Earlier this week, I noted that the Royals didn’t need to have a left-handed specialist in their bullpen, since the current group of pitchers have enough success against lefties, despite most of them throwing with their right arms. I didn’t think it was necessary to add a lefty-killer. Once again, the Royals have ignored my advice.
On Thursday night, the team signed 29-year old lefty Franklin Morales to a minor league contract, with an invitation to Spring Training. The Venezuelan made 22 starts and 16 relief appearances for the Rockies last season, with a 5.37 ERA, 6.3 strikeouts per 9, and 4.1 walks per 9.
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Prior to 2014, Morales played for the Red Sox, where he was used mostly out of the bullpen, with an occasional spot start, and he had a bit more luck. Between 2011 and 2013, he had a 3.89 ERA, along with 8.5 K/9.
As you would expect, Morales has done the best against lefty batters, who have a .281 wOBA against Morales in his career. His numbers in that department took a hit last season, although he struck out four times as many as he walked in the two previous years. Working out of the rotation caused his velocity to take a large dip, so a return to the bullpen could bring Morales’ average fastball back up to 92.6 MPH, as it was in 2013.
Now that Morales is in camp, he’ll be trying to get one of the last bullpen spots available, competing with Tim Collins, Louis Coleman, and Rule 5 draftee Jandel Gustave. Another lefty on a minor league deal, Joe Paterson, could have a shot as well.
At least four members of the Opening Day bullpen were set, with Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Jason Frasor. A healthy Luke Hochevar would make five. Regardless of how many relievers the team carries, there should be two open spots. If they go with eight relievers (a topic we’ll surely cover in the coming weeks) Gustave is a lock. Otherwise, those few remaining pitchers will have to battle for the sixth and seventh slots.
If the Royals feel that they do need a LOOGY, Morales is a solid choice, and he may have a leg up on a guy like Collins, because Morales can also make a spot start. Collins also has options remaining, while Coleman would have to be exposed to waivers.
We often hear that Spring Training stats don’t matter, and generally speaking, that’s correct. But the team will need to closely evaluate that handful of pitchers to figure out who can help the team the most. Morales’ signing created more of a competition that wasn’t really there before.
You may have noticed one name missing from that position battle, and that was intentional. Brandon Finnegan obviously has the kind of stuff that could be an asset to the big league club right now. There are officials in the organization who want him in Kansas City in April. Finnegan himself said he wants to be in the majors, because, duh. No one wants to turn down a half-million dollar paycheck just to go back to the bus rides and hot dog dinners in the minors.
But the front office has indicated they want to develop Finnegan as a starter. They didn’t draft him in the first round of last year’s draft just to have him pitch the 6th inning a couple of times per week. The Royals know that Finnegan can make the most impact out of a rotation, and even if it turns out he can’t stick as a starter, they need to see it through.
The Royals have said they’ll monitor the situation during camp to see if they need to change course, but Dayton Moore said it’s in the best interests of the organization and Finnegan for him to develop as a starter, so it seems clear what the plan is. I think they would have likely had him starting in the minors even without signing Morales, but they now have even more of a reason to follow that track.
Finnegan is a better pitcher than Morales, but in the role Finnegan would’ve had in the bigs, the difference wouldn’t be as significant. Sacrificing Finnegan’s service time, and his potential as a starter, all for a marginal upgrade in 40 innings this year simply isn’t worth it.
Minor league signings don’t normally make a big impact on the major league club, and I’m not betting on Morales to win any awards in 2015, if he does break camp with the Royals. But his presence could make an impact in a few years, if Finnegan turns into the above average starting pitcher the organization hopes he can be.