Royals Upgrade Their Rotation, Still Have Work to Do

Over the past season we witnessed a franchise tear down a 15 year streak of incompetence using nothing more than some internal improvement from home-grown players, a brilliant bullpen, and a patchwork starting rotation. The team I’m talking about of course, is none other than the Baltimore Orioles, a franchise who defied expectations and  Pythagorean theories en route to 93 wins before bowing out in the ALDS to the New York Yankees.

Kansas City is another baseball town chained down by the dregs of poor baseball, and has now missed out on meaningful October games in every season since 1985, a streak that can only be topped by the gold-and-black clad players in Pittsburgh. The Royals have had one decent season over the past decade, otherwise it’s been one short summer of contention after another for as long as most folks can remember. So when Kansas City made an under the radar move to nab pitcher Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels, naturally the 2012 O’s came to mind, because the 2012 Orioles are what every long-suffering fan base and front office is hoping for.

Baltimore was able to corral career-best seasons out of Adam Jones, Jason Hammels, and others, while getting enormous contributions from up-and-coming rookies like Manny Machado and Wei-Yin Chen. The Baltimore rotation was passable and the O’s bullpen was among the best in baseball, throwing more quality high-leverage regular season innings than maybe any other bullpen ever. All that combined for a magical run, one which Kansas City will hope to duplicate.

The Royals have similar potential just waiting to be unlocked on their roster. Alex Gordon is one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, possessing an arm that only fools run on and a bat that laces doubles like their going out of style. Billy Butler had the best season that nobody in baseball paid any attention to, hitting .313 with 29 homers and 107 RBI. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are highly rated corner infielders, the types of talents most teams in the rebuilding faze would love to get their hands on. Wil Myers should be brought up at some point in May or June to fortify right field, a la Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. The offensive talent is in place for the boys in blue to make a run toward the top of the AL Central in 2013, provided certain players bounce back, and the bullpen has a decidedly 2012 Orioles feel to it as well.

Kelvin Herrara, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, and Greg Holland are all young, hard-throwing talents with the potential to repeat their 2012 success in the late innings. The Royals ranked 6th in baseball in bullpen ERA this season, one spot behind Baltimore, and nearly every major contributor should be back again in 2013.

So the only question is whether or not Kansas City can scrap together enough starting pitching to make a legitimate run in 2013, because the rest of the roster has the feel of a contender, especially in the AL Central, where 86-88 wins could capture a playoff spot. By adding Ervin Santana, the former Angels pitcher coming off the worst season of his career, the Royals took a small step toward that goal.

Santana’s 2012 numbers were among the worst in baseball for any starting pitcher who threw more than 100 innings. No pitcher in the majors allowed more gopher balls than Santana (39), and his 73 ERA+ ranks as the worst of his 8-year career. Santana’s walks were up to their highest point since his 2007 season and his 6.7 K/9 innings was his lowest rate since his 2nd season in the Major Leagues. These are some major warts, but at age 29 there is no reason to think Santana’s best days are behind him.

The right-hander posted ERA’s better than the league average in 2010 and 2011, while flashing a good change-up and a solid mid-90s fastball. Santana has also been very durable over the course of his career, throwing over 200 innings in half of his 8 seasons in the big leagues. To put that in perspective, no Kansas City pitcher has thrown 200 innings or more since Zach Greinke did so back in 2010, his last season wearing Royal blue, and you have to go back to 2008 to find the last time someone other than Greinke showed this kind of durability. If Santana is able to stay healthy he should be a good bet to top the 200 inning plateau and that alone would constitute a win for the Royals.

As for the rest of the Kansas City rotation, you can kindly describe it as a work in progress. Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen will be back, although that may not be a good thing. They led Kansas City to a 5.01 starter’s ERA in 2012, and neither pitcher really has the panache of an ace. Chen is going into the last year of a cheap deal so he should be back in some form in the rotation.

Hochevar is arbitration eligible, and it would be extremely surprising to see Kansas City cut bait on their former first round pick, although he may not make the rotation next year, especially if the Royals are serious about competing. Pleasant surprise Luis Mendoza, a 28-year-old with a solid fastball-curveball combination is the only pitcher here with real upside, and he looks to be a solid mid-rotation pitcher.

Chris Volstad, a waiver-wire pickup from the Cubs, Jake Odorizzi, and Will Smith are currently in line to compete for the last spot in the rotation. The hard-throwing Danny Duffy should also be back from Tommy John surgery at some point next year, although the Royals will probably take his recovery slowly. Expect him to be in the mix at some point around the All-Star break next season. If he can regain his 97 mph heat, Duffy could be a nice weapon out of the bullpen as the Royals bring him back up to full strength.

Kansas City should also continue to be active in the free agent and trade markets as well. Former Royals ace Zach Greinke is available, and although his price might be too rich for Dave Glass’ blood, it doesn’t hurt to check in. Anibal Sanchez,  Shaun Marcum, and Kyle Lohse are among some of the middle-tier names available and any of the 3 would represent a significant upgrade in talent over Chen, Hochevar, and any of the #5 spot options.

The Royals could also try to re-up with Jeremy Guthrie after their initial 2 month relationship worked out as well as it did. Guthrie was 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA after coming to Kansas City via trade from Colorado in July. Ryan Dempster, Chris Young, Joe Blanton, Joe Saunders, and Francisco Liriano are all options as well, and each would also be a solid upgrade to the KC pitching staff.

The Royals need to open their wallets, dig into the free agent class and come up with some pitching talent. The rest of the roster appears to be close to a real breakthrough, and acquiring some legitimate starting pitching is the next step. Kansas City’s front office needs to sense that they are on the verge of competing for a playoff spot, and they need to act accordingly. Two offseasons ago the Washington Nationals sat in a similar position: young and talented but weighed down by the years of losing baseball which had all but rendered the nation’s capital as a flyover point for premium MLB talent. That all changed with the bold (and expensive) signing of Jason Werth however and in 2012 the fruits of Washington’s labor finally came through with a playoff berth.

The Royals are in a similar position: young, talented, but lacking the experience and elite pitching to make a move. If GM Dayton Moore and his scouts can play their cards as well as Washington did and pick up a couple of decent pitchers, the Royals could be the next Cinderella entering the October ball.

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