Opinion

Royals mailbag: Projecting future rotation candidates? What to make of Mike Moustakas?

The Royals' Mike Moustakas celebrates his first inning double during Wednesday's baseball game against the White Sox Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals' Mike Moustakas celebrates his first inning double during Wednesday's baseball game against the White Sox Kauffman Stadium. The Kansas City Star

The Royals pounded the White Sox in the first series of the season. Next comes an American League Division Series rematch in Anaheim.

But first, let’s answer your questions. In this week’s edition of the mailbag, we tackle future contenders for spots in the rotation, what to make of Mike Moustakas’ performance on Opening Day and more:

This is a great question. I will attempt to handicap this group from least likely to most likely.

5. Kyle Zimmer: He is a man, not a myth, but he does act as something of a legend. His appearances have been rare in the past year. But those who saw him in the Arizona Fall League insist his ceiling still resides in the sky. Assistant general manager J.J. Picollo has mentioned on several occasions that Zimmer possesses the most potent arm in their entire farm system.

And yet . . . he is coming off shoulder surgery. He won’t pitch in a minor-league game until the second week of May, at best. He’ll move slowly and surely, for the Royals do not want Zimmer to experience a relapse in health. There is a chance Zimmer could contribute this season, but general manager Dayton Moore voiced the concept last month that the team saw Zimmer as a major-league consideration in 2016. And that’s if he gets through this season without any health issues, which he has yet to do as a professional.

4. Sean Manaea: Manaea pitched at Indiana State, but team officials still consider him to be quite raw. He is still learning the finer points of his craft, like game-calling and developing a routine between starts. He also strained an oblique muscle in spring training. Manaea did not break camp with a club. He remained in Surprise in extended spring training.

When his oblique heals, Manaea will be sent to Class AA Northwest Arkansas. In the second half at Class A Wilmington last year, Manaea struck out 67 batters in 61 innings with a 1.48 ERA in his last 10 starts. Opposing hitters managed a mere .462 OPS against him. A towering southpaw, Manaea wields impressive talent. But the team is advancing him slowly. It’s doubtful he merits a look in 2016.

3. Miguel Almonte: Now it gets more interesting. Both Almonte and Brandon Finnegan will work under strict pitch limits early in the season, Picollo told The Star earlier this week. This means as few as 45 to 60 pitches per outing in the early going. The organization wants to conserve the arms for the second half of the season, when a pitcher like Almonte could contribute in the big-league bullpen or rotation.

The bullpen may be more likely for Almonte. He wields a wicked fastball that can sit in the mid-90s. But some rival scouts have voiced concern about the consistency of his breaking ball. In order to thrive as a starter, a pitcher must be able to mix three pitches. Almonte may not yet be ready to handle this responsibility at the big-league level.

2. Kris Medlen: His resume is excellent. Medlen dominated hitters for extended stretches in 2012 and 2013 as a starter in Atlanta. He also has been a reliable reliever. But he is coming off his second Tommy John surgery and the Royals will be cautious. Medlen is under contract for 2016, so the team will not push him to excess.

As part of his rehabilitation process, Medlen will expand his pitch count so he could work as a starter. But given the depth at the minor-league level (Christian Binford, Aaron Brooks) and the presence of Chris Young in the bullpen, it may be more likely to pitches as a reliever upon his return. The assignment would ease him back into big-league competition, allow him to contribute to the club and prepare him for a larger role next season.

1. Brandon Finnegan: He already impressed the big-league staff with his poise last October. Now Finnegan returns to the minors, chastened by a rough debut spring training, but committed to developing as a starter. He showed the three-pitch blend with Texas Christian University en route to the College World Series. His slider can be hellacious, and Finnegan showed enough confidence in his changeup to best Jacoby Ellsbury with it in his first big-league encounter.

As long as he stays healthy, Finnegan will almost certainly contribute to the big-league staff this season. He pitched in the World Series last year. He could start a playoff game this time around.

I received this question on Tuesday afternoon. In the next two games, Moustakas went 1-for-7. He hit a double and scored two runs. He played good defense, ran the bases hard and scored a pair of runs. He laid down a useful bunt on Thursday. He also got jammed on a first-pitch fastball and failed to drive in a run with one out and a runner at third.

In short, he looked a lot like the player he was in 2014. His ability to bunt has been encouraging. This new tool, plus the occasional opposite-field hit, should lift his batting average about the depths of .212. But rival scouts harbor the same concerns about Moustakas as always. Scouts believe he struggles to hit inside pitching – which, in the interest of fairness, Royals officials insist is not the case – and he lacks the requisite place discipline to ever be an elite hitter.

Moustakas has shown signs he will be a better hitter than he was in 2014. It is worth remembering that he looked fantastic in the spring of 2014, and then he posted his worst season ever. Royals officials believe it is helpful that Moustakas got off to a good start. But the long season still bears out the truth. We shall see what he can produce.

Ned Yost indicated the answer is May. Hochevar started a rehabilitation assignment on Thursday evening with Omaha. He must prove he can pitch on back-to-back days without experiencing any discomfort or loss in sharpness. He has yet to pitch on less than two days of rest.

Not necessarily. It’s too hard to forecast how this will shake out. The bullpen could experience an injury. The rotation could experience an injury (forcing Chris Young to the rotation). But the question does expose one potential flaw in the team’s bullpen construction: The seven pitchers do not allow for much roster flexibility.

When an emergency occurs, a manager often likes to have a pitcher or two with minor-league options, so he can easily send a player to the minors and call up a fresh arm. In the Kansas City bullpen, the only pitchers with options are Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. Perhaps you can sense demoting one of these players for 10 days would be a problem. The presence of Young makes it easier to soak up innings in a crisis, but it’s still not ideal.

Anyway, this problem will get sorted out. They usually do.

Or, maybe, the team will go to an eight-man bullpen and demote an outfielder. Stranger things have happened.

I’m including this question because my mom asked me to be less condescending to people on Twitter this year, and I’m trying to explain the environment.

My couch, the downtown library or The Quaff.

I skipped this one. I enjoyed “Aesthethica,” but “The Ark Work” was a cacophony of nonsense. This was the point, I guess, and that is deflating. Listening to that record mostly made me appreciate Deafheaven all the more.

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4730 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar. Download True Blue, The Star’s free Royals app, here.

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