The Royals rotation this season, even though it has not started yet, is far from a settled situation. The biggest issue seems to be centered on the fifth spot in the rotation, as the Royals have not committed that rotation spot to anyone as of just yet. While Jorge Lopez and Glenn Sparkman are expected to be back and on the active 26-man roster, it would benefit them more if they could use both of those pitchers in relief roles, especially considering they struggled in the 5th spot in 2019.
General manager Dayton Moore has been open to the media and Royals fans that Brady Singer could earn the spot with a strong Spring, and that they wouldn’t let “service time” be an issue (meaning, they wouldn’t care if his service time clock started, which means he would be eligible for arbitration sooner). That being said, while Singer was serviceable in Surprise, it seems like he may not be quite ready for the Major League rotation yet, especially in a season that will be shortened like this year.
And thus, the Royals are not left with a lot of great options. The Royals could go with an “Opener” in a fashion of the Tampa Bay Rays, and they do have some fireballers (Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer) on the 40-man who had experience with that role in Omaha a season ago. Or, they could also take a chance on the newly acquired Chance Adams in a similar role, especially since it seems that he may not have the ability to be a starter at the Major League level, nor a late-inning reliever either. And lastly, Rule 5 pick Stephen Woods, Jr. has been floated as a possible option, though his lack of experience beyond High-A, and command and injury issues this Spring may warrant him starting out in the pen initially if he makes the active roster when the 2020 season begins.
That being said, one person who hasn’t really been brought up as a serious option is Foster Griffin, a 24-year-old lefty who pitched last season in Omaha and was essentially the No. 1 starter with the Storm Chasers. Though Griffin made the 40-man this Spring (he wasn’t on it last year), it seems like the Royals and prospect experts are down on Griffin’s upside as a pitcher in Kansas City. After all, Griffin profiles similarly to fellow left-handed pitcher Eric Skoglund, who was eventually DFA’s to make room for Trevor Rosenthal on the 40-man. However, while they have similarities, there are some differences between Griffin and Skoglund, and it will be interesting to see if Griffin will get his shot with the Royals in either 2020 or early 2021.
As a prospect, there’s no question that Griffin has been a depreciating asset the past few seasons. A former first-round pick by the Royals in the 2014 Draft (the Royals had two picks and selected Brandon Finnegan, a more polished pitcher out of TCU first, and the Florida prep pitcher second), Griffin was rated as high as No. 9 in the Royals system in 2018 by Baseball America, according to their annual Prospect Handbook. However, Griffin proved to be far too hittable in Northwest Arkansas, as he gave up 197 hits in a 152 innings of work, which produced a hits per nine of 11.6. Add that with a 5.13 ERA and 1.55 WHIP, and it’s not surprising that Griffin fell to No. 30 in the Royals system in the BA Prospect Handbook the following season. However, if there was anything positive to be gleaned from his Texas League numbers, his K/BB ratio (2.93) did perhaps give hope that Griffin could see some luck and better production if the BABIP regressed a bit the following season (.357 in 2018).
The BABIP did regress in the Pacific Coast League in 2019, but unfortunately, a lot of the metrics didn’t change. Griffin still posted a plus-5 ERA (5.23) and a WHIP over 1.50 (1.52 to be exact). And this was with a BABIP of .295, which is pretty close to league average. So what was the difference? The strong command that Griffin had been known for in previous years disappeared somewhat, as his K/BB ratio dropped to 1.73, highlighted by a walk rate that increased from 2.4 in 2018 to 4.4 in 2019. While Griffin’s strikeout rate did improve (6.9 to 7.6), the regression in command, a plus tool that drove his ranking as a prospect, was disappointing for Royals fans, especially considering we had been burned on Skoglund, who was known for his command tool as well, but failed to transition it to Kansas City.
