Brandon Finnegan sat at a table in the center of the Royals clubhouse one day last week. His new bullpen mates pored over crossword puzzles. The game was several hours away, but Finnegan wore his full uniform.
Across the room, hidden behind a pillar, first baseman Eric Hosmer flicked a switch on the room’s speaker system. The bass burst the silence and revealed the only on-record example of Finnegan showing fear in the major leagues.
He jumped back from his seat, startled by the burst of noise. He tried to sway with the beat to cover up. It was too late.
“Did anyone else see that?” said Scott Downs, a 38-year-old reliever. “Flanagan jumped out of his skin!”
Perhaps his name will become more memorable by next week. At 21, a few months removed from Big 12 competition, Finnegan has become the Royals’ most intriguing left-handed reliever heading into the postseason. Wednesday night against the Cleveland Indians, he allowed a run, his first, in six appearances. He struck out eight of the first 19 batters he faced, impressed observers with his composure and earned a modicum of trust from manager Ned Yost.
His moment in the sun may be temporary. The organization intends to develop Finnegan as a starting pitcher. He probably will begin 2015 in either Class AA or Class AAA. Yet when team officials discuss their most recent first-round pick, they caution against self-imposed restrictions on his trajectory.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question that he would start (the season) in the major leagues,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “Just because of what he’s doing up here. I’m not saying it’s what we’re going to do. But he’ll be given an opportunity to win a job on the team.”
After James Shields departs this winter in free agency, the Royals expect to replace him with internal options. Finnegan is the organization’s best left-handed pitching prospect, and a 5-11 complement to the hulking duo of Kyle Zimmer and Sean Manaea.
Both Zimmer and Manaea will spend October at the team’s complex in Surprise, Ariz. Finnegan might spend October on national television.
In his first outing, he fanned Derek Jeter and Jacoby Ellsbury at Yankee Stadium. He punched out David Ortiz twice. Yost assigned him the seventh inning on Monday against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Granted a high-leverage opportunity, Finnegan answered with a scoreless outing and two strikeouts on devastating change-ups.
“He came better than advertised,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “I hate to use cliches, but this kid’s not afraid. He comes at you, in big moments.”
Eiland caught glimpses of Finnegan earlier in the summer, when he led Texas Christian University to the College World Series in Omaha. Kansas City selected Finnegan with the No. 17 pick this past June. A day after he agreed to a draft bonus worth $2.2 million, Finnegan visited Kauffman Stadium to throw a bullpen session for Yost and Eiland.
In Finnegan, Eiland sensed savvy and poise. Few young pitchers trust their change-up, a finicky option that takes years to tame. “It’s a big pitch for me,” Finnegan told Eiland.
Eiland witnessed that Monday. Finnegan uses a circle grip on his change-up, which causes it to fade down and away from right-handers. The pitch complements a hard-breaking slider and a fastball in the mid-90s. “Having three pitches you can throw for strikes is a plus for anybody,” Finnegan said.
On Monday night, Indians rookie Tyler Holt waved at a change-up that darted nearly into the opposite batter’s box. After a two-out double by Michael Bourn, Finnegan over-rotated on a change-up to switch-hitter Jose Ramirez. The pitch cut inside, but still tumbled beneath Ramirez’s swing.
The audacity — a rookie using a full-count change-up? — impressed Eiland. Like Yordano Ventura, Eiland explained, Finnegan exhibits a calm that obscures his youth. But Ventura is two years older, and marinated for five years in the Royals’ player-development system. Finnegan spent this past spring pitching against schools like Sam Houston State and Dartmouth.
His youth is a source of amusement to his new teammates. He cracked up James Shields when he told a reporter he enjoyed watching 35-year-old starter Jeremy Guthrie as a kid. Finnegan was born 10 months after Seattle drafted Raul Ibanez in 1992.
Shields needed five seasons to reach Class AAA. He treats his minor-league resume like a badge of honor. He learned a few weeks ago Finnegan only made five minor-league starts before his big-league debut. The dichotomy astounded him. He asked Finnegan how old he was in 2000, the year Tampa Bay drafted Shields.
“Seven?” Shields asked, incredulously.
On Monday night, a reporter asked how Finnegan avoids anxiety on this stage. Seated nearby, Jarrod Dyson sneered at the question. Dyson was a 50th round pick in 2006, and did not even earn a starting role on a minor-league club until 2009. “He ain’t got nothing to be nervous about,” Dyson said. “Not with all that money we gave him.”
At Kauffman Stadium, Finnegan resided in a locker between Shields and fellow starter Jason Vargas. Vargas is one of a few Royals able to relate to Finnegan’s situation. A second-round pick in 2004, Vargas debuted for the Marlins as a 22-year-old the next summer.
“You feel invincible,” Vargas said. “Invincible.”
After the draft in June, the members of the front office mapped out a plan for Finnegan. He spent four weeks as a starter with Class A Wilmington, working in short bursts. When Scott Sharp, Kansas City’s director of player development, saw him pitch in July, Finnegan used his fastball exclusively in a two-inning stint. His opponents could not handle his heater.
Aware their bullpen lacked a dynamic lefty, the Royals promoted Finnegan to Class AA in August. As he wiped out lower-level competition, the organization deliberated on his big-league viability. Yost crystallized the debate with a question to general manager Dayton Moore.
“Look, do you think he can help us?” he asked.
The answer was in the affirmative. During his time in the majors thus far, Finnegan has honored the scouting reports. He appears unfazed by the attention, by the stage, by the imposing talent of his opponents.
In the winter, the Royals intend to invite Finnegan to their complex in January, Picollo said. They want him to acclimate himself with their staff and prepare for the rigors of big-league life. The club may need him.
“I don’t think you can put any limitations on him,” Picollo said. “I think you’ve got to be open-minded. At the same time, realistic.”