However, after looking over projections, it struck me that Will Smith fits in nicely as a starting rotation option relative to others. To this point, we know what Bruce Chen will be. He’ll have some good games. He’ll have some bad ones. He’ll settle in nicely as a #5 starter if he can get through six innings a start and get a quality start most times out. That’s fine. It’s bland, it’s uninspired, but it’s fine. There’s not a lot of upside to starting Bruce Chen. The league isn’t going to be surprised by Bruce Chen.
Similarly, Hochevar’s struggles for consistency have been well-documented here as well as in the traditional media. The only sort of consistency he has is his inconsistency. It’s maddening. He’s a former number one overall pick. He’s shown the ability to have fantastic starts at times. Starts that get everyone back on the bandwagon. But it’s difficult to trust what he can do. Plus, he’ll turn 30 this season, so that does limit some of his upside. I suppose it’s not too late, but who can blame a guy for being highly skeptical?
Knowing how the Royals operate, they’ll give either of those two the first crack at the last spot in the rotation. But Smith should get a look if either falters. Overall, his 2012 numbers look rough. His big league debut in Yankee Stadium went poorly after he gave up three homers in 3.1 innings. He followed that up with a good second showing, but gave up another three homers to the Minnesota Twins on June 4 and with the Royals playing starting pitcher roulette, he was sent back to Omaha with a 9.00 big league ERA.
He gave up another nine runs in 10.1 innings over his next two starts once he returned to Triple A.
Some were claiming that throwing him into the fire of Yankee Stadium intimidated him. Broke his confidence. Maybe there was a bit of that going on – Smith gets hit hard in New York, gets sent down, tries to make it up. Maybe he tries too hard and it follows him to Triple A. But after his shaky return to Omaha, he sorted things back out. Over four starts from June 26 to July 13, Smith threw 27.2 innings, struck out 29, walked only five and gave up just four earned runs. He earned his way back to the majors.
Once he made it back, Smith went right back into the starting rotation and stayed there through the end of the season. He made it through at least six innings in eight of his final thirteen starts and over that return stretch had an ERA of 4.64 (and a full season ERA of 5.32). Not great, of course, but the second stretch gives hope that he can be productive. Smith is only 23 years old and turns 24 in July. In the minors, he showed good control (2.1 BB/9) and could harness it again going forward. He’s been able to get ground balls throughout his professional career and has a decent record (in the minors) of keeping the ball in the park (and after he returned to Kansas City, he gave up only six more homers in 75.2 innings after July 19.
The Royals like Smith’s makeup and if he can progress a little, he should at least equal a potential contribution of Hochevar or Chen. He outperformed Hochevar’s ERA last season as it is and wasn’t far off from Chen’s 5.07. Right now, the choice might look like Hochevar or Chen, but it doesn’t have to be.
I don’t expect Smith to break out of spring training and win a spot in the rotation. This is where roster trickery steps in. Smith has two options left, and unless there’s an injury or he vastly outperforms Chen and Hochevar in Surprise, he’ll start the year in Triple A where he can pitch on a regular schedule, but he’ll probably be the first starter called up if an opening comes up. Last year was the first season in which Chen surpassed 190 innings since 2005. Hochevar isn’t reliable (as the next terrible start is always lurking) and should be on a short leash. Luis Mendoza could step in, but the Royals seem content to stick with him in a long relief role. That makes Smith an easy option in that situation.
By the end of the 2013, season, Smith should be installed in the rotation. If he can progress, he may not be much more than a fourth starter on most teams, but league-average starters who can throw 200 innings a year are plenty valuable. Smith fits that bill nicely.