The casual fan and, to some extent, the hardcore fans and even writers often gloss over the early season schedule with a ‘they can probably go without a fifth starter for a while if they wanted to’ and move along. To be fair, that approach is not without merit as the Kansas City Royals have not shown a tremendous tendency to mess with their starting rotation very often, no matter how many off days might exist.
In 2016, the Royals have a rather bizarre first week schedule. After opening on Sunday night, they have the usual next day off before playing an afternoon game on Tuesday the 5th. Then, however, Kansas City will not play either of the next TWO days.
That unusual double day off would allow the Royals, if they so choose, to start Edinson Volquez on Opening Night and then again on April 8th or, for those of you scoring at home, have Volquez start two of the season’s first three games. Given the amount of money they threw at Ian Kennedy this off season, it is quite likely the team might well go with him on the 8th, opting to come back with Volquez on the 9th. The likely game two starter, Yordano Ventura, would be available to go on the 10th. Chris Young, speculated to be the fourth starter at this point, could delay his debut until April 11th, with the winner of the fifth starter spot (Kris Medlen?) finally making a start on the 12th.
Following the first week, the Royals have off-days on April 18th, April 28th and May 5th. Those are truthfully pretty standard off-days and the kind of schedule that pushes rotation juggling into the background. Or does it?
Let’s start with innings challenged Chris Young. As good as Young was for the Royals last year (or the Mariners the year before for that matter), he has never thrown 180 innings in a season and surpassed 160 inning just once in the last seven years. By using their front three starters whenever possible, the Royals could limit their number four starter to only four starts in the first month of the season.
To carry it a step further, by utilizing all of the off days to their fullest extent, the Royals’ would only have to go to their fifth starter on April 12th, April 17rd and April 27th, before finally settling into a regular rotation turn on May 3rd.. If Kris Medlen, who certainly is not going to pile up huge innings this season, is the chosen one for the fifth spot that would be of tremendous advantage. The Royals could even opt to push Young into the fifth spot, essentially buying a ‘free month’ for a pitcher who would seem unlikely to be able to manage a full season’s worth of work.
Now, you might point out that Dillon Gee is in the mix along with Chien-Ming Wang, Danny Duffy and the ever present prayer that this mid-season will be THE mid-season when Kyle Zimmer comes up to bolster the rotation. With all those names available and plenty of question marks when it comes to the Volquez-Ventura-Kennedy trio at the top of the rotation, does it really make any sense for Kansas City to juggle the rotation through the first five weeks of the season?
I believe it does.
We know that the Royals will break camp with Volquez, Ventura, Kennedy, Young, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria and Luke Hochevar on the roster. A reasonable assumption has Dillon Gee, Danny Duffy and Kris Medlen garnering spots as well, leaving one spot open for what most assume will be a twelve man pitching staff that heads north to face the Mets on April 3rd. Certainly, sooner or later, the Royals will carry 12 pitchers for most of the season, maybe even 13, but it does not have to start off that way.
Go back to the schedule, it does not affect only the starting rotation. The Royals can use the big four in their bullpen for an inning each on the 3rd, enjoy the day off, use them all again on the 5th, give them two days off and then use them again on the 8th and do so without putting any undo strain on any of them. Also, keep in mind that Chris Young (or whomever is the number four starter) will not pitch until April 11th and hence could be available to pitch out of the pen on the 3rd and the 5th.
Now, a starter could implode early or a game could go long and let’s face it the Kansas City Royals are not heading north with just 8 pitchers, nor should they. That said, they do not have to bring their entire intended pitching staff, either. They simply do not need that many pitchers.
Whoever will be the initial fifth starter will not be needed until April 12th and hence available out of the pen for the season’s first two games. After starting on the 12th, that pitcher will pitch again on the 17th and 23rd, but the schedule does not really allow for him to help out in the pen between much once he makes his first start. As such, the Royals will have to carry five starters beginning April 12th and there is no real way around it. However, that does not necessarily mean they must have their traditional pitching staff in place right then and there. They have some flexibility and an opportunity for some roster creativity when it comes to the ‘next’ four guys to make the staff.
Of course, the guys we are really talking about are Gee, Duffy, Medlen and Wang. When the grind of the season takes hold in May, those four plus the ‘first eight’ certain to make the Opening Day roster will very likely comprise the Royals’ 12 man staff and one of them will be in the starting rotation. Whether they will be on the 25 man on April 3rd is the bigger question. At least, anyway, it is MY question.
In this discussion we dance into the world of ‘options’, which should be clearer than it is…or maybe it’s just me. It also appears, based on the fact that Duffy spent less than 20 days in the minors in 2014 and 2015, Danny should an option remaining, which could be helpful as the Royals prepare to head nort. Wang’s opt out is not until May, so the Royals could start him in Omaha at the beginning of the season should they so choose.
