his spot on the 40-man roster going into Spring Training.
Fortunately for the Royals, Rosario has continued to pitch well as a Royals this Spring. Through five appearances and 5.1 innings of work, Rosario has allowed only one hit and has accumulated two strikeouts and three saves in Cactus League play. His ability to finish games strong this Spring has definitely given the Royals hope that Rosario could turn into another strong left-handed arm in the pen to complement Hill, who posted a 3.63 ERA and 3.00 K/BB ratio over 39.2 innings of work in 2019.
The 25-year-old won’t wow anyone with his stuff, as his fastball only averaged 93.8 MPH last year. However, he thrives mostly with his breaking stuff as a pitcher, as he threw his sinker 55.8 percent of the time, his slider 29.9 percent of the time, and his fastball only 13.8 percent of the time last season, according to Statcast data. This was a stark contrast to his 2018 in Chicago, where he threw his fastball only 44.2 percent of the time and his sinker only 15.6 percent of the time.
The sinker-ball heavy approach worked for Rosario in 2019, as he was more effective with this pitch repertoire than the one he sported in 2018 with the Cubs. He had a put away percentages of 26.3 percent with his sinker and 24.1 percent with his slider last season. Furthermore, relying on these two pitches more has also made his fastball more effective, as he had a put away percentage of 16.7 percent and whiff percentage of 30.8 percent, much higher than the 8.7 and 13.2 percentages he had in those categories, respectively, in 2018.
While Rosario has thrived this Spring, his advanced metrics from 2019 show that this Spring may not be a “flash in the pan” performance. Rosario has revamped his pitch selection from 2018, and instead of being a pitcher that relies on his heater, he has opted for a sinker-ball approach to induce more ground balls and topped contact, which he improved in from 2018 to 2019 (52 to 60 percent groundball rate; 39.9 to 51.1 topped percentage). While he may not match the strikeout numbers of Hill or other Royals relievers, Rosario is proving this Spring that he is a legitimate left-handed option in the pen who could really help induced groundball outs for the Royals in the middle-to-late innings in 2020.
As for Sparkman, it seemed like the Royals were unsure what role he would try to embrace in Surprise this Spring Training. Sparkman filled in at the end of the rotation, as Jorge Lopez struggled to be effective in the fifth starter’s spot for the Royals. However, while Sparkman pitched well in May (2.94 ERA), and decently in June (3.94 ERA), things went south for him once the Royals hit the dog days of the summer. His ERA was 6.78 in the second half (compared to 5.18 in the first; which isn’t good, but at least better), and was also amplified by a low K/BB ratio (1.96) and decline in strand rate (74.3 to 63 percent).
Hence, while the Royals were happy that Sparkman could at least grab the ball every five days and eat some innings on a good day, it seemed evident that Sparkman probably wasn’t a good fit for the Royals rotation in 2020, especially with prospects like Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar set to debut at some point next season.
Instead, the Royals have been using Sparkman out of the pen this Spring, and the results have been good so far in Surprise. Over four games and seven innings, Sparkman has struck out 11 batters and has allowed only five hits, one run, and zero walks in Cactus League play. Granted, he hasn’t exactly faced the fiercest competition, as his OppQual rating is 6.5, which translates to around Double-A opposition. However, it does seem like Sparkman is embracing a role out of the pen, and has been able to throw with more velocity in relief, according to the piece below from the Kansas City Star.
The big issue for Sparkman in 2020 will be how he prevents the long ball while on the mound. Last year, hitters tattooed Sparkman, as he gave a HR/FB ratio of 1.99, and he ranked 9th in the American League in home runs allowed. Sparkman doesn’t have overpowering stuff, as his fastball, which he threw 60.7 percent of the time, only averaged 93.4, and only had a whiff percentage of 14.7 in 2019, about two percent less from 2018, according to Statcast. Thus, he will need to find other ways on the mound to get guys out than simply just rearing back and letting it go.
One interesting metric to note will be if Sparkman can improve his groundball rate at all in 2020. He has posted decent groundball rates before, as it sat at 47.4 percent in 2018 before falling to 37.9 percent in 2019. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if Sparkman can develop one of his secondary pitches this Spring, whether it’s his changeup, curve ball, or slider, to generate more weak contact, as well as groundballs. If he can do that, it is possible that his numbers will improve, especially in a relief role where he will pitch less innings.
And if his numbers improve, it is plausible that Sparkman could find a valuable role as an important middle-to-long innings reliever out of the Royals bullpen this season.
While there is still a couple of weeks left of Cactus League play, Rosario and Sparkman may have earned their spots in the bullpen, barring a complete meltdown over the next couple of weeks. Currently, Fangraphs projects them to both make the 26-man roster, which wasn’t necessarily the case when the Royals broke camp in February.
If Rosario and Sparkman make the 26-man roster on Opening Day, the big question will be who is the odd men out? Who gets demoted or perhaps DFA’d to make sure both relievers have a spot on the roster? There are many candidates, but right now, two likely options may be Jesse Hahn and Rule 5 Draft Pick Stephen Woods, Jr.
The Royals re-signed Hahn to a meager deal this off-season, hoping that he would bounce back in a relief role after missing almost all of two seasons due to injury and arm issues. However, even though the Royals were willing to bring him back on a cheaper deal, he has not necessarily impressed this Spring. Currently, Hahn is posting an 11.25 ERA, giving up seven hits and five runs with two walks over four innings of Cactus League play.
As for Woods, the Royals’ Rule 5 pick from Tampa Bay, it probably is a long shot for him to make the team, as he hadn’t pitched above High-A prior to this year. There was hope that the Royals would ease him out of the pen, and hope that Woods could turn into a Brad Keller, a Royals Rule 5 Draft Pick success story two seasons ago. Unfortunately, Woods hasn’t experienced much consistency this Spring, as he has given up three runs, two hits and five walks over 3.2 innings pitched this Spring. Add that with an ankle injury that may keep him on the shelf for a bit, and it’s unlikely that Woods will get enough of a look for the Royals to feel confident about keeping him on the active roster (which sucks because if he doesn’t make the 26-man roster, the Royals will have to give him back to the Rays, where he played last year).
There is still time for Hahn and Woods to make an impression this Spring in order to convince Royals brass that they should have a spot on Opening Day. But right now, when it comes to helping this team in terms of competitiveness, especially right away, Rosario and Sparkman are better and more valuable options out of the bullpen than Hahn and Woods. Rosario gives the Royals a left-handed groundball-inducing pitcher, while Sparkman may profile better over limited innings as a reliever rather than as a starter.
And unfortunately for Hahn and Woods, their value doesn’t match the profile of those two. They are long term projects, and right now, it’s hard to justify “risky fliers” when there are more sure and proven things available this Spring.
But who knows. There still are a lot of Royals Cactus League games to go.