'Super happy to be here': Clarke looking to fit in KC bullpen

Salvy showing fellow catchers the ropes; Barlow aims to build off '21 success

March 16th, 2022

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Taylor Clarke spent the last 24 hours before the lockout began this offseason on a wild ride through the Phoenix area. The newest Royal was non-tendered by the D-backs on Nov. 30, and he went to Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz., to say goodbye to some people in the organization the next day.

As he was leaving, talks intensified with Kansas City, so much so that Clarke drove over to the Royals' complex in Surprise -- on the other side of Phoenix -- to complete his physical and finalize a one-year contract.

A few hours later, all communication was shut off with his new team because of the lockout.

“It was definitely a priority to sign before the lockout, just because we had somewhere to be,” Clarke said, referencing what the strain of not knowing would put on his wife and three kids. “You knew when the lockout was lifted, everyone would hit the ground running. Knowing where I was going to be gave me a lot of peace of mind.

“It was a pretty wild 24 hours, though.”

Now allowed back in the complex at Spring Training, Clarke is getting to know his teammates and coaches -- and giving fans their first look at him during a live BP session on Tuesday afternoon. The right-hander threw to Salvador Perez and faced Whit Merrifield, Hunter Dozier and Andrew Benintendi, flashing his 95-mph heater, slider and changeup.

Clarke, 28, has a chance to win a prominent bullpen role this year if he’s able to find the consistency he lacked in 2021, when he posted a 4.98 ERA. He started the season as one of the D-backs' most consistent relievers, but a lat strain derailed his season. Still, Clarke posted 3.54 FIP and lowered his home runs per nine innings to 0.8 from 1.7 in 2020.

“First impressions came from over in Arizona, talking with them,” manager Mike Matheny said. “They made it sound they were surprised they let him get away. … We watched him throw, and the stuff looks right. Looks good. He’s in the mix. We’ll have to see, but when we brought him in, there was hope he’d come in here, figures it out and fights for a job.”

Clarke isn’t completely unfamiliar with the Royals; he was roommates with Brad Keller and Gabe Speier in Double-A, when all three were with the D-backs' organization. When Clarke signed on Dec. 1, he called Keller to tell him the news.

“I was like, ‘Hey dude, how would you feel about being teammates?’” Clarke said. “I don’t think he got it at first, he was like, ‘Wait, what?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going over to Surprise right now to sign with the Royals.’ And he was pumped, like, ‘Let’s go.’ It was great.

“It’s just full circle. Baseball’s a small world. I’m super happy to be here.”

Following Salvy’s lead

It’s clear watching Spring Training workouts that fans gravitate toward Perez -- groups of kids and parents flock to whatever field the Royals' All-Star catcher is on and train their eyes on whatever drill he’s working on.

They’re not the only ones.

Perez has a following among his fellow catchers, too, with the young players in camp making sure they follow his lead on the field. When it’s Perez’s turn for a catching drill, MJ Melendez, Sebastian Rivero, Cam Gallagher, Freddy Fermin, Kale Emshoff, Logan Porter and Tyler Cropley don’t take their eyes off of the veteran backstop in hopes of picking up advice or cues that will make their game better. 

“I’ll always keep waving the banner for Salvy, but he’s out there teaching,” Matheny said. “It’s like a dream. … That’s the cool part. You’ve got a superstar-caliber player that’s sharing and going out of his way, and you can tell he’s getting enjoyment out of it. That’s when you start taking an organization to another level.” 

Barlow’s prep

Scott Barlow has always been a “seasons guy,” meaning he likes living in places that have summers and winters, falls and springs. So when he and his wife bought a house in Kansas City this offseason, Barlow welcomed the snow and ice that descended on the Midwest.

Now, though, the Royals reliever is happy to be in a place that doesn’t have too much weather fluctuation, because it means he’s at Spring Training in Arizona. And Barlow, the club's most effective reliever last year, is looking to build upon that success in 2022.

“I look upon last year as a success,” Barlow said. “Picked apart what I did well, what I can always improve on. It always seems like what you can improve on always outweighs what you did well. So just pitch execution on certain pitches, formulating a game plan for what I need to do differently.”

Barlow posted a 2.42 ERA in 74 1/3 innings. He took over the closer spot early and ran with it, leading the Royals in saves with 16. The expectation is that he’ll return to that role again in 2022.

“It was awesome to get that experience,” Barlow said. “Loved getting more opportunities to throw that ninth. But coming into spring, I’ve always been a person to fight for positions. Roster spot, role. I never go into Spring Training knowing I have something locked down. I think I’ll be like that forever. I’m still coming in here like, ‘OK, I hope to make the team.’ But I’m excited for what this spring brings.”