By Jeff Montgomery
As the Boys in Blue work through the March portion of Spring Training 2014, I think it is important not invest too much into the results of the team or most individuals. As we have seen so many times in the past, the Royals have been Cactus League Champions only to fail once the bell rings in April.
It is always better to win rather than lose. It is always better to hit rather than struggle. And, it is always better to get hitters out rather than not. However, this years Royals have much less to prove in Arizona than teams in the past. This 'spring is about getting ready to start the season on the right foot. As we have learned, a miserable April can bury a team for the season much like the month of May almost did last year. With fewer jobs up in the air, the spring training schedule should allow the players who are certain to break camp with the team to prepare for the grind as well as allow the new players such as Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante to settle in with their new clubhouse mates.
Teams who have several jobs unsettled normally win many more games in Spring Training than teams that don’t for the reasons mentioned earlier but there will be a few players who are going to be in the Opening Day lineup that will be worth watching as training camp progresses. None of these players will be more closely watched than Mike Moustakas who spent some time playing Winter League Baseball and is trying to rebound from a difficult season in 2013. Moose is off to a great start this Spring but it should be noted that he had an incredibly successful Spring in 2013. Again, it’s better to see Moose hit rather than struggle.
Other than Salvador Perez’s backup, which will include competition from Brett Hayes, Francisco Pena, and Ramon Hernandez, there won’t be many other battles being held for roster spots other than the fifth starter job. If Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar open in the bullpen it looks like the battle will likely be between Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura although veteran Brad Penny could be in the mix as well.
With optimism at one of the highest points the Club has experienced in the past few decades it is important for this team to be ready to begin the season against their biggest divisional foe in the Detroit Tigers later this month (31st) and prove the optimism is no Mirage.
By Jeff Montgomery
I’m aware that in Royals County we are all programmed to hate the Yankees based on the rivalry that was created decades ago when the Yanks were an obstacle to the Royals winning the American League. Not to mention that one of the most storied moments in Royals history occurred when Billy Martin challenged George Brett’s home run in Yankee Stadium because of just a little too much pine tar.
Regardless, Royals fans and baseball fan across America should roll out the Red Carpet for Jeter as he bids farewell to baseball as a player. He will surely be a first ballot Hall of Famer, which goes without question. But he is more than a Hall of Famer; he has been the face of Major League Baseball for many years. He was fortunate to arrive in the Majors just as the Yankees were turning their franchise around and becoming perennial winners again. He has five World Series Championship rings as evidence and support to what he meant to baseball as a player. But playing his entire career in the largest market in the country and maintaining the perfect image is truly a small miracle, especially since his career spanned almost the entire Steroid Era.
I am hopeful that Jeter has recovered from the leg injuries that hampered him last year and kept him from playing at the elevated level everyone around the game has grown to expect. It would be great to see Jeter be able to perform at an All-Star level and make his last season one similar to his long-time teammate Mariano Rivera. Like Rivera, Jeter is well respected among players around baseball.
There are certain things you remember about players you have a chance to compete against and two stand out about Jeter to me as I look back. First, he hit an inside-the-park home run against me in his first year or two in the Majors. It was a fly ball to deep right-center field that Johnny Damon did not catch and caromed almost back to the infield. With Jeter’s speed and hustle he was able to score easily.
The other memory was from Spring Training the following year when I faced Jeter in an exhibition game and drilled him in the back. It was on a pitch I was working on where I would drop my arm angle to near Dan Quisenberry’s arm slot to try to create some deception. The pitch sailed into Jeter and he dropped his bat and immediately ran to first base. After the game I saw Derek outside the clubhouse and he smiled and asked, “Are we even now?” He thought I was drilling him for the home run he had hit the year before. Being a pitcher who couldn’t reveal the fact that it was an accident I replied, “We are even now”, even though it was totally an accident that I had hit him.
Let’s hope Derek Jeter is able to go out of baseball with the same style, grace, and flash that he possessed during his arrival.
By Jeff Montgomery
I remember the hype surrounding Alex Rodriguez when he was called-up to the Big Leagues at age 18 by the Seattle Mariners, just a year after they drafted the high school player from Miami. It was evident that after watching him play for the first time that he was going to be a special player that lived up to his billing and could possibly surpass the expectations the scouts had put on him.