The Royals, my friends, do have options. Barring a starter meltdown in two of the first three games and barring multiple extra inning contests in the first couple of weeks, Kansas City is going to be hard pressed to use more than ten pitchers over the first couple of weeks. Of course, they might want eleven since it is not 1984 anymore, but the team does not need to rush into the traditional setup.
Okay, let’s take a breath for a moment. You can see that I am trying to create roster spots early in the season and it is part of a grand, if cloudy vision of playing the very first part of the season with a more playoff type roster. All of which will be part of what is now the second part of this series to come on Thursday. For now, in this unintended part one, let’s stick strictly with the pitchers and just how many and when the Royals will really need them.
Let’s start with the talented and dare we say enigmatic Danny Duffy. The lefty with all the stuff has not had a great spring to date. Nor has he also has not seen the amount of work one might reasonably equate with a pitcher expected to start. Like many, particularly given the Royals’ success with turning failed starters, I am intrigued by Duffy’s potential as a reliever. Am I ready to hand him the ball in the 10th inning against the Mets? Maybe not quite yet.
Duffy pitched eight scoreless and frankly dominant innings out of the pen late last season, but was tagged for four runs in six post-season frames. The allure of Duffy is another power arm to throw into the late inning mix (not to mention a left handed power arm), but a little seasoning might do a body good.
In Gee and Medlen, two guys who have had decent to good springs and decent to great past seasons, the Royals have at least one starter and one reliever, we just don’t know which is which. Gee’s opt out involved being on the 40 man roster, which he is, so the Royals could send him to Omaha if they wanted. They could do the same with Medlen, but it seems unlikely they would do it with both.
In other words, pick two of Gee, Medlen and Duffy and head north Kansas City. Head north with ten pitchers simply because you won’t need more than that, at least not until later in the month. If that makes you nervous take eleven – be it the last of the three just mentioned or Wang or, hell, Scott Alexander. There are a lot of ways to approach this and following is my thought process, which for ease, I am going to install Young as the fourth starter and Medlen as the eventual fifth starter:
- April 3 – Starter: Volquez — Bullpen: Young, Duffy, Hochevar, Soria, Herrera, Davis (Ventura, Kennedy)
- April 5 – Starter: Ventura — Bullpen: Young, Duffy, Hochevar, Soria, Herrera, Davis (Kennedy, Volquez)
- That’s nine, count ‘em nine, pitchers. Although likely all the Royals will need, they won’t do it on the chance that they have to go to Young early and find themselves in a 12 inning game late. In kind of an odd turn of events, I give the tenth spot to Dillon Gee – my loser for the fifth starter spot. The theory is that Gee might be needed out of the pen and would have to come onboard sooner rather than later and Medlen could stay behind and pitch a simulated game to not have a huge layoff between pitching. Add Gee and even with a seven man bullpen, the Royals are only carrying ten pitchers. Now, if by the nuances of free agency and options, Medlen cannot be left behind in Arizona, plug him in for Duffy to start the season.
- April 8 – Starter: Volquez — Bullpen: Gee, Duffy, Hochevar, Soria, Herrera, Davis (Kennedy, Ventura, Young)
- April 9 – Starter: Kennedy — Bullpen: Gee, Duffy, Hochevar, Soria, Herrera, Davis (Ventura, Young, Volquez)
- April 10 – Starter: Ventura — Bullpen: Gee, Duffy, Hochevar, Soria, Herrera, Davis (Young, Volquez, Kennedy)
- Okay, about in here, Ned Yost’s head starts to throb. He hates to overuse relievers and wisely would be hesitant to do so the first week of the season. I feel his pain as well, so here is the point where the Royals replace one of the their SIX bench position players with Wang (or pick your reliever). Of course, if the starters are giving the Royals innings and the bullpen is still fresh, they can delay the Wang call-up (the number of suggestive adjectives to put with Wang was so great that I simply decided to forego all of them!) for another day or two.
- April 11 – Starter: Young — Bullpen: Wang, Gee, Duffy, Hochevar, Soria, Herrera, Davis (Volquez, Ventura, Kennedy)
- Up comes Kris Medlen after this game and down goes another position player, giving the Royals a 12 man staff and 13 man bench. There is a thought pinging around my head that Kansas City could get really creative, swap out Duffy or Gee for a fresh bullpen arm and keep five bench players, but I am already several degrees down the road of unlikeliness as it is.
- April 12 – Starter: Medlen — Bullpen: Wang, Gee, Duffy, Hochevar, Soria, Herrera, Davis (Volquez, Ventura, Kennedy, Young)
- April 13 – Starter: Volquez — Bullpen: Wang, Gee, Duffy, Hochevar, Soria, Herrera, Davis (Kennedy, Ventura, Young, Medlen)
And off we go with a very traditional roster. Seems like a lot of maneuvering for just six games, doesn’t it? Still, if you the Royals can pull it off without damaging to any real extent their future roster maneuverability, then it is certainly worth considering.
Would the Royals actually break camp with 15 position players or even 14? If they did, what would they do with them and why would they want to? That side of the equation comes later this week in Part Two.