KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Fans of Royals right-hander Luis Mendoza finally breathed a sigh of relief after manager Ned Yost announced this week that Mendoza had won the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation.
As one fan Tweeted, “Thank the baseball gods!”
The spring battle for the fifth spot in the rotation has drawn that type of passion from the fan base mainly because many Royals fans were terrified first that the Royals simply would give the spot to underachieving starter Luke Hochevar.
The Hochevar issue was settled earlier in spring when the Royals opted to send the former No. 1 pick to the bullpen.
But then Mendoza fans began to worry that Yost would hand the No. 5 spot to the likeable-but-erratic Bruce Chen, who won 11 games last year but posted an unsightly 5.07 ERA.
That worry was justified every time Yost hinted this spring that Mendoza would be an “ideal long reliever” if need be.
This seeming lack of support seemed very strange to fans of Mendoza, whom pitching coach Dave Eiland told me was the best starting pitcher on the team after June of last season.
Mendoza posted a 3.28 ERA after June last season, and followed that up with a phenomenal showing in winter ball.
Mendoza’s Obregon club in the Mexican Pacific League won the league championship, and Mendoza was named the most valuable player of the Caribbean Series.
And Mendoza continued to impress this spring, giving up just one run in 11 innings through three appearances.
Not only that, but Mendoza’s competition, Chen, has been battered around all spring. Chen has given up 13 runs and 16 hits in 13 2/3 innings.
Yet as recently as Monday, Yost continued to suggest to reporters that Mendoza remained the ideal candidate to become the team’s long reliever.
But keep in mind that the Royals may have been exploring trade options with Chen, who is due to make $4.5 million this season. And admitting early on in spring camp that Chen would be demoted to the bullpen would have done nothing but devalue his trade worth.
The Royals and Yost hung on to the ruse as long as they could, but with the season starting next week, they finally had to settle the matter of the fifth spot so they can make preparations.
And truth be told, Mendoza was the only logical choice. It would have sent a horrible message if a guy can pitch as well as Mendoza has since last June and still not make the rotation.
Yost finally admitted as much Tuesday.
“Mendy had a better spring,” Yost told reporters in Surprise, Ariz. “He’s (the) better guy right now.”
Of course, Yost added the disclaimer that I’m sure any Mendoza fan found somewhat irritating: “I’m not saying that won’t change somewhere down the road because the more we get deeper into it, who knows what is going to happen?” Yost said. “But that’s where we’re starting.”
Mendoza likely will make his first start on April 6 at Philadelphia. And it didn’t seem to matter to Mendoza that the process of winning the fifth spot was drawn out, even unnecessarily as it seemed to be.
“I’m pitching with a lot of confidence,” he told reporters. “That’s the main thing. I think I can take that to the big-league level and get people out.”
Royals fans seem to believe that, too. He first caught their eyes in 2011 when he turned his career around at age 27 and posted a 12-5 season with a 2.18 ERA at Class AAA Omaha. In a brief September call-up that same year, he went 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA with the Royals.
Since then, Mendoza has become a fan favorite, as bloggers and talk-show callers have campaigned for his insertion into the rotation.
But Mendoza still didn’t seem to gain the trust of Yost, who demoted him to the bullpen last May before injuries and ineffectiveness in the rotation finally forced the Royals to put Mendoza back into the rotation.
And now the Royals are again turning to Mendoza, who at the very least has the trust of Eiland.
After the Royals acquired James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana, and re-signed Jeremy Guthrie, Eiland told me, “I think the guy that is getting somewhat overlooked here is Luis Mendoza. Mendy, from June on, was our best pitcher, hands down. He really discovered some things from June on, and he gave us some outstanding games. Do not sell him short.”