Kyle Farnsworth enters his 12th big league season, somehow still a project. His tools belie his consistently disappointing results.
But it's going to be interesting to see how he does at his latest adventure. The 33-year-old Farnsworth, who still looks as intimidating as almost any pitcher in the majors, will get a chance to start in spring training for the Royals, who must figure they have nothing to lose.
Signed to a two-year, $9.25 million contract a year ago — the kind that bottom-tier teams offer when they can't land the free agents with options — he flopped as a setup man for Joakim Soria. An Opening Day meltdown against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field capped by Jim Thome's three-run home run set the tone for a season in which he threw a career-low 37 1/3 innings and saw Kansas City go 13-28 when he pitched.
The Royals are blessed with a good pitching coach, however, and Bob McClure has convinced manager Trey Hillman that Farnsworth can be an effective starter, in part because he has developed a third pitch to complement his fastball-hard slider combination.
"We're going to lengthen him out and see how it goes," McClure told MLB.com. "Because what he showed me last year was the ability to back off a little bit and not pitch with his hair on fire. And to be a starter, you have to be able to just kind of go pitch by pitch."
McClure struck on the idea of experimenting with Farnsworth while considering the Yankees' dilemma of keeping Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen or giving him the chance to start.
"Chamberlain is still in that mode where he's learning, so he's pitching like his hair's on fire, and it seems to me he's a little more suited for the pen at this point," McClure said. "Farnsworth, to me, just went the opposite. He was able to start throwing 92, 93 (mph) and use some two-seamers to where we think it may be something to look at."
Farnsworth, the holder of a 4.47 career ERA, has earned $31 million because of a four-seam fastball that parks in the 94-to-96 range most days and still can climb to 97 or 98. Dave Cameron of the Web site Fangraphs.com says Farnsworth has generally had a 70/30 mix of fastballs and sliders but last season threw 50 percent four-seam fastballs, 20 percent sliders and the new pitch (labeled as either a cut fastball or a two-seam fastball) 30 percent of the time.
Suddenly hitters were driving the ball into the ground, rather than the outfield gaps — though at key moments his mastery of hitters disappeared. He has been a fly-ball pitcher most of his career but last September produced four times more grounders than flies.
Kevin Brown wasn't successful until he learned to dial down his fastball from the high to low 90s. Is Farnsworth capable of making that same type of transition? No one should project a $105 million contract in his future, but he might nail down a rotation spot behind Zack Greinke and Gil Meche, the only sure things the Royals have.
"I've heard of crazier things tried, believe me," McClure said. "I don't think it's that far-fetched."
Brian Bannister, Lucke Hochevar and Kyle Davies have the inside track on the remianing spots in the rotation. Farnsworth will join Robinson Tejada and Philip Humber in trying to grab one of those three spots in spring training. No one is knocking on the door from the Kansas City system, although 2009 No. 1 pick Aaron Crow and Cuban newcomer Noel Arguelles could announce their presence loudly this year.
Spring arrives early — Royals pitchers and catchers aren't scheduled to report to camp in Surprise, Ariz., until Wednesday. The team opened training with a voluntary mini-camp on Friday, and Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, closer Joakim Soria and leading hitter Billy Butler were among the players on the field.