Like starting over for Farnsworth

Spotty reliever will get a shot at Royals' rotation

February 14, 2010|By Phil Rogers

Kyle Farnsworth enters his 12th big league season, somehow still a project. His tools belie his consistently disappointing results, a fact Cubs fans won't forget after his work against the Marlins in the 2003 NLCS after he replaced Mark Prior in the eighth inning of Game 6 and followed Kerry Wood into Game 7.

And that didn't go so well.

But it's going to be interesting to see how he does at his latest adventure. The 33-year-old Farnsworth, who still looks as intimidating as almost any pitcher in the majors, will get a chance to start for the Royals, who must figure they have nothing to lose.

Signed to a two-year, $9.25 million contract a year ago - the kind that bottom-tier teams offer when they can't land the free agents with options - he flopped as a setup man for Joakim Soria. An Opening Day meltdown at U.S. Cellular Field capped by Jim Thome's three-run homer set the tone for a season in which he threw a career-low 37 1/3 innings and saw Kansas City go 13-28 when he pitched.

The Royals are blessed with a good pitching coach, however, and Bob McClure has convinced manager Trey Hillman that Farnsworth can be an effective starter, in part because he has developed a third pitch to complement his fastball-hard slider combination.

"We're going to lengthen him out and see how it goes," McClure told MLB.com. "What he showed me last year was the ability to back off a little bit and not pitch with his hair on fire. And to be a starter, you have to be able to just kind of go pitch by pitch."

McClure struck on the idea of experimenting with Farnsworth while considering the Yankees' dilemma of keeping Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen or giving him the chance to start.

"Chamberlain is still in that mode where he's learning, so he's pitching like his hair's on fire, and it seems to me he's a little more suited for the pen at this point," McClure said. "Farnsworth, to me, just went the opposite. He was able to start throwing 92, 93 (mph) and use some two-seamers to where we think it may be something to look at."

Farnsworth, who has a 4.47 career ERA, has earned $31 million because of a four-seam fastball that parks in the 94-to-96 range most days and still can climb to 97 or 98. Dave Cameron of fangraphs.com says Farnsworth generally has had a 70/30 mix of fastballs and sliders but last season threw 50 percent four-seam fastballs, 20 percent sliders and the new pitch (labeled as a cut fastball or two-seam fastball) 30 percent of the time.

Suddenly hitters were driving the ball into the ground rather than the outfield gaps. He has been a fly-ball pitcher most of his career but in September produced four times more grounders than flies. That's a very interesting change.

Kevin Brown wasn't successful until he learned to dial down his fastball from the high to low 90s. Is Farnsworth capable of making that same type of transition? No one should project a $105 million contract in his future, but he could nail down a rotation spot behind Zack Greinke and Gil Meche, something Brian Bannister, Luke Hochever and Kyle Davies (46-69, 5.37 in 148 starts the last two seasons) have done only by default.

"I've heard of crazier things tried, believe me," McClure said. "I don't think it's that far-fetched."

Farnsworth will join Robinson Tejada and Philip Humber in trying to grab one of those three spots in spring training. No one is knocking on the door from the Kansas City system, although 2009 additions Aaron Crow and Noel Arguelles could announce their presence loudly this year.

Watching their backs: Red Sox manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell have a special challenge this year. They have to get high performance out of ace Josh Beckett and closer Jonathan Papelbon as well as John Lackey and Daniel Bard, who are waiting in the wings to replace them.

Beckett was the key to the Red Sox's 2007 World Series championship, just as he was for the Marlins' in 2003. He has a 2.90 ERA in 87 playoff innings. He's a workout fiend who has been healthy enough to average 30 starts the last five years, and he won't turn 30 until May.

But GM Theo Epstein hasn't gotten serious about trying to keep Beckett off the free agent market after the season. Lackey, recently signed for $82.5 million over five years, lessens the need to lock up Beckett, who could join Cliff Lee, Javier Vazquez and Brandon Webb on the free agent market after the season.

Papelbon, last seen losing the deciding game of a first-round series to the Angels, is two seasons away from free agency. His career 1.84 ERA (better than Mariano Rivera's 2.25) gives him standing but not real security, as Bard is seen as a closer-in-waiting. If Epstein needs to create some payroll flexibility to keep Beckett, Papelbon would be an intriguing chip to trade.

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