Brandon Finnegan slapped his left hand across his glove and hung his head on Sunday afternoon. His final act as a competitor for a spot in the Royals bullpen occurred when he served up a walk-off home run to White Sox prospect Courtney Hawkins. A day later, the club settled their most pressing debate of this camp as they optioned Finnegan to Class-AA Northwest Arkansas.
Finnegan, the 21-year-old left-hander, will shift into a role as a starter, with either the Naturals or with Class-AAA Omaha. His performance this spring eased the decision for the Royals. With an 8.53 Cactus League ERA, shaky command and an equilibrium jolted by his first spring training, Finnegan lacked a credible case for the big-league bullpen.
“We just felt that it was better for him to go down,” manager Ned Yost said. “He had a huge workload last year. He hasn’t been real sharp in spring training. Just get him back down and get him going again. And have him ready for whenever we need him.”
Yost indicated Finnegan would operate under strict pitch counts at the start of the season. Finnegan logged 145 2/3 innings last season as he became the first player in baseball history to play in both the College World Series and its professional counterpart in the same season. Before this past winter, Finnegan had not taken more than two weeks off since the start of his sophomore season at Texas Christian University.
J.J. Picollo, the assistant general manager in charge of player personnel, indicated the team would better explain Finnegan’s exact schedule of usage on Monday. Team officials informed Finnegan of his demotion before Kansas City’s 4-2 victory over San Francisco. Finnegan had left the complex by the time the clubhouse was open to reporters, a team spokesman said.
“He’s going to be a very solid major-league pitcher,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He just needs to go down, take a deep breath and reset himself.”
With Finnegan out of the pitcher, the two southpaw relievers left in camp are Franklin Morales and Brian Flynn. Both may make the Opening Day roster, as Luke Hochevar is considered likely to begin the season on the disabled list.
The club made eight other roster cuts on Sunday. They optioned pitcher Michael Mariot, pitcher Yohan Pino, catcher Francisco Pena, infielder Cheslor Cuthbert and outfielder Reymond Fuentes to Omaha. Outfielder Terrance Gore was optioned to Class-A Wilmington. The team also reassigned outfielder Brett Eibner and catcher Parker Morin to minor-league camp.
The demotion marks the first hiccup of Finnegan’s professional career. He rode a wave of continual success after the club made him the No. 17 pick in last June’s draft. He carved up opponents as a starter for Class-A Wilmington. He shined as a reliever in Class AA Northwest Arkansas. He struck out Derek Jeter in his big-league debut and earned a spot in the bullpen for all of October.
As this camp began, the debate about his role in 2015 served as a lone source of intrigue for a team with almost its entire 25-man roster already set. In the long view, developing Finnegan as a starter readies him for a similar role in the big-league rotation, which could seek his contributions as early as 2016. In the short term, Finnegan exhibited such talent in 2014 that Kansas City could not ignore his presence when assembling their relief staff.
“Look, nothing matters but winning right now,” Yost said earlier this month. “That's all that matters. It's not about 'wasting' first-round picks or who pitches where. We've got an opportunity at this point in time to compete for a world championship. Nothing else matters.”
Yet in four appearances, Finnegan could not replicate his performance from the fall. The elements conspired against him this spring. He was the youngest pitcher in camp. He tweaked his hamstring early in camp, which delayed his Cactus League debut by five days.
He yielded two runs on three hits in his first outing, which sent the tone for the next two weeks. Finnegan allowed at least one run in all of his outings. He gave up 2.05 walks and hits per inning.
“He wanted to come in here and really impress us, make the team really bad – as do all these other guys,” Eiland said. “But everything being so new, and being in uncharted waters so to speak, I just think he put a lot of pressure on himself.”
The pressure can now alleviate. Finnegan can operate in relative anonymity in the minor leagues. And his stay there may still be brief.
“It’s been a whirlwind for this kid, from the time that he signed,” Yost said. “And then went to A-ball, Double A, the big leagues, the playoffs, the World Series. A hectic winter for him. Lets him back to where he needs to be to help us.”