March 2009

Hochevar is optioned to Triple-A Omaha

Right-hander Luke Hochevar, one of the prime candidates for the last two spots in the Royals’ rotation, was optioned on Tuesday to Triple-A Omaha.

Hochevar’s departure cuts the list of starting aspirants to three, right-handers Sidney Ponson and Brian Bannister and left-hander Horacio Ramirez.

In five Cactus League games, Hochevar had a 3.86 ERA and a 1-0 record. In 16 1/3 innings, he gave up 17 hits and seven runs with four walks and seven strikeouts. Opponents hit .279 against him.

The first overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Free Agent Draft, Hochevar was brought into the rotation last April 20 after opening the season with Omaha. He made 22 starts for the Royals, going 6-12 with a 5.51 ERA before his season ended on Aug. 20 because of a rib-cage injury.

In this camp, he was not bothered by the injury. In his last Cactus League start, against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he gave up three runs in the first inning but then worked three scoreless innings.

His candidacy for the rotation might have taken a hit when the Royals signed veteran Sidney Ponson who was immediately put into the mix. Ponson was scheduled to pitch on Tuesday against the Oakland A’s.

Hochevar’s departure still leaves 36 players in camp including 18 pitchers, three catchers, 10 infielders and five outfielders. The Royals break camp on Thursday.

–Dick Kaegel

Official Assumption: Davies is No. 3 starter

Manager Trey Hillman didn’t come out and exactly say it on Sunday but he came close to anointing Kyle Davies as the Royals’ No. 3 starter.

“I think that you can assume that,” he said, knowing full well that we’ve been assuming that for two or three weeks now.

Davies will pitch on Monday, right after No. 1 and 2 Gil Meche and Zack Greinke, so he’s right on target to start the third game at Chicago.

Just who will start the April 10 opener remains in question, of course, because the fourth and fifth spots are still undecided. So it’ll be either Horacio Ramirez, Luke Hochevar, Brian Bannister or Sidney Ponson. It can’t be Meche because he’d have only three days of rest, not four, before the first home game against the Yankees.

–Dick Kaegel

 

Teahen, Aviles stay sharp in Triple-A game

Mike Aviles and Mark Teahen weren’t in Sunday’s high-scoring rout at the Mariners’ ballpark but they weren’t idle.

They were left behind in Surprise to play in a Triple-A game, giving shortstop Aviles and would-be second baseman Mark Teahen another chance to work together. Another of manager Trey Hillman’s motives was to give Aviles some swings in a relaxed atmosphere after he’d had a rough 0-for-3 game against the Rangers.

No report on how the fielding went but the hitting went well. Aviles went 3-for-5 with a triple and Teahen was 2-for-5.

Against the Mariners, Alberto Callaspo played the whole game at second and he had a real blast at the plate with four hits including three doubles in the 17-12 win.

Hillman, by the way, gave a hint that there’s a chance the Royals might not open with 12 pitchers and 13 position players after all. Because of three open dates in April, there have been discussions about keeping just 11 pitchers for a while.

“I don’t think it’s going to go there but it has come up – what about the possibility of going 14 and 11?” Hillman said.

As far as the rotation goes, he’s taken the three off days into consideration and concluded the Royals will need a fifth starter at least twice during April.

One more thing. Aviles and Teahen both took batting practice on Sunday morning against left-hander John Bale, the first live BP that he’s thrown since returning to camp after thyroid surgery.

“He threw 25, 26 pitches and the ball got out of his hand better than I anticipated,” Hillman said. “He looked pretty good.”

The Royals will try to get Bale into a game before camp breaks. After undergoing surgery, Bale is regaining strength and weight – he’s up to about 212 after getting down to about 200. But he’s not likely to be ready for the start of the season, at least on the Major League level.

— Dick Kaegel

It might be time for Teahen at two sack

Nothing in stone yet but how can you keep Mark Teahen out of the lineup? He’s hitting .500 after Saturday’s game against the Rangers. He has five homers and 12 RBIs in just 14 games, his spring curtailed by his World Baseball Classic absence.

The only question, of course, is can Teahen do the job defensively at second base? At times he looks a bit stiff out there but, as he did Saturday, he’s demonstrated he can handle the routine plays and do all right on the backhand.

The test, as Gold Glover Frank White often says, is whether or not Teahen can pull off the plays that happen with his back to first base. In other words, move toward the bag at second to take a throw and then pivot for a double play with a runner thundering right at him. Or slide to his right for a backhand stop, then plant, whirl and throw. That answer can only come in the heat of actual games and so far Teahen hasn’t had much of a test there.

But manager Trey Hillman said after Saturday’s game that he likes the way Teahen has played at second. And he’s got to absolutely love the way Teahen’s been hitting the ball.

