Earlier this week, when I heard that the Royals had signed Jeff Suppan to a minor league deal, I was hoping that the next line of the story would have something to do with a Mike Sweeney-type arrangement for him to retire as a Royal. It was not to be though, and it appears that Soup is not quite ready to shelve the rosin bag. It was nine years ago that the righty last wore a Kansas City Royals uniform. He launched his career in KC and has had a long & winding journey since then.
There’s not a lot of risk in this deal from the Royals’ standpoint. You pick up a veteran guy who is not occupying a spot on your MLB roster, but can be given an opportunity to show if he has anything left in his arm.
The Royals had an eye on Suppan since he was released by the Cardinals at the end of last season. However, the Giants beat them to the punch, signing Suppan to a minor league deal in January. The World Champs didn’t necessarily need another Right-handed starter, but picked him up as more of an insurance policy in case one of their starters was injured during spring training. Royals scouts watched Suppan pitch two different times – “We saw him throw real good once, and the other time he was so-so,” GM Dayton Moore said. In six outings, Suppan put up a 5.50 ERA and he was released by San Francisco on March 29th.
Less than a week later, the Royals made their move.
The 36 year-old packed his bags & looked for Omaha on the map.
Suppan was drafted in 1993 by the Boston Red Sox & burned through the minor leagues on the way to his debut in July of ’95 against the…Royals. He was saddled with the loss that day, partly due to a home run by Royals leadoff hitter Keith Lockhart.
After 39 appearances, a 9-6 record, and an ERA over 6, the Red Sox gave Suppan up as part of the 1997 Expansion Draft. Soup was selected third overall, by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He struggled, going 1-7 with a 6.68 ERA in 13 starts. The Royals picked him up in September.
Suppan finished the year in KC, and when 1999 rolled around, the righty finally found his groove. Well, as much of a groove that you could find on a team that loses 97 games. Jeff led the team in innings pitched and wins that year. It was enough to earn him the nod on Opening Day in 2000 in Toronto. He did not get a decision, but the Blue Jays won the game in the bottom of the 9th. During that season, the team lost 85 games & Suppan once again led the pitching staff, making 35 starts and having a record of 10-9.
He started on Opening Day again in 2001, but pitched poorly as the Yankees beat the Royals. Again, though, Suppan led the pitching staff through another tough season where they lost 97 games. He won 10 games for the third straight year, but lost 14 of his 34 starts. In 2002, he became only the third Royals pitcher to start three consecutive Opening Day games. Kevin Appier (’92-’97), Bud Black (’84-’86), and Dennis Leonard (’79-’80) were the others, and Gil Meche (’07-’09) has accomplished this feat since. 2002 was not as kind to Suppan though, and he would struggle through 33 starts, going 9-16 with a 5.32 ERA as the team lost 100 games for the first time in franchise history.
When the Royals grabbed Suppan in 1998, he was making $235,000. By now, his salary had increased to $4.15 million/year & the Royals were forced to make a decision. They stuck to their small marked guns and decided that it was not sustainable to pay a starting pitcher $461,000 per win.
From there, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him and he won 10 out of 21 starts to open the ’03 season. That was good enough to put him on Boston’s radar, who picked him up for their playoff run. The Red Sox made the playoffs, but lost to the Yankees in the ALCS and Suppan did not pitch.
Boston let him go at the end of that year, and the St. Louis Cardinals snatched him up. Thus began the best three year stretch of Soup’s career. During which, he won 44 games, made the playoffs all three years, and pitched in the World Series twice. In 2004, the Cardinals lost to the Red Sox in the World Series, but Suppan helped get them there. He picked up a win vs. the Dodgers in the NLDS, and went 1-1 against the Astros in the NLCS before losing Game 3 against Boston.
Suppan would have his revenge two years later. Despite losing Game 3 of the NLDS vs. San Diego, he came out strong against the Mets in the NLCS. He threw a shutout in Game 3 and hit a home run, then pitched masterfully in Game 7 as the Cardinals won and advanced to the World Series. Suppan was the MVP of the NLCS, flaunting a 0.60 ERA in 15 Innings Pitched. In the World Series, he threw in Game 4 vs. Detroit, got a No Decision, but the Cardinals came from behind to win the game and ultimately the series.
After three wonderful years in St. Louis, Suppan was ready to cash in his chips. He hit the free agency market and The Milwaukee Brewers stepped up, offering a four year, $42 million dollar contract.
Times in Milwaukee were not all good though, as Suppan struggled to find the same magic he had in St. Louis. He was 12-12 in 2007, 10-10 in 2008, and 7-12 in 2009. He was hardly “Ace” material for a team that did not finish higher than 2nd in the NL Central. After an 0-2 start in 2010, he and his 7.84 ERA were released to the streets.
The Cardinals remembered the contributions of the Oklahoma native, and signed him for the rest of the season. Suppan went 3-6 with a 3.84 ERA in 13 starts, but it wasn’t good enough to be asked back by the club.
After the minor-league deal with the Giants, Suppan now finds himself on his 2nd such deal of the year.
There was some question as to what Soup’s role would be at AAA Omaha, but instead of working him out of the bullpen, they decided to run him out there right away. He made his first start of the season Friday night in Albuquerque. It was not the fairy-tale beginning that he and Royals fans had hoped for as he gave up four runs in the first inning, and seven overall in just four frames. He gave up a triple to the first batter he faced and limped away with a 15.75 ERA.
This signing raised a lot of eyebrows in the Kansas City area. There are many theories around it, including his ties with Jason Kendall (teammate in Pittsburg in 2003, and Milwaukee in 2008 & 2009) and especially with Ned Yost, who was Suppan’s manager in Milwaukee in 2007 & most of 2008. Those two men know Suppan and his talents, and surely had some input towards the team’s decision to make this move.
So what does the future hold for Jeff Suppan?
Vin Mazzaro is set to join the Royals rotation on April 16th, and odds are that Suppan will be given a few starts in Omaha while being evaluated. Mazzaro will need to be at his best, because if Suppan finds his bearings and Mazzaro struggles, that 5th spot in the Royals rotation could just go to the experienced veteran. There is not really a spot or a need for another right-hander in the Royals’ bullpen, so that shouldn’t be a factor. Besides, Suppan has been a starter almost his entire career & it’s doubtful that he’d want to switch to that role at this point.
Another way to look at this is that Suppan is an experienced pitcher who has started in and won the World Series. He’s experienced all of the highs & lows of a big league career.
The Omaha Royals pitching staff contains keys to the future that are currently 22 and 21 years old. While Suppan is fighting to get back into a major league uniform, he will be advising future Royals along the way. That kind of learning experience is rare, and could be very beneficial in the grooming of guys like Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy.
Either way, while some would look at this like another awful free-agent signing (see: Hideo Nomo), I like to think that the Royals will be ok with this one. If Jeff Suppan pitches well enough to make it to Kansas City, then you’ve got an experienced veteran 5th starter. If a starter gets hurt or needs to skip a start along the way, then you’ve got someone capable of eating innings waiting in the wings. Royals Assistant GM J.J. Picollo said, “Something you always need in Triple-A is guys that can help you at the major-league level right away,” Did the Royals have that option a week ago?
If he doesn’t recover from his terrible outing on Friday night and struggles in Omaha, then the Royals can easily cut ties with him. Hopefully some of the younger guys learned something about “the show” from someone who has been there.
And who knows, maybe he will retire as a Royal someday.