Griffin did post a good Winter League campaign in the Dominican Winter League with the Licey Tigers, going 1-2 with a 2.13 ERA over 23.1 innings of work and 6 appearances, which included 5 starts. However, the most impressive part of his short Dominican stint was the improvement in command, as he posted a 5.17 K/BB ratio, highlighted by a strikeout rate of 12.0 per nine. And that command further carried to Spring Training, as he posted a K/BB ratio of 4.00 over 5.2 innings of work, which added some silver lining to his 7.94 ERA in Cactus League play.
The issue with Griffin is will his lack of a quality fastball help him stick in the KC rotation, even as a No. 5 starter? Fangraphs rated his fastball as a 40 on the 20-80 scouting scale, with it sitting in the 87-90 MPH range, not exactly impressive velocity for a starting pitcher. Here’s is what Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs said about Griffin, whom he rated the 35th best prospect in the Royals system:
There have been stretches during Griffin’s pro career when either his command or velocity have slipped a tad, and he’s been knocked around. When both are fine, he’s a good pitchability lefty who feeds hitters a steady diet of secondary pitches. Often, this type of hurler becomes Tommy Milone, but Griffin’s curveball is a little better than that (though Milone has a good cutter); more often, this type of pitcher is used in a multi-inning relief role after a power pitcher has opened the game.No 35: Foster Griffin by Eric Longenhagen; “Top 43 Royals Prospects”, Fangraphs.com
In many ways, while Griffin may get a lot of comparisons to Skoglund, I feel like he compares more to Mike Montgomery, a former top Royals prospect who bounced around with the Mariners and Cubs before finding himself back to Kansas City last year. Much like Griffin, Montgomery does not rely on his fastball, but rather his curve ball an changeup for success. And by doing so, he has generated hitters to hit into more groundballs, which was his keys to success in Chicago, especially during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Skoglund on the other hand was always more of a fastball-reliant pitcher with average secondary pitches, which is why things blew up for him when his velocity went down. And he also allowed a lot more flyballs as a pitcher in comparison to Griffin, which further shows why the Griffin-Skoglund comparison may be unfair to Griffin. Skoglund a GB/FB rate above 1.18 after Double-A, including sub-1 marks in three tours in Omaha from 2017-2019. Griffin has posted 1.35, 1.05, and 1.30 marks over the same time span. Thus, as Griffin continues to develop and focus more on his secondary pitches, and less on his fastball, it’s possible that he could find some success like Montgomery as a swing man out of the Royals bullpen in the next couple of seasons. And when you see his highlights below, you can see Griffin does have more shades of Monty than he does of Skoglund on the mound.
It will be curious to see what Moore and manager Mike Matheny do with Griffin when he eventually comes to KC. As of now, they probably look at him as a starter, and it’s understandable considering he’s been one his entire professional career. And while he’s not great, he probably wouldn’t be much worse than a Lopez or Sparkman, and he may be just as effective down the road as a starter in the future as Montgomery was in the Royals rotation in 2019 (we will see if Monty improves or regresses in 2020). However, Griffin’s window as a starter in Kansas City is small, with this year really being the only shot to prove himself, especially with Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic most likely joining the rotation at various points within the next couple of seasons. If Griffin doesn’t get the shot now…well, it’s going to be harder for him to get one when those four phenoms come up to Kansas City.
That being said, if Griffin continues to work on his secondary stuff and his groundball inducing approach, then it isn’t out of the question to see him develop as an effective middle-innings guy with the Royals. He could either be a fireman, limiting the damage during bad innings, or perhaps a six-seventh inning setup man, much like Montgomery was in Chicago. Yes, it’s probably not what the Royals imagined when they drafted him in the first round, but if Griffin can give that kind of multiple-innings value in the middle of games, then he can have a long future in Kansas City, especially since he is only 24 years old and hasn’t even debuted at the Major League level just yet.
Of course, he needs that opportunity, and it may be tough for Griffin to seize that with a shortened season and the Minor League season in question. That being said, it will be interesting to see if the Royals will think creatively not just with Griffin, but their bullpen in general. Because if they do try to go this “2016-2017 Monty” role with Griffin in 2020 or 2021, then it could produce some long-term rewards, not just for the Royals bullpen, but Griffin and his Major League future as well.