- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- On the heels of the Bruce Chen signing, Tug Hulett's demotion to Triple-A Omaha and the birth of Jose Guillen's son Derek, the Kansas City Royals mixed in another intriguing transaction this week. They picked up Sidney Ponson, World Baseball Classic stalwart, nemesis of Aruban judges and a guy who was released by Texas last June for conduct unbecoming a teammate.
While the Royals called it a move to strengthen their organizational "depth," there was an underlying message: Hold the euphoria.
For all the optimism in Kansas City's camp this spring, the team's success will be predicated on starting pitching. Gil Meche and Zack Greinke should be fine in the first two spots in the rotation. But the Royals are counting on a breakout season by Kyle Davies in the third spot, and Brian Bannister, Horacio Ramirez and Luke Hochevar -- the contenders for the Nos. 4 and 5 roles -- can hardly be regarded as locks.
General manager Dayton Moore is keenly aware of the stakes. The Royals invested heavily in bullpen help during the offseason, signing Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth to two-year deals for a combined $15.5 million. They'll team with left-hander Ron Mahay to set up All-Star closer Joakim "The Mexicutioner" Soria.
Although that's a potentially formidable group, the relievers won't be worth much if they're too sore to pop sunflower seeds into their mouths come July.
"The only way your bullpen isn't overexposed is if your starters are going deep in games and giving you innings," Moore said. "We have to have at least three guys in our rotation give us 200 innings. If we can do that, it will allow our bullpen to fall in line and not be overexposed."
In actuality, the Royals need several things to go right if they're going to be credible dark-horse candidates in the American League Central. That includes continued growth from Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, a better on-base percentage and fewer emotional outbursts from Guillen, a lineup-wide commitment to hitting coach Kevin Seitzer's quest for more plate discipline, a spark from new leadoff hitter Coco Crisp and another strong season by shortstop Mike Aviles.
If the starters are adequate and the Royals can make progress from last season, when they ranked 25th in the majors in runs, maintaining leads might turn out to be the easy part.
Combine a dominant young closer with two free agents whose fastballs check in at a combined 190-mph plus and it makes for a potentially strong threesome. Even senior adviser Mike Arbuckle, who spent last year watching Brad Lidge & Co. in Philadelphia, is impressed with the Kansas City pen.
"We've got some depth and some quality," Arbuckle said. "I think it's going to be one of our club's strengths."
The age-old question, of course, is whether losing teams should be spending money on bullpens when they're not likely to have as many late-inning leads to protect. Two things shifted the Royals in that direction.
One, Moore saw a more competitive team taking shape after he added Crisp in center field and Mike Jacobs to the offense. The trade for Jacobs was pilloried by the statistical community because of his low on-base percentage and substandard defense, but he hit 32 homers in Florida last season and brings some pop to a lineup that ranked 25th in the big leagues in slugging in '08.
[Joakim Soria] just has it. It's all natural. It's like he was bred for closing.
”-- Royals catcher John Buck
Both the front office and manager Trey Hillman also subscribe to the notion that nothing crushes a team's spirit more than blown leads in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
"I just read a comment by [Diamondbacks manager] Bob Melvin last week and I agree with it wholeheartedly," Hillman said. "He talked about how terrible you feel when you lose a game out of the bullpen. When you have a lead and end up losing the game, it cuts twice."
While two years and $9.5 million for Farnsworth seems generous, the Royals did fine in landing Cruz for two years and $6 million. Kansas City's scouts raved about Cruz in early winter planning meetings, but he didn't fit into the team's budget until the free-agent market imploded and his options were limited by the draft-pick compensation strings attached. The Royals ultimately had to give Arizona a second-round choice in exchange for signing Cruz.
It's hard to knock Moore for spending money on two setup men when the Royals have Soria, one of baseball's best closers, under contractual control through 2014 at a very reasonable price. Kansas City's decision to select Soria from San Diego in the 2006 Rule 5 draft is the kind of astute move that resonates for an awfully long time.
After a big coming-out party in 2007, Soria outdid himself last season. He posted a better ERA and WHIP than the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez and became the 14th closer in history to finish a season with more saves (42) than hits allowed (39). Opponents hit .170 against Soria overall, and .094 with two strikes.
Soria is not your prototypical overpowering closer. He throws his fastball in the 89-92 mph range and mixes in a curveball, slider and changeup. The deception in his motion makes his fastball look 94 or 95, and he has such a diverse repertoire that hitters can see him multiple times in the same series and not get comfortable.
It's Soria's stoic demeanor, at 24, that puts him over the top.
"He's unrattled by things," said catcher John Buck. "Maybe he just gave up the save and there's still an out or two left in the inning. I'll go out there thinking, 'He's going to be upset about it.' And I can see that he is, but he still has that sense of 'It's not going to affect how I'm pitching now, nor will it later down the road.'
"That's what you try to teach people in the minor leagues, and he just has it. It's all natural. It's like he was bred for closing."
Farnsworth and Cruz are similar types: hard-throwing righties whose stuff doesn't always translate into top-notch performance. Whether it's the wandering control, in Cruz's case, or a penchant for getting too hyped up and surrendering gopher balls, a bugaboo for Farnsworth, there's a reason the two pitchers have 909 combined appearances and only 28 big league saves (27 by Farnsworth).
But no one can question their ability to throw the ball past hitters. Cruz has 535 career strikeouts in 515 innings, while Farnsworth has 738 whiffs in 735 innings. They'll change the look of a Kansas City bullpen that ranked 23rd in the majors in strikeouts last season.
More strikeouts in the late innings means fewer balls in play. Fewer balls in play means less opportunity for errors, or bleeders, or any of the other maladies that bedevil a losing club.
"They still have to make pitches," Moore said. "But guys who throw hard eliminate a portion of the other team's lineup. Every lineup has hitters who aren't going to catch up to the ball or do much damage once it starts getting up there at 92-93 miles an hour."
When Farnsworth threw an early bullpen session in Surprise, Ariz., Royals pitching coach Bob McClure noticed that his right foot wasn't flush against the pitching rubber. Farnsworth rectified that problem, then made a few adjustments to remedy a habit of throwing across his body. As Hillman describes it, his upper half now works more in conjunction with his lower half.
Farnsworth is also throwing on more of a downhill plane and feels fluid and easy in his delivery.
"A good fastball is worthless if you can't locate it," Farnsworth said. "I've found that out a bunch of times."
Not a popular guy in New York, to put it mildly, Farnsworth likes the fit in Kansas City. He looks around the clubhouse and sees some young talent, some live arms and a group that's starting to feel good about its chances of contending.
The new wave of relievers is a huge part of the new mindset.
"When you see that bullpen getting heated and you know that guy is coming in, I don't care if he's thrown two or three days in a row," Hillman said. "The opposition sees that and their confidence level drops."
Can the Royals score enough runs or get enough production from their starters to make it matter? They'll begin to learn the answer in April. After 13 losing seasons in 14 years, they've learned to take it one question at a time.
The Royals' bullpen should be a strength in '09, but their starting staff will need to improve for them to be legitimate contenders.