In one week, Royals pitchers and catchers will report to spring training in Surprise to begin the 2018 season. There are an inordinate number of questions left to be asked and answered, but one area where I think the Royals may be surprisingly sound is in their starting rotation, at least as of this particular moment. By my count, the Royals have nine guys on their 40-man roster who could contribute positively to the rotation in 2018. That’s obviously quite a broad term because I don’t think all nine are likely to be good options, but having that many potential starters is a really nice place to start, no pun intended, for the 2018 team.
Let’s take a look at the options in the order I think they’ll slot in the rotation, with their PECOTA projection highlighted:
Danny Duffy (137 IP, 4.41 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 116 K, 49 BB, 1.2 WARP)
I’ll bet on Duffy to beat that projection. He’s had his share of injury issues in the past, but I think he can get past the innings and he hasn’t had an ERA that high since his rookie season. No, Duffy hasn’t become a true ace yet, though he can look like one for stretches. Over the last four seasons and change, he’s thrown 636.1 innings with a 3.41 ERA and 3.84 FIP. Since re-entering the starting rotation in 2016, he’s thrown 308 innings with a 3.86 ERA, 8.7 SO/9 and 2.3 BB/9 while allowing just 289 hits. Duffy may not be a “true ace” but he’s very good.
Ian Kennedy (180 IP, 5.39 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 153 K, 72 BB, -0.6 WARP)
That’s not a good projection for the guy who probably opens the season as the number two. He’s not exactly a fan favorite and he comes by the projection honestly after his horrific season in 2017, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion he’ll be that bad. Keep in mind that from 2014-2016, he threw 565 innings with a 3.84 ERA and 4.10 FIP while striking out a batter per inning. He’s into his 30s now, so let’s not pretend like he couldn’t have just completely fallen off a cliff, but I think there’s something to the hamstring injury sabotaging his 2017. Kennedy’s potential for continued implosion is a big reason why the depth is so important, but if the rotation is actually going to be good in 2018, the Royals will need Kennedy to be 2016 and April 2017 version.
Jason Hammel (165 IP, 5.07 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 126 K, 59 BB, 0.1 WARP)
Hammel’s season is probably contingent on him getting out of games before he can implode, which given the bullpen options seems risky to bet on that. In 2017, he was a more than serviceable three or four starter the first two times through the order before getting pulverized the third time. If he’s left in consistently to face a lineup a third time, these projections might be about right. I think he’ll start the year as the third starter, but will be the worst starter in the rotation when it’s all said and done. While the projections aren’t great for anyone, Hammel is the one I’m least confident in that he can beat them.
Jake Junis (131 IP, 5.10 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 114 K, 43 BB, 0.1 WARP)
Junis is probably the guy, second to Duffy, who I think is most likely to beat the projection. After getting demoted following a rough start in July, he came back in August and threw 62.1 innings with a 3.61 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP with just nine walks. If he does that over a full season, the Royals are in business. I think I’d expect a little bit worse, but the control is for real and that slider can be downright nasty when he’s on. No, he’s not an ace and he’s likely not a number two even, but a quality number three is worth something, so I wouldn’t be surprised if his ERA is a full run lower than the projection and the counting stats are considerably better as well.
Nate Karns (131 IP, 4.19 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 130 K, 53 BB, 1.5 WARP)
PECOTA projects Karns as the Royals best starter in 2018, which wouldn’t shock me all that much, I guess. But I’m also a bigger Karns fan than most. Of course, he’s coming back from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery and his health has always been a question. He showed flashes in May before getting hurt of what he’s capable of, throwing 22.1 innings in four starts with a 2.01 ERA, 32 strikeouts and just four walks. If you could guarantee me he’d make 25 starts, I’d say there’s a good bet he’d end up as the Royals best starter, but that’s just not a guarantee you can make with Karns. The strikeout and walk rate seem about right, but I think if he’s good to go, the WHIP will be lower because I think he’s harder to hit than that, so I’d bet on him beating the projections by a bit. Even if he can only give 15-18 starts, the Royals will be better for them, provided he’s recovered sufficiently from the surgery.
Jesse Hahn (73 IP, 4.25 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 58 K, 30 BB, 0.7 WARP)
Hahn is projected to spend a fair amount of time in the bullpen by PECOTA, and I think he will, but I think he’ll get some starting opportunity if he’s any good, with a lot of question marks in terms of injuries ahead of him. He’s the sixth starter, and it wasn’t long ago that he was looked at as a very solid middle of the rotation piece. Injuries have derailed him, but you have to wonder how good the rotation could be if Hahn was used in tandem with Hammel. The sinker will play for Hahn, and if he’s healthy, I think there’s a good chance he bounces back. If nothing else, the stuff should play up in the bullpen to make him an interesting candidate. I’m not sure why, but I think Hahn either way beats his projection or he’s way worse. The in between wouldn’t be the worst thing, so maybe Royals fans should hope for that.
Trevor Oaks (31 IP, 4.51 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 25 K, 10 BB, 0.2 WARP)
I think Oaks is probably the seventh starter on this team, which is a big improvement over Eric Skoglund from last season. I didn’t mind the trade of Scott Alexander to get him because I like Oaks as a middle to backend starter. His ground ball tendencies should play well, but I worry a bit that he might throw a few too many strikes given that his stuff isn’t elite and big league hitters will be able to do damage against him. I think he spends much more time in the big leagues than the projections, but I’d say the rates are probably about right.
Eric Skoglund (73 IP, 5.11 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 60 K, 25 BB, 0.1 WARP)
Sam Gaviglio (52 IP, 5.32 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 39 K, 19 BB, -0.1 WARP)
Miguel Almonte (61 IP, 4.83 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 59 K, 27 BB, 0.3 WARP)
If these guys are starting a lot of games, the season is off the rails. Of course, they’re already only projected for 66 wins, so how on the rails was it to start? I think if any of them are your eighth or ninth starters, you’re probably fine, but, again, you don’t want to get to them too often.
Kyle Zimmer (25 IP, 5.56 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 25 K, 12 BB, -0.1 WARP)
PECOTA projected Zimmer to get starts. I just found that funny.
And that’s it. The rotation has some depth and has some opportunity to beat projections and, I think, actually be pretty good. Some things need to fall in place for that to happen, so it’s far from a guarantee, but if you’re looking for a strength on a projected 66-96 team, it may possibly be in the rotation.