In a few days, Royals pitchers and catchers will report to spring training, which is the first step in ending the long national nightmare that is the offseason. When they do report, there will be a few new faces to go along with some that we’ve grown to know and love over the past few seasons. Gone are Wade Davis and Greg Holland, but new starters like Nate Karns and now Jason Hammel are in the fold. There are plenty of questions surrounding the staff, but one that I’ve been thinking about recently is how the staff should shape up when the season opens in April.
There are three locks for the rotation. Danny Duffy is the Opening Day guy. Ian Kennedy will likely pitch the second game. And I’d bet that Hammel will go in game number three. The order is largely irrelevant because it’ll shift as the season evolves. What’s important is those three are locks. From this point forward, there are a few candidates.
The likely setup is that Jason Vargas and Karns round out the rotation. Vargas is being paid $8 million, and while that’s not a great reason for a team to count on someone, it’s the reality of basically any business. I don’t know how long his leash will be, but if he’s healthy, I think he’s in the rotation. I do believe that Karns could either be in the rotation or the bullpen, but based on some of the rumblings around the team, it seems clear that the team likes Karns in the rotation.
Only I’m not sure if they like Karns in the rotation as much as they like Matt Strahm in the bullpen to set up Kelvin Herrera. Strahm is kind of the wild card in this whole situation because the Royals see him as a starter long-term (and I do, too), and starters are inherently more valuable than relievers. It’s simple math, right? For 60-70 innings to be more valuable than 180 innings, those 60-70 better be insanely good or the 180 better be insanely bad. The recently traded Davis is a great example of both extremes here.
If we’re being honest, I think there’s a good chance Strahm is better than Karns in 2017 as a starter. I also think there’s a good chance he’s better than Vargas. Given what we saw of him in 2016, I think there’s at least a small chance he’s better than Hammel and Kennedy too.
And yet, I think Strahm pitching out of the bullpen is the right move, at least to start the season.
If that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. It’s a little convoluted. I’m telling you that Strahm is likely better than at least one of Vargas and Karns as a starter and yet I don’t think he should be a starter while those two should be. I have two reasons for this. The first is that I believe the sum of the parts of the team is better with Strahm out of the bullpen and the other two in the rotation.
Strahm has a chance to be a truly dominant reliever. We saw that in his brief debut during 2016. We saw him post a 1.23 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 22 innings while allowing just 13 hits. I’m not going to say he can maintain that pace over 60-70 innings, but I think he can be truly excellent as a reliever. While many believe Karns could be a dominant reliever as well, given his repertoire, I don’t know that I see him as able to duplicate what Strahm is capable of doing.
On the flip side, I don’t see dominance from Strahm as a starter, and I definitely don’t see it now while he’s still working to develop his changeup as a third pitch. What I do know is that Jason Vargas has been more than good enough in his time with the Royals to be a solid back of the rotation option. We also know that Karns has been able to succeed as a starting pitcher in the big leagues before, finishing with a 3.67 ERA in 2015 and posting solid numbers before his back injury in 2016. So these guys have done it before.
To me, the Royals best bet for the pitching staff is for Karns and Vargas to be good enough to hold down the four and five spots while Strahm is very good to dominant out of the bullpen. I don’t think that’s too much to expect, and I don’t think it’s even all that unlikely. Still, though, Strahm might need to be in the rotation at some point because plans all too often get broken.
The problem, though, is that Strahm will almost assuredly be on an innings limit in 2017. That’s the other reason I’m good with at least starting the season with Strahm in the bullpen . He’d either have to get skipped fairly regularly or pitch out of the bullpen at some point anyway. He threw 122.1 innings last season after throwing 94 in 2015. I’d guess his limit would be somewhere around 150. If he can start the season out of the bullpen for the first couple months, that would limit his innings enough that he’d be able to start for basically the rest of the season and hopefully deep into October. And hey, if he’s not needed in the rotation because there were no injuries and no missteps, all the better. He can continue to develop at the big league level.
Some might argue that it’s very difficult to stretch a pitcher out during the season, and I’d definitely agree. I remember writing a similar article prior to last season arguing that Duffy should start the year out of the bullpen and shift to the rotation if needed. I do believe that a pitcher can be stretched out enough to be a serviceable rotation option in less than a month, and we saw that with Duffy last year. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s certainly possible.
It’s hard to predict anything with 100 percent confidence when it comes to baseball, but one thing I can say with almost complete certainty is that the Royals will need more than five starters in 2017. I think Strahm gets his shot, but I believe he’s best served to start the season in the bullpen to help balance out the pitching staff as best possible and to keep his innings manageable. It’s a delicate balance, but I believe that’s the right move for the 2017 season.