(Very Early) 2011 Positional Preview - The Starters

Luke Hochevar pitching

Luke Hochevar, doin' his thing

By now its fairly well known that our starting rotation next year isn’t going to be very good.

We’re staring down a rotation where Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, Sean O’Sullivan and Vin Mazzaro are locks and the fifth starter is still up in the air.

As for our set in stone guys, Hochevar’s likely the best out of all of them and our Opening Day starter. “The Hoch” like many Royals, is big on potential. He was, of course, a star at Tennesee and the number one pick in the 2006 draft and he’s been bred for a high rotation spot since then. However, his career is pockmarked with injuries and underachievement. Hochevar only mustered 17 starts last year while dealing with an injury in his throwing shoulder. Otherwise, his performance and numbers have been shaky at best. In four years, he’s averaged a beyond mediocre 5.60 ERA and a far below average 78 ERA+, but not all of his stats are terrible.

As David Golebiewski over at FanGraphs pointed out in his excellent article on the Royals starters, Hochevar has pretty good control, gets a fair amount of ground balls (48.7 percent of all balls put in play) and on-average only walks 3.11 hitters per 9 innings while striking out  6.01 batters. His defensive numbers leave much to be desired, with runners in scoring position his BABIP jumps up to .371 from his baseline .300. The acquisition of Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain should help the entire Royals staff, but no one, except Ned Yost, is sure how much time Cain will get in center field.

Dan Szymborski’s 2011 ZiPS projection has Hochevar starting 25 games, winning 9, losing 10, and posting a slightly below average 4.67 ERA and 91 ERA+. I’d say it’s a pretty fair projection, assuming Hochevar can stay healthy. However, there’s always the possibility that being pushed into the number one role could bolster his confidence and bring out the pitcher he’s always had the potential to be, but the odds are the same he’ll be shelled like an island off the coast of the Korean Pennisula. I’ve seen flashes of brilliance in Luke’s time in Kansas City, and if he puts it together he could be a solid piece of the Mission 2012/2013 puzzle, but he’s already 27 and not getting any younger. So I’m not sold on him until I see some consistency.

The rest of the staff is more problematic.

Kyle Davies, also 27, seems to get slightly worse every year. Though he did have a few decent starts early in the 2010 season, his performance sagged as the season went on. His career strikeouts and walks per 9 (6.3 K/9, 4.34 BB/9) are below average and don’t show any signs of suddenly improving. It would be very unlikely Davies does much better than last year’s 5.34 ERA, but who knows. Last season Davies started 10 more games than in 2009 and his strikeouts to walks ratio actually improved from 1.30 to 1.58 while his ERA only slightly jumped from 5.27 to 5.34.

Davies tends to give up runs in bunches, especially after the Royals have gained the lead. On several occasions last year, I remember Davies coughing up two or three runs in an inning right after a rare offensive outburst. In short, he doesn’t inspire much confidence. His ZiPS projection is more optimistic than my own. Szymborski’s crystal ball says we can expect a 10 win, 12 loss, 4.80 ERA, 88 ERA+ season from Davies.

With one season of arbitration eligibility left, its now or never for Davies.

New addition Vin Mazzaro

Vin Mazzaro, 24, is an interesting addition to the rotation. Last season, Mazzaro put together a 3 month, 17 start stretch of respectable 3.92 ERA pitching from June to August that included solid starts against the Angles, Red Sox and Rays. However, he petered out in September with a 6.32 ERA. “Maz” also has a decent career 5.81 strikeout and 3.75 walks per 9, to go with his strictly mediocre 4.72 ERA.

Don’t expect Mazzaro to suddenly break out in Royal blue this season, but don’t expect him to suck it up either. He’s got a lot of upside and can be a solid middle to back of the rotation kind of guy going forward, assuming he stays healthy and maintains his performance for a bad Royals team. Szymborski has Maz winning 8 and losing 10 with a 4.99 ERA and 85 ERA+.

Sean O’Sullivan, 23, is a huge question mark. O’Sullivan had an amazing start to the 2010 season with a 2.01 ERA in 5 starts, but was god-awful after being traded for Alberto Callaspo posting a 6.11 ERA in a Royals uniform. His start with the Angels included scoreless outings against the Rockies, Rangers and Dodgers and a win against the Yankees, but as a Royal he gave up at least five earned runs against every team in the division except Detroit. He’s got decent control and had a 3.4 walks per 9 season, but he doesn’t strike out many and gives up 1.40 fly balls to every one grounder.