After becoming a free agent at only 25 years old everyone knows he signed a record contract with the Texas Rangers worth somewhere in the Quarter of A Billion-Dollar range in 2001. It was one of the most discussed contracts in sports history. Rodriguez however lived up to the gaudy contract with gaudy statistics to support the commitment by the Rangers. Since the original free agent contract he signed with the Rangers he as signed lucrative contract extensions with the New York Yankees, the team he was traded to in 2004.
The reason for discussing the contract situation with Alex Rodriguez is not to suggest that he is not worth the money. In fact I believe he is worth every penny of the salary he negotiated with his former and current employers. He received the contracts because the teams were willing to pay the large salaries for his services. No one forced the Rangers to commit $252 Million for Rodriguez. One reason he was able to negotiate a contract that paid him a salary that his team felt he was worth was because of the sacrifices and the stances that players who preceded him were willing to make. Those players fought for a free-market environment that allowed teams to spend as much as they desired on their product on the field without any cap or limitation.
I would feel comfortable in stating that Alex Rodriguez has been the single largest beneficiary of the free-market environment the Major League Baseball Players Association has fought for over the past several decades. For this reason I think it is a joke that Alex Rodriguez has filed a lawsuit against the MLBPA. I am writing this blog from the Royals Alumni Fantasy Camp in Arizona and have had a chance to hear opinions from over a dozen Royals Alumni and I can assure you that none have expressed any sympathy for Rodriguez’s claims against the Union.
It would be great to see Alex Rodriguez come to grips with reality and take ownership for his actions. He was a gifted player that probably never needed PED’s in order to accomplish Hall of Fame credentials but now that he has been exposed it is time for him to serve his punishment. I think baseball fans could easily make it through a baseball season without ever hearing Alex Rodriguez’s name. I know I sure could!
By Jeff Montgomery
Greg Maddux’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame brings back a very amusing memory from my Minor League career. It goes like this…
It was the second half of the 1986 season and I was playing for the Denver Zephyrs of the American Association and we were on a road-trip playing against the Iowa Cubs in Des Moines. That season I was a starting pitcher and had pitched the night before which meant I was on the “bucket” during batting practice before our next game. The primary responsibility for the pitcher manning the bucket is to collect all of the baseballs that are hit during batting practice which are rolled into the area in shallow center field behind second base by the “shaggers” in the outfield.
The “bucket” was such a terrible responsibility that starting pitchers like me who were struggling to pay rent would offer $5 to a batboy to help him on the bucket. On this particular day I asked one of the batboys for the Iowa Cubs to help me on the bucket. He just looked at me with a vacant stare. I then told him I would tip him $5 if he would help me. That drew another blank stare and a headshake like I was a moron.
After batting practice and a quick change into our game uniforms we were ready for the National Anthem and everyone was on the top step of the dugout. I noticed the “batboy” I had asked to man the bucket for me was out around the pitcher’s mound area. I assumed he was delivering the rosin bag for the pitcher to use that night.
Very quickly I learned that the kid I assumed was a batboy was far from such. The kid proceeded to toss 9 innings of shutout baseball against our Denver team. The kid’s name was Greg Maddux. He was 20 years old at the time making his first start in AAA baseball after being called up from AA. He went on to have a 10-1 record while in AAA and earned a September call up that year to make his Major League Debut.
I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover!
By Jeff Montgomery
This is the time of year that baseball talk starts to heat up and often becomes the topic at holiday parties that I attend. With the Chiefs heading to the playoffs this year there doesn’t seem to be as many people who “just can’t wait for Spring Training” but there is still a heightened level of excitement from fans that I have not sensed for several years. That excitement is obviously more than just the annual optimism that fans seem to have and is warranted by the turnaround the Royals made last season, particularly during the second half of the season when they played about as well as any team in baseball.
