Royals

Dayton Moore’s March gamble on Chris Young stabilized Kansas City’s starting rotation

Royals pitcher Chris Young (32) throws against the Red Sox during their June 21 baseball game at Kauffman Stadium.
Royals pitcher Chris Young (32) throws against the Red Sox during their June 21 baseball game at Kauffman Stadium. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

Chris Young opened the first week of March stuck in his home near San Diego, throwing bullpen sessions at a local high school, waiting to make a decision about his future. He was the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year in 2014. Still, about a month before the start of the 2015 season, he was sifting through non-roster invites, wondering if a major-league offer would ever surface.

That same week, Royals general manager Dayton Moore experienced an epiphany one morning. He tasked assistant general manager Scott Sharp with a mission: Go sign Chris Young. He did not care that his rotation was already full and his bullpen was stocked nearly to the brim. He told Sharp to offer Young a big-league contract and hammer out the details.

“We need the guy,” he told Sharp.

Moore cannot discern the source of his impulse. The Royals did not experience an injury the day before. He did not see anything that piqued his interest in depth. He felt something, like a primal need to protect his roster, and acted upon it.

“The analytical guys can’t understand me, either,” Moore said with a grin during batting practice at Safeco Field in Seattle earlier this week.

The marriage has been fruitful for both parties so far. Young stabilized a rotation that has already suffered injuries to Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas. Young and Edinson Volquez form the only reliable duo on the starting staff. Even after weathering a seven-run pounding in his last outing, Young retains the lowest ERA of any regular Royals starter, with a 3.14 ERA in nine outings heading into his start on Saturday against the Athletics.

Kansas City inked Young to a one-year deal with a $675,000 base salary, but added a series of incentives that could make the contract worth $6 million. Young has already earned $750,000 for staying on the roster this long, and he will earn an additional $250,000 next month when he passes his 90th day as a Royal.

Team officials declined to specify Young’s current progress on his other incentives, but he can earn up to $2.25 million if he makes 29 starts and $2.075 million if he totals 140 innings. Both options appear possible, as the Royals have become reliant upon Young, a 6-10 marvel with a checkered injury history and a mid-80s fastball.

The combination scared off teams this winter. Young insists the Royals were the only club to make him a big-league offer. He declined to discuss the overtures from other clubs, but he was believed to be close to accepting a minor-league deal with the Dodgers, according to people familiar with the situation.

Moore’s directive to Sharp changed Young’s destination. Sharp reached out to Young’s agent, Jon Fetterolf, and the pair completed the deal within 36 hours. Fetterolf declined to comment in depth for this article, but confirmed the time frame of the negotiations.

A perception exists among some in the industry that Young operates without representation. This is inaccurate; Fetterolf is an attorney based in Washington, D.C., with a small base of clients. When Sharp initially tried to get in contact with Young in November, he called Lon Babby, Young’s former agent, only to learn Young had changed representation.

Sharp kept in contact with Fetterolf throughout the winter. The two sides could not match up during the first few months, and Kansas City signed pitchers like Volquez and Kris Medlen. In December, Sharp recalled, the Royals offered Young a minor-league deal.

“Had he made the team, it would have been pretty significant,” Sharp said. “He just wasn’t interested in that, at that point.”

Young still held out hope for a big-league offer. The year before, he pitched 165 innings with a 3.65 ERA for Seattle. Now two years removed from the thoracic outlet surgery, a procedure that he believes saved his career, he insisted his health was no longer an issue. Not every team agreed, but Fetterolf still informed Sharp, on more than one occasion, that his client would be going in a different direction.

“And then a week would go by, and I would see that he hadn’t signed anywhere,” Sharp said. “I would just shoot him a text, ‘Anything new?’ ”

As winter approached spring, Young set a deadline for himself. He decided he needed to sign by the time spring-training games began. He would wait until the end of the first week of March.

The self-imposed time limit proved fortuitous for the Royals. Had it been a week earlier, Young likely would have accepted a minor-league contract and joined another club.

Instead he traveled to Arizona and underwent a physical. During his examination, the training staff spotted various causes for concern. In 10 years in the majors, Young had undergone multiple surgeries to his shoulder, “stuff that he’s beaten the odds with, that other people don’t,” trainer Nick Kenney said.

The staff reported their findings to Moore. He was undisturbed. For Young to recover from all those ailments only confirmed his character.

“It’s no secret that Chris has been through the wars,” Kenney said. “He’s had a lot of things done to him surgically. There’s flags in his history. But sometimes you take the chance, based on (the person the arm is) attached to.”

A little more than three months later, the decision looked prescient. An epiphany from Moore has buoyed the team’s rotation and allowed Young the opportunity to flourish.

“I just thought that the guy is a winner,” Moore said. “I felt we were going to need that depth in our rotation. He was out there. You just knew you could trust him.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

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