Can Speier and Zimmer clean things up and contribute to the Royals bullpen?

With Spring Training suspended, and Opening Day in question, the Royals and Dayton Moore have for the most part stood pat. However, in their first roster move since Spring Training play stopped nearly a week ago, the Royals made this announcement:

The move to option Kelvin Gutierrez is not a surprise. Gutierrez can not play any positions other than third, and as of now, Maikel Franco seems entrenched in the third base position. However, if Gutierrez can prove that he is fully recovered from his toe injury a year ago, and showcase some power in Omaha, it would not be surprising to see him back up on the Royals roster at some point in 2020, especially with Cheslor Cuthbert no longer around.

As for the Speier and Zimmer moves, those aren’t necessarily surprising either. Speier still has all of his minor league options remaining, and at 24-years-old, still has time to develop in the Pacific Coast League. As for Zimmer, he was given a fourth minor league option due to a long history of injury, and it was predictable that the Royals would exercise that option in order for him to develop some things, especially since he didn’t exactly “light it up” in his big league debut a season ago.

That being said, can both these pitchers, who finally broke into the Majors last season with the Royals, clean things up in the minors and come back and contribute to the Royals bullpen? Or are these pitchers “Four-A” types, who probably won’t be able to do much in Kansas City, let alone the Major League level?

Let’s take a look at the profiles of both Royals pitchers, who are currently still on the 40-man roster.

Speier was a low-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox in the 2013 Draft, as he was selected in the 19th round. Speier in many ways should remind some Royals fans of Tim Collins: he’s not really big, he’s a lefty, and he’s really only been a reliever as a professional. Of the 213 appearances Speier has made in almost seven seasons in the Minors, he has only started 12 games, which shows that his value as a pitcher has always been limited as the professional level.

Speier has popularly become trade fodder over his professional career, as he has played for four organizations over his seven years of pro ball: the Red Sox, the Tigers, the Diamondbacks, and finally, the Royals. Speier is the quintessential “player-to-be-named-later”: he’s a decent prospect with some ability and future to play at the Major League level, but he’s not going to turn any fans’ heads when it comes to prospect profile. Hence, it is no surprise that three other clubs parted ways with him before he eventually found his way to Kansas City.

Since Speier has come to Kansas City though, he has developed a bit as a reliever, and his future certainly looks more bright now than it did when he was in previous organizations. Last season, according to Fangraphs, Speier improved his K/9 rates, posting an 11.28 K/9 in 28 innings in Northwest Arkansas (Double-A) and a 10.13 K/9 in Omaha, which would be both career highs in the Minors. Even at the Major League level, in his limited September stint when the roster expanded, Speier posted a good K/9 rate at 12.27. Thus, even though he doesn’t have intimidating size, the 24-year-old left-handed pitcher out of Santa Barbara proved that he has swing and miss stuff (hitters posted an 11.1 swinging strike percentage against him last year a the Major League level).

Another promising development from Speier is that he stabilized his command a bit the past two seasons, especially as a Royals-organization pitcher. In 2018 with Northwest Arkansas, he posted a K/BB ratio of 2.20, and he followed that improvement in 2018 to 2019 Double-A with ease, posting a 3.11 K/BB ratio in his second stint with the Naturals. When the Storm Chasers called him up, he continued to demonstrate superb control and command, posting a 2.65 K/BB ratio in the PCL. Comparatively speaking, in 2016 and 2017 with the Diamondbacks, he failed to posted a K/BB ratio of 2 or above in High-A and Double-A ball, so the progress he showed with the Royals is a promising sign that he’s honing his approach and command for the good as a professional pitcher.