He’s somehow put it together before, but he’s reverted to his career 5.65 ERA form as a Royal. Often last year, O’Sullivan reminded me of the fat pitcher the manager calls to the mound when the guys at Buffalo Wild Wings want extra innings, so he’ll have to stop giving up so many fly balls before I can strike that image from my mind. Szymborski’s got him winning 6 and losing 8 with a 5.20 ERA and 82 ERA+

So that leaves us with 4 starters with a combined career ERA of 5.36 and a gaping hole at number 5. I can see number 5 being the subject of much speculation in the coming months. So far most of the noise has centered around the Royals going out and signing another stopgap pitcher to a cheap single year deal.

The free agent market is full of prime pick-ups for the Royals like Jeremy Bonderman, Jeff Francis, John Maine, and our own Bruce Chen. All of the talk has suggested the Royals don’t want to agree to Chen’s multi-year contract request and Kevin “4-16″ Millwood will be the next addition to the staff.

Millwood’s numbers have been in sharp decline for the last 5 years. Last season’s 16 loss campaign can be blamed on the woeful Oriels giving him no support but I’d like to point out his 10.5 hits per 9, 5.10 ERA and 83 ERA+ in the 2010 season. He did however strike out 6.2 while walking 3.1 per 9, and isn’t far removed from a 3.67 ERA, 127 ERA+ season with Texas in 2009.

There are rumblings of trying to move former Mexican League starter Joakim Soria or the recently unhittable Robinson Tejeda into the rotation. Soria already said he won’t be starting in a recent interview with the Mexican paper La Vanguardia (link in Spanish), and Tejeda hasn’t started regularly since 2007.

Tejeda could be an interesting option, considering his impressive 3.57 ERA, 124 ERA+ year with the Phillies and his recent resurgence in the bullpen, but I’d like to keep him as a reliever since our bullpen is consistently awful. If we can scrape out a lead, maybe we can keep it with the one-two punch of Tejeda and Soria, but if Tejeda becomes a solid starter, you won’t hear me complaining.

Everett Teaford

Teaford pitching for Northwest Arkansas

Since 2011 is already more or less a lost season, the Royals should save their money for the 2012/2013 free agent market. Rather than buying an aging pitcher guaranteed to play mediocre or worse ball, the best move would be to give the number 5 spot to one of our promising youngsters like John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Aaron Crow or Danny Duffy. Our man Gage Matthews wrote up an article on our new minor league signing, Zach Miner, who could figure into the rotation, too.

Most of those guys haven’t seen much time above AA, so I can’t see Dayton Moore hurrying them to the bigs just yet. The most likely option is Everett Teaford, 27, who has had a decent 4.02 ERA career in the minors. Teaford was shelled for seven earned runs in 4.2 innings of work during his lone 2010 outing in Omaha, so maybe he isn’t ready just yet. He’s shown exceptional control, walking just 2.8 while striking out 7.0 per 9 in his five seasons in the minors, so who knows. It all boils down to how well he plays in spring, and how poorly the rest of our starters perform.

Szymborski projects Teaford to win 5 and lose 12 while slinging a 6.41 ERA and 66 ERA+, so maybe he isn’t the best bet. Either way, Moore and Yost will be giving him long looks, so I say it’s his job to lose until we make any more moves.

Knowing the Royals and Dayton Moore, our 5th starter will likely be Millwood or some other pitcher past his prime looking for a quick paycheck to make the final payments on his beach house in Puerto Vallarta. They will eat innings, play poorly, and block our young guns from getting time in the majors, so I’m adamantly against it.

Us bloggers have been wrong before, so here’s hoping we’re wrong again.

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Tags: Aaron Crow Bruce Chen Danny Duffy Dayton Moore Everett Teaford Jeff Francis Jeremy Bonderman Joakim Soria John Lamb John Maine Kansas City Royals Kevin Millwood Kyle Davies Luke Hochevar Mike Montgomery Ned Yost Robinson Tejeda Sean O'Sullivan Starters Vin Mazzaro Zach Miner

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