Only one franchise in baseball has managed to stumble their way through the past decade without having a single pitching staff rank in the top half of the league: the Kansas City Royals. The franchise was only able to rise above 20th once over the course of the last decade, finishing 16th in 2007 thanks to Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, and a surprisingly good bullpen that featured a 23-year-old Zach Greinke for most of the year. But that one year is just a blip on the radar and it’s not a very impressive blip at that.
That’s why GM Dayton Moore decided to go all in on pitching this offseason, overhauling the Royals’ rotation to the point that it’s unrecognizable now. Gone are the days of starting Luke Hochevar on Opening Day. Instead, Kansas City now has a viable front man at the top of their rotation in James Shields and a pretty solid quartet backing him up. Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis, and Luis Mendoza may not be the most recognizable names in the game, but they have been ruthlessly effective so far, carrying KC to the 5th best starter’s ERA in the Majors as well as the AL Central lead.
In order to acquire some of the starting pitching Kansas City so desperately needed, Moore was forced to part with the Royals best prospect, the power-hitting Wil Myers. Thankfully Moore’s gambit has paid off in the early going because he would have been filleted had things took a turn for the worst. The two big pieces acquired for Myers (and a couple minor league arms), James Shields and Wade Davis, have been splendid in the early going. The two former Rays have combined to throw 43 innings with a 2.72 ERA while combining for a 43-9 strikeout to walk ratio.
Shields has been as reliably good as Gates BBQ during his first month in Kansas City, hitting 92-94 on his fastball while mixing in his plus change-up about a quarter of the time to keep hitters off-balance. Shields has also had great success keeping the ball in the ballpark despite the fact that he’s made 3 of his 4 starts in hitter’s havens (Fenway, U.S. Cellular, and Citizen’s Bank).
New acquisitions Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana have also been able to avoid some of the problems that have plagued them in the past to put up some good performances. Guthrie has been every bit the league average innings eater he was supposed to be, throwing 25 innings with a 3.86 ERA while Santana has been able to do a little bit better.
On Sunday against the Red Sox Santana had what’s becoming a typical start for him this year. He struggled to find his command during the first inning of the game, surrendering 2 runs on 3 singles before shutting Boston down the rest of the way, finishing with a shiny 7 innings pitched with 7 strikeouts and only 2 runs allowed. And apart from a shaky first outing in which he allowed 3 homers, Ervin Santana has allowed just 1 homer in the past 23 innings he’s thrown, an almost unprecedented streak for a guy who’s allowed 55 bombs over the past 2 seasons combined.
Things could get even better on the mound for the Royals too. The current 5th starter, Luis Mendoza, has been a mess on the mound thus far and if he can’t improve Bruce Chen is waiting in the wings to step in. Chen was severely miscast as a top of the rotation starter for the past few year in Kansas City, but filling in as a 5th starter is something he is more than capable of.
The bullpen should also see its ERA drop as the season progresses. The Royals have been stockpiling young, hard-throwing relievers for the past couple of years and guys like Tim Collins and Aaron Crow in particular, look primed to become elite shutdown relievers. Like most of the pitchers in the Kansas City bullpen, they both have the ability to ramp their fastball up just shy of triple digits, which is useful in making quick work of opposing hitters. A season ago this unit finished with the 6th best bullpen ERA in baseball, something they should be able to duplicate again when you consider who Kansas City has in relief.
If the Royals’ rotation can keep submitting these types of performances they should be able to stay in the race for the AL Central title all season long. The offense probably won’t stay ranked near the bottom of baseball for the majority of the season. Guys with Billy Butler’s talent don’t stay in .216 slumps for too terribly long and at some point either Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas will have to run into a pitch and to hit a home run. And if either of those two players can ever figure things out at the plate, look out, because with Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar at the top of the lineup the Royals could score quite a few runs in support of a pitching staff that finally deserves it.