That being said, while the K/9 and K/BB ratios look good, the ERA and FIP numbers don’t look quite as impressive as he posted a 5.63 ERA and 6.15 FIP in Omaha, and a 7.63 ERA and 6.49 FIP in Kansas City. The big issue with Speier is his propensity to give up a lot of flyballs, which often did damage against him at both levels (Triple-A and MLB) a season ago. He only had a GB rate of 34.8 percent in Triple-A over 40 innings a season ago, and it was even worse in Kansas City at 25 percent. Considering his HR/FB percentages were 20 percent in Omaha and 18.2 percent in Kansas City a season ago, it will be important for Speier to develop ways to keep the ball out of the air, especially as he starts the year in the PCL, which can be a hitter’s paradise.

The fourth option-year given to Zimmer may be a blessing or a curse for this upcoming season. While Zimmer will be able to work on some things at the minor league level, important considering his history of injury, it kind of seems like time is running out on Zimmer as a pitcher. He’s not exactly young at 28 years old, and it wasn’t until last season that Zimmer finally made his Major League debut.

And unfortunately, that debut was a mixed bag. Yes, it was nice to see a former top draft pick and prospect like Zimmer finally pitch in KC after dealing with so much injury in the minors (it was very similar to finally seeing Bubba Starling debut). Yes, he still demonstrated some fireball stuff (he averaged 96.7 MPH on his fastball, according to Fangraphs). But unfortunately, while there was some promise, Zimmer’s numbers didn’t exactly impress: he posted a 10.80 ERA, 5.78 FIP, and 0.95 K/BB ratio, which are all pretty mediocre metrics (and that is putting it nicely).

While Zimmer has great stuff, his ability to control and command it is almost Rick Vaughn-esque level: even in Omaha last year, he only posted a 1.58 K/BB ratio, and this Spring, it was only 1.00 as well. Granted, Zimmer missed all of 2018 due to rehabilitation, so it was understandable that Zimmer had a hard time finding the strike zone after missing so much time. After all, before he was injured in 2017, he had posted solid K/BB ratios before, so the potential is there for him to do so at the Major League level, just based on his pitching history.

However, Zimmer needs to prove that he can be a more complete pitcher, especially with his secondary pitches. While his fastball velocity ranks in the 92nd percentile according to Baseball Savant, it was also hit hard at the Major League level, as batters posted an expected WOBA of .448 against the pitch in 2019. Hitters also mashed his curve (.434 XWOBA) and changeup (.471 XWOBA), but had a harder time against his slider (.182 XWOBA). Thus, Zimmer will have to develop his pitch repertoire and the effectiveness of his secondary pitches in Omaha this season if he wants to prove he can be a long-term option in the Royals bullpen anytime soon.

At this point, it’s hard to see if Speier or Zimmer will have a shot to keep roles in the Royals bullpen in the future. The eventual addition of Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland, who had solid Springs, will make it tough for these two to see call-ups this year, barring injury of course. Granted, Speier’s in a bit of an advantage as this 40-man roster lacks depth with left-handed pitchers, and Tim Hill’s future in Kansas City has been in question this Spring (he has been the subject of a lot of trade rumors, including those with the Yankees and Athletics). Thus, it seems likely that Speier will get the call up sooner than Zimmer, even though skill-wise they may offer the same ability and production to the Royals bullpen.

That is not to say that neither pitcher can improve in Omaha. Development is always key, and the Royals have a history of helping improve pitchers in the minors, especially relievers. However, the PCL is not exactly a pitcher-friendly league by any means, and considering both pitchers’ struggles with contact and fly balls, the problems they struggled through last year may only amplify with the Storm Chasers, further burying their chances of breaking in with the Royals bullpen either this year or beyond. That being said, these are two pitchers with strikeout-ability and stuff, and if they can get their command in check, they could be valuable relievers, especially since they offer some upside and some team control for at least the next couple of seasons.

Whenever the Minor League season starts, these two will be worth watching in Omaha. If they struggle though, it is likely that both will be playing for new organizations the following Spring. That’s how critical this season is for the both of them…

Whenever that is…of course. Who knows how long this CO-VID 19 crisis will last.

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