As the Royals head into the holiday break, I think fans should feel pretty good about where the team is at this stage of the offseason. Not great, but pretty good. I think the additions of Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki will provide an opportunity for Ned Yost to have a very consistent lineup and batting order. The addition of Danny Valencia provides the team with an insurance policy at third base as well as someone who can hit with occasional power off the bench. So, offensively the team should be able to score runs on a more consistent basis. Mike Moustakas and Billy Butler will be big keys if they are able to contribute in a bigger way than last season.
If the season were to start tomorrow I wouldn’t feel nearly as excited about the starting rotation as I did last year at this time. That feeling isn’t based on the outstanding season Ervin Santana was able to put together as I expected him to fare well at Kauffman Stadium. It’s based more on the fact that Santana may not be back. I like Jason Vargas as a solid arm in the rotation, especially a left-handed arm, but don’t expect the same upside as the team got from Santana.
There is a chance, and maybe a pretty good chance that either Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura could more than offset the loss of Santana in the rotation but until they have more innings at the Major League level it is difficult to know what to expect every time they take the mound. If one or both of the two young arms emerge during the course of this season it will make an enormous difference in the starting rotation, not only in 2014 but also for several years to come.
Even though James Shields is the ace of the staff, he could be the Wildcard of the rotation. I’m hopeful that Shields replicates what David Cone did after signing back with the Royals in 1993 when he went out and pitched great but didn’t get nearly the wins he deserved as the offense failed to show up on many of the days Cone took the mound, which was similar to last year for Shields. Cone responded in 1994 by going out and pitching very much the same as he did the year before but won the Cy Young award as he was able to pitch well on days when the offense gave him support.
Next season should be filled with Joy and but just how much will be determined by what kind of gifts Santa has in his bag as he lands at Kauffman Stadium this Holiday Break!
By Jeff Montgomery
Back in July the Royals were well represented at the All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York as they sent three representatives to the game for the first time since 1988. Greg Holland was added on the Sunday before the game and joined Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon who were voted in by the players. There was a great feeling of pride from the Royals organization and fans across Royals Country as the rosters were introduced on the national stage. There was also a great amount of discussion in the local media about the significance of having three representatives from the team rather than the obligatory one, which has been the case for most of the past couple of decades.
I sense that with the announcement of Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez being named as first-time Gold Glove Award winners joining now three-time Award winner Alex Gordon, that a similar feeling of pride has filled the offices at Kauffman Stadium. I was certainly excited to hear the Royals had three Gold Glovers in a season for the first time in franchise history.
There was little surprise that Alex Gordon was rewarded for his defensive prowess in Left Field. He has made too many plays to recount over the past three seasons that have had a direct impact on the outcome of many games. The biggest surprise to me is that opposing base runners and base coaches continue to attempt to stretch the bases on him. It is ironic that a move from Third Base to Left Field has allowed Gordon to blossom as a hitter and as a defensive great. Alex is now half way to tying Frank White for the most years with consecutive Gold Glove Awards in Royals history.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to watch Salvador Perez play much baseball immediately recognizes that he is truly a gifted player. I have often said that he has more impact on Royals games than any other player, which makes him my most valuable player. In a sport where success is often measured by offensive statistics, Perez shines more because of his defense than any other element of his game. I think his selection to the All-Star team and opportunity to catch Mariano Rivera’s last All-Star Game pitch helped provide the recognition required to unseat incumbent Gold Glover Matt Wieters of the Baltimore Orioles. Salvador is the player that more visiting team broadcasters ask about and comment on than any other player. If he is able to stay healthy, he will likely need to build an enormous trophy case to display all of his Gold Gloves.
Fans that were in attendance at the Royals game on May 6, 2011 were able to watch a 21-year old named Eric Hosmer make his major league debut. His .439 batting average in Omaha during the early part of that season earned him the much-anticipated promotion to the Big Leagues. It wasn’t his bat that opened many eyes in his first game as a Royal, but a smash to first that he picked cleanly to start a 3-6-3 double play that did. Now Eric Hosmer, who turned 24 years old on October 24th, wears a glove of a different color as he becomes the first Royals 1st Baseman to win a Gold Glove.
As the Royals continue to improve as a team and an organization, it is important that individual accomplishments such as All-Star selections and Gold Gloves grow in numbers as well; they are great signs of progress.