While this has been a quiet offseason for the Royals, I feel good about the rotation headed into the 2017 season. This is no small feat, because as we chronicled plenty here last season, the rotation was a big reason the 2016 Royals missed the playoffs and limped home with a .500 record.
That excitement is not because I think the Royals have the best starting pitchers in the division; I don’t think the top of Kansas City’s rotation can match the top of Cleveland’s rotation. But I do think the Royals have very good depth in that rotation, and that can make a huge difference.
Think back to the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In the first one, the Royals enjoyed good health for their starters. James Shields made 34 starts. Jeremy Guthrie made 32. Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas made 30 each. Danny Duffy made 25. The other 11 were divided between Bruce Chen (seven), Liam Hendriks (three), and Aaron Brooks (one). Of course, those weren’t good starts; the trio combined for a 7.08 ERA in 61 innings in those 11 games. Kansas City lost the division by one game and finished just one game ahead of Oakland for home-field advantage in the wild-card game. Yes, it worked out, but had the Royals had just a little bit better rotation depth, they could have added an AL Central title to their honors.
Dayton Moore learned his lesson, though. Before the 2015 season, he added several pitchers in minor transactions, such as Chris Young, Kris Medlen, Yohan Pino, and Joe Blanton. His big move was to sign Edinson Volquez to replace Shields’ innings, but those four signings turned out to be important, too—they combined for 31 starts, second only to Volquez’s 33. Vargas only made nine starts before a UCL injury ended his year. Guthrie was mostly ineffective before being banished to the bullpen in August. Duffy missed more than a month with shoulder stiffness. The Royals went out and acquired Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline, which helped the rotation for the last couple of months but was obviously aimed at postseason success. Before Cueto came on board, those four unheralded pitchers stabilized the rotation while the AL Central was still a close race. Without Young especially (a 3.18 ERA in 18 starts), Kansas City might not have captured home-field advantage in the ALCS, and who knows how that would have turned out?
The Royals tried to keep this going last season, but it just didn’t work out. Medlen was by turns injured and ineffective. Young couldn’t keep the ball in the ballpark. Mike Minor couldn’t even stay healthy enough to finish his minor league rehab assignments. Dillon Gee had a few nice moments but really wasn’t good enough to make up for the others.
But as the Royals head into 2017, the rotation looks solid enough. And there seem to be plenty of potential replacements in-house for whenever they’re needed. In fact, the Royals probably don’t need to worry about finding some cheap potential starter replacements as much they need to worry about shoring up the bullpen.
The top of the rotation, with Duffy, Ian Kennedy, and Ventura, is decent, especially if Ventura ever reaches the potential he has shown. Vargas should be fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery; he makes a nice fourth starter. The newly-acquired Nate Karns will probably round out the rotation; he has certainly shown ability but not consistency as a big-leaguer. I think Karns is better than most fifth starters out there, though; if he were to repeat his 2015 season, the Royals would be thrilled.
That’s not a bad group. Every one of those guys has the potential to be an above-average starter. It’s a good bet Duffy and Kennedy will be, and likely that Vargas and Ventura will be around league average (Ventura was still worth 2.0 WARP last year, even in the worst season of his career).
But what about the depth that the Royals will inevitably need?
To me, the leading contender to step into the rotation at some point is Matt Strahm. That would be a little unfortunate, because right now it looks like he’ll be a key piece of the bullpen. But this could be an ideal situation for Strahm, as it will keep him in the majors, limit his innings, and still set the stage for him to join the rotation in 2018. Ideally, Strahm would join the rotation midway through the season, and the least effective of Ventura/Vargas/Karns can be sent to the bullpen. Or, with Vargas being a free agent after the year, perhaps he could be dealt for something, depending on where the Royals are in the race. Remember, Strahm was a starter until he was called up last season and put in the bullpen, so that’s what he is used to.
Admittedly, it might be folly to even mention his name, but another candidate to join the rotation is Kyle Zimmer.
OK, if you’re done laughing, I’ll state my case. The oft-injured Zimmer underwent thoracic outlet surgery last summer and should be ready to go for spring training. But in the little bit he has pitched, his stuff and command have appeared to be major-league ready. If that surgery has finally fixed him—and remember that the doctors who examined him were somewhat baffled by his problems before the diagnosis, as he did not seem to have arm or shoulder soreness—he could be ready to contribute. He will almost certainly start the year in the minors, but once he gets used to being on the mound again, he ought to be ready if and when he’s needed. It’s a giant question mark, but the possibility is there.
You may remember Alec Mills, who was called up as the 26th man for a May doubleheader last year and made his major league debut that night, then got called up again for a couple of appearances in September. Mills went 5-5 with a 3.44 ERA in 23 starts last year, 12 at Double-A Northwest Arkansas and 11 more at Triple-A Omaha. He had a pretty good season and, if he can repeat it while beginning the year at Omaha, he could be in the mix for a callup.
Then there’s Josh Staumont. You may not have heard of him yet, as he just made it to Northwest Arkansas midway through last year. But in 123 1/3 innings between there and Class A Wilmington, he struck out 167 hitters. That’s fantastic! However, he also walked 104, and hit 11 for good measure. Obviously, Staumont has a great fastball, but he’s not always certain where it’s going. Should he discover a way to consistently throw strikes, though, he should move up quickly and be in the mix as well. Perhaps it’s worth noting that his K/BB ratio improved from 1.40 at Wilmington to 1.97 for the Naturals.
And let’s not forget Jake Junis. The 24-year-old righty was somewhat overlooked last year, then made the Double-A All-Star Game and went 9-7 with a 3.25 ERA for the Naturals. He was promoted to Omaha and didn’t fare as well there (1-3, 7.20 ERA). But I’m sure he will be given a chance to start the season at Omaha, and if he impresses there, he’d certainly be an option.
And if all else fails, there’s still Chris Young.
OK, that was mean. Young did have a very fine season in 2015, after all. He didn’t seem to lose fastball velocity last year, but he got hit really hard anyway. It was a weird year for the tall veteran. If he can regain his 2015 form, that would be a big deal. It could keep Strahm as a dominant bullpen piece, while allowing the others on this list to keep learning in the minors. But if Young is still struggling, someone on this list might get his roster spot sooner rather than later.
All told, this group may not have the star power of Cleveland’s rotation, but I think this group is an improvement over what the Royals took into the 2016 season. There are certainly question marks but I’d rather take my chances with young reinforcements than with veterans trying to come back from injuries.