Royals: Can Conner Greene get his control under control?

DUNEDIN, FL - FEBRUARY 27: Conner Greene #70 of the Toronto Blue Jays poses for a photo during the Blue Jays' photo day on February 27, 2016 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
DUNEDIN, FL - FEBRUARY 27: Conner Greene #70 of the Toronto Blue Jays poses for a photo during the Blue Jays' photo day on February 27, 2016 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) /

Almost a year ago, the Kansas City Royals added a former 7th-round draft pick to the organization. Can he overcome control problems and help the club’s beleaguered pitching staff?

On November 26, 2018, the Kansas City Royals claimed right-hander Conner Greene off waivers from the St. Louis Cardinals, a move consistent with their well-earned reputation for plucking once-promising pitchers away from teams that don’t want or need them. The Royals hoped Greene, talented but plagued with troubling control problems, could steady himself and climb from the minors to the big leagues in short order. But can the Royals’ hopes be realized?

Greene’s talent is a given; as pointed out in this space earlier this year, he has a menacing fastball and decent curveball. But if these pitches are his blessing, control is his nemesis, a flaw that likely drove the Cardinals’ decision to DFA him and make him available to other clubs.

Greene’s control problems have not been isolated. He may have given Toronto a slight hint of control difficulties to come soon after the Blue Jays made him the 6th pick in the 7th round of the 2013 Amateur Draft. Assigned to the rookie leagues that summer, he issued 15 walks in 30.2 innings for a less than stellar 4.4 BB9. The fact he posted identical 2.7 BB’s in the next two seasons as he advanced from rookie leagues to AA, suggested his first season performance reflected an insufficient sample size or arose from the sudden adjustment to pro ball.

But his control suffered and his walk rate increased steadily over the next three seasons. Pitching at High A and AA in 2016, his BB9 was 4.4; in a season spent entirely at AA in 2017, it rose to 5.6; and it ballooned to an unsightly 6.4 in a 2018 campaign split between AA and AAA. The Cardinals decided not to protect Greene in the Rule 5 draft and DFA’d him. Nevertheless, the Royals saw potential and claimed him.

How to attack his control problems wasn’t the only decision Kansas City had to make when Greene arrived. The Royals, beset at the big league level with holes in their rotation and an inferior bullpen, needed to determine whether Greene was a starter or reliever. Toronto used him in both roles before making him a starter to begin his third season in their minor league system. During 2015 and 2016, he appeared in 53 games exclusively as a starter and went 22-16; then, in 2017, he started all but one of the 26 games he appeared in.

Greene began 2018 starting for the Cardinals’ Springfield AA team and went 11-10 with a 4.44 ERA; despite walking 32 batters in 48.2 innings (5.9 BB9), he was promoted to AAA, where he became a reliever. The role change didn’t help his control, however, as he issued 31 walks in 39.1 innings for a 7.1 BB9, his worst for any minor league team.

The Royals brought Greene out of the bullpen for his first stop with the organization — he started 16 of 21 games at Northwest Arkansas in 2019 and cut his BB9 in half (3.5). But control issues revisited Greene after an August promotion to AAA Omaha. Back in the bullpen, he appeared in eight games and walked 16 batters in 15.1 innings for an ugly 9.4 BB9. He struck out six fewer batters than he walked; the walks contributed significantly to his 1.957 Omaha WHIP.

Although Greene’s experience as a reliever is primarily limited to 2018 and 2019, his control problems do not appear conclusively linked to whether he starts or relieves. His overall effectiveness may be another question: although opposing hitters slashed .237/.357/.312 against him as a starter, and .248/.402/.333 against him as a reliever in 2018, in 2019 they slashed .252/.332/.407 when he started and an alarming .304/.416/.426 when he relieved.

It is Greene’s underlying talent, and the potential the Royals believe he has, that presently secure his spot on the club’s 40-man roster; that new Kansas City manager Mike Matheny is undoubtedly aware of that talent and potential from his Cardinal days may help Greene keep that spot.

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The price to get Greene wasn’t steep. To make room for him, the Royals DFA’d Burch Smith after his unremarkable single Royals season in 2018 (1-6, 6.92 ERA). But the November 20 deadline to set 40-man rosters for Rule 5 Draft purposes is rapidly approaching, and the Kansas City Royals may be forced to decide whether the price to protect Greene — dropping someone from the 40-man or blocking another from it — may be too high.