Not much time left to make the second-base decision. And, in fact, Hillman could just switch from Teahen to Willie Bloomquist to Alberto Callaspo as the occasion demands.

But, on Opening Day, we might just see what we saw on Saturday at Surprise: Teahen playing second and batting third. Stay tuned on that.

–Dick Kaegel

Meches seven zeros add up to big plus for opener

Gil Meche’s excellent outing on Friday against the Dodgers gives the Royals’ rotation picture a huge boost.

Sure, everybody knew he was much better than he’d pitched this spring. He was not a 10.45 ERA guy. He’d proved himself in the last two years. Even so, there were those nagging thoughts: What if that back problem really hadn’t gone away? What if he’d just lost something? What if, what if?

Anyway, Meche blew away the doubts with seven shutout innings, breezing through in about 80 pitches and using just three in the last inning. So he looks ready for Opening Day.

Zack Greinke will go in the second game and, even though manager Trey Hillman won’t say so, Kyle Davies has the third starting job sewed up.

So how does it shake out for the other two, with Brian Bannister, Luke Hochevar, Horacio Ramirez and new arrival Sidney Ponson in the shootout?

Here’s a guess: Hochevar gets one spot because, frankly, he’s looked good enough to win it. The other spot goes to Ramirez unless that loose fingernail problem pops up again and proves to be a problem. The Royals badly want a left-hander in the rotation, just to break things up, and they think Ramirez will be better once he unleashes his cutter. He’s purposely held off on that pitch, which might be his best, while he improves his other pitches.

Bannister, who’s struggled most of the spring, gave himself a boost with five shutout innings in a Minor League game the other day. But it’d be easy for the Royals to send him to Triple-A Omaha to work on finding himself again. Likewise, because Ponson has pitched in just one Cactus League game and there’s time for him to pitch just one more, it’d be logical to send him to Omaha for more tune-ups. Then if somebody falters or gets hurt, the call can quickly go out to Bannister or Ponson.

The Royals can dip down and pull up a proven Major League starter. It’s nice to have that kind of depth and it’s something they haven’t had for a while.

–Dick Kaegel

Good guy Gobble will be missed

We reporters will miss Jimmy Gobble around the Royals’ clubhouse. He is, quite simply, just one great guy.

Anytime you had a question about pitching or darn near anything, you could approach Gobble and get a thoughtful, sincere, complete answer.

“Heck, I talked to you guys as much as I did my teammates,” he said just after being released the other day.

That might be an exaggeration but Gobble was one of those ballplayers who’s a good friend as well as a subject to be covered. I remember years ago when I talked long distance to his mother out there in Bristol, Va., about “little Jimmy” in his childhood and she was the most lovely, sincere person you could ever talk to – plus, she was a real hoot. And his father was a real friendly and gracious gentleman whenever I chatted with him.

Jimmy’s a devoted family man with wife Julie and sons Porter and Palmer. He loves to talk about his kids.

The release caught him completely by surprise. He thought he’d be on the club. Sure, he had a bad year in 2008 but he worked very hard over the winter and was pitching pretty well this spring.

“I thought so, too,” Jimmy said. “Other than that first outing which, I mean heck, wasn’t too terrible or anything. I hadn’t walked anybody. I told Julie, ‘I feel like this is the best I’ve been throwing any time in Spring Training.’ But that’s part of it.”

Looking back on his six years with the Royals, I asked for a special memory.

“Probably July Fourth (2006),” he said. “I pitched against the Twins and I think they’d won like 12 straight games. I’d just been put into the starting rotation and the next day Porter was born. Those two days were probably the most special because I got to pitch against a team that was really hot. I beat ’em and handled ’em pretty good. That was kind of the peak of really feeling good.”

Those Twins had won 11 straight actually and 19 of 20 before Jimmy and the Royals stopped ’em, 7-2. And then his first child arrived the next day.

Typically, he left the Royals without rancor.

“I wish everyone the best,” he said. “It’s just one of those things. You’ve just go to roll with the punches and let bygones be bygones.”

Jimmy had been in the Royals’ organization since 1999 and was coming up on his seventh year in the Majors. He was really at home with the Royals.

“You get comfortable, you adapt to the situation, you just know what to expect,” he said.

Almost.

–Dick Kaegel

Royals drop long-time reliever Jimmy Gobble

Jimmy Gobble won’t be the Royals’ left-handed specialist out of the bullpen this year after all.

The Royals requested unconditional release waivers on Gobble on Wednesday morning.

The club also announced that right-handed pitcher Anthony Lerew was signed to a Minor League contract with an invitation to the Major League camp.

Lerew pitched in parts of three seasons, 2005-07, for the Atlanta Braves with a 0-2 record and 8.31 ERA in 11 appearances (three starts). Last season he pitched in 14 Minor League games.

