Bales of hay sit in the backyard of a Texarkana, Ark., house that belongs to the family of Royals pitcher Scott Barlow’s wife.
Most days, the hay is doled out to the cows Barlow’s brother-in-law tends to.
But during the offseason, Barlow takes one bale for himself.
He hangs a towel with a spray-painted strike zone on the fence for a guide and uses the bale of hay, its diameter about 5 feet, as his backstop.
“It’s pretty solid,” Barlow said. “You can throw as hard as you want and it’s gonna stay there.”
Until last month, when he reported to the Royals’ Arizona facility 30 days early, the bale of hay was Barlow’s only throwing partner.
Now he’s got an army of them, each one a new teammate who’s helping him adjust to life with a new organization.
Barlow, a former Dodgers farmhand selected in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, signed a one-year contract in December and was immediately added to the Royals’ 40-man roster. With a small part of the pitching staff solidified, Barlow arrived at spring training to compete for a major-league job.
Manager Ned Yost isn’t ready to make an evaluation. He told reporters Saturday morning it’s too early to take stock in side sessions a week before spring training games are scheduled to start.
Asked where Barlow ranked on the list of “eye-popping” pitchers, Yost begrudgingly responded, “He’s up there. He’s been impressive.”
Catcher Salvador Perez was more keen to provide a review of Barlow’s abilities. He caught Barlow’s first bullpen session of camp on Friday and walked away from the 30-pitch session impressed by the 25-year-old right-hander’s arsenal.
“If (Yost) asks me, I’ll tell him he has four pitches and can really help us as a starter,” Perez said.
“Fastball was the first I saw, but curveball, slider, change-up, they’re all pretty good.”
Barlow has no designs on the role he might play with the Royals. Like any other pitcher in this clubhouse, he’s prepared to join the as-of-now unsettled bullpen if asked.
But as long as he’s played professionally, the majority of his work has come as a starter. Of 109 appearances, only six were in relief.
Barlow, who underwent Tommy John surgery early in his career, assembled a 3.29 ERA last season despite struggling through seven mid-season starts (26 earned runs in 32 1/3 innings) at Class AAA Oklahoma City.
He spent the bulk of the year dominating the Texas League with Class AA Tulsa, where he was 6-3 with a 2.10 ERA in 107 1/3 innings. He might have led the league in strikeouts if not for the brief promotion to the Pacific Coast League, where he recorded 36 for a season total of 160. He finished ranked fifth in the league, behind an Athletics’ prospect who whiffed 150 hitters.
Still, the Dodgers granted Barlow free agency despite a promising campaign during which he struck out nearly 28 percent of the batters he faced and allowed walks about 10 percent of the time.
With some luck and a solid spring, another offseason spent throwing at hay, often by light of a car’s headlamps, could be the precursor to a major-league debut.
“I can’t control most of the stuff but I can control my effort level,” Barlow said.