Gobble, 27, has spent his entire career in the Royals organization since he was a supplemental first-round selection (43rd overall) in the 1999 draft.

After having his best season in 2007, when he pitched in 74 games and had a 3.02 ERA and 4-1 record, Gobble slipped badly last year.

His ERA soared to 8.81, he appeared in just 39 games and lost both of his decisions. He also was bothered by lower back tightness which put him on the disabled list from July 22 to Sept. 2.

But he held left-handed batters to a .200 (13-for-65) average and indications were that he’d retain his role as a weapon against lefties this season.

Gobble began his career with the Royals as a starter and had a 9-8 record in 2004. But he was switched to the bullpen in 2005.

In 236 games including 43 starts for the Royals, he had a 22-23 record and 5.23 ERA with four saves.

–Dick Kaegel

Sidney Ponson signed to Minor League deal

Sidney Ponson, who pitched for the amazing Netherlands team in the World Baseball Classic, was signed Tuesday by the Royals to a Minor League contract.

Ponson was invited to the Major League camp and will report on Wednesday.

“He’s going to get an opportunity,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “Our depth is not what we wish it was.”

Presumably Ponson could make a bid for the Royals’ starting rotation, pitch in relief or go to the Triple-A club at Omaha. Moore said Ponson indicated he’d be willing to play at the Triple-A level.

Ponson, 32, made two starts in the Classic for the Netherlands, which twice stunned the Dominican Republic. He was the winner in the first victory over the Dominicans, 3-2, when he started and went four innings, giving up two runs in four innings. In his other start, he lost 3-1 to Venezuela, giving up two runs in five innings.
 
“We scouted him in the WBC and our scouts were very, very persistent in their recommendations,” Moore said.

“They just liked the way he pitched and the way he competed. The results, obviously, were very good. He pitched and performed very well and our scouts were strongly recommending that we bring him in as somebody that gives us needed depth.”

The Royals seem set with Gil Meche, Zack Greinke and Kyle Davies in the rotation with Luke Hochevar, Brian Bannister and Horacio Ramirez competing for the other two spots.

Now Ponson might enter that picture.

Although terms were not disclosed, Moore said there’s no big contract or guaranteed money involved.

“It’s a Minor League contract, it’s very low risk,” Moore said

–Dick Kaegel.

Hustling Coco pulls a great escape

Give Coco Crisp credit. When he was picked off first base in the first inning Thursday by White Sox lefty Clayton Richard, he didn’t just quit. It was just a Spring Training game and he’s not a rookie trying to impress people.

Yet Crisp dodged and twisted and avoided the first baseman’s tag, getting back safely to first base. That kind of effort is just what any team needs.

Crisp got on base with a single and also walked twice, giving him nine strolls in just 33 plate appearances. That’s also a very good sign. His on-base percentage is well above .500.

John Gibbons, the Royals’ bench coach, had a lot of chances to see Crisp the last three seasons over in the AL East. He was the Blue Jays’ manager while Coco stirred things for the Red Sox.

“He’s one of those guys. He makes things happen, he sets the table,” Gibbons said. “That’s one of the reasons they were so good in Boston. He and a few other guys on the team — that’s what they did and that’s why they scored so many runs.”

–Dick Kaegel

Uniform numbers through 40 years of Royals baseball

The Royals 2009 Media Guide includes an interesting feature – the team’s all-time numerical roster for its first 40 seasons.

Where else would you find out that David Cone wore No. 13 in 1986, No. 17 in 1993 and No. 22 in 1994, his only three years with the Royals?

Want to know who wore 5 before George Brett? Well, coaches Owen Friend in 1969, Dan Carnevale in 1970 and George Strickland in 1970-72 and players Ted Savage in 1971, Richie Scheinblum in 1972 and ’74, and Tom Poquette in 1973. The number was retired in 1994 after Brett hung ’em up.

We should mention, of course, that Brett wore 25 in 1973-74 after he came up.

The list for Frank White’s retired 20 is shorter. Only three players – Jim Campanis in 1969-70, Monty Montgomery in 1971-72 and Barry Raziano in 1973 preceded White.

Manager Dick Howser’s 10, which he took when hired in 1981 and was retired after his death, had been worn by six players – including current pitching coach Bob McClure in 1975. The others were Paul Schaal, Tommy Davis, Joe Lahoud, Jamie Quirk and Clint Hurdle.

The highest number was Hideo Nomo’s 91 last year and the lowest George Scott’s 0 in 1979.

If you’ve seen the World Series-clinching photos and tape from 1985, you know that Bret Saberhagen was wearing 31 then but he switched to 18 two years later. Incidentally, 31 has been worn by the most folks – 27 players and one manager, Jack McKeon. The current 31 is Brandon Duckworth.

The info was provided by Baseball Almanac.

–Dick Kaegel