Skills for Danny Duffy have never been a question. He is a lefty that gets into the upper 90s, and despite some control issues, has had a lot of good outcomes at the pro level without ever having spent much time in the minors. For three reasons, I think that the Royals should try to extend Duffy and I will lay them out here and then talk about what such an extension could look like.
1) The main reason I would want to lock up Duffy for a long time is that he is the sort of guy that if he figures out the control part of pitching could become a top or the rotation guy instantly. The two lefties that I always think of for this sort of thing are Randy Johnson and Cliff Lee. Both walked way too many batters in their early careers, but then in their late 20s something clicked. Johnson’s 29 year old season he saw his fist sub-4 BB/9, which kicked off his Hall of Fame Career after 5 years of struggles. Lee actually started to get the control down at 26, but it took until his age 29 season, when he got the hits and homers down along with a little higher K/9 rate, to really break out. I am not saying Danny Duffy will turn into either of these pitchers, though I really, really hope he does, but I am saying that it might take awhile for it to fall into place and for that reason controlling Duffy past 2017 would be necessary for the Royals to reap the benefits.
2) Danny has said this year that he has enjoyed pitching out of the bullpen, though now he has been put back in the rotation due to Bruce Chen‘s injury. My personal read on his fondness for the bullpen was a mental approach problem when starting. Having to prepare every day and not having to wait 5 days after each start seemed to appeal to him, and Zack Greinke said similar things during his time in the pen. What signing him to an extension might do is give the Royals leverage to talk him into a long-term focus.
Let Danny know you like his stuff despite the short outings, and that you are committed to his success with an extension. Then if you need to send him to the minors at any point to keep him working as a starter it will be easy to say that it is for his long-term improvement that it is being done. The money is guaranteed after all. Maybe that will help him commit to the starter role rather than worrying about being in the big leagues now. It will also give him time for maturation that will hopefully help with the tough mental aspects of starting. Then if
things click, #3 will be taken care of.
3) Tommy John surgery took one Danny Duffy year from the Royals as he spent his rehab accruing major league service time, which means that arbitration is coming in the next off season. That means team control runs out after the 2017 season when Duffy is only going to be 28, so the Royals could miss all of his value if he does have a later than average break out. Buying some of his free agency years right now is the cheapest way to make sure that the Royals benefit if and when Duffy gets a little more control of his stuff. There is risk to a plan like this, as there is in any long-term contract. Looking at other control problem lefties you can see a diverse set of outcomes. Jorge de la Rosa comes to mind as a former Royal who still fights his control some, but is better than his early years and has been a valuable pitcher from his late 20s on minus time lost due to injury. There are also guys like Rich Hill or Tom Gorzelanny who never really made it consistently as starters, and would be the downside for Duffy though his stuff is better than either ever had. There is also good old Jonathan Sanchez who never got control and only managed a couple of decent seasons before falling apart.
Lastly, there is Andrew Miller. The Tigers took him 6th overall in the 2006 draft, guaranteed him $5.45 million, then shipped him to Miami in the Miguel Cabrera deal a year and a half later. Now he is in Boston and hasn’t started a game since 2011. Last year he struck out 14 batters per 9 so that his 5 walks per 9 were okay. So far this year he is only walking 2.8 (granted in 12 2/3 innings so it may be nothing), and has a 2.13 ERA, so might be coming into his control as we speak and he is 29 years old. On a side note, he will be available in the off season and if he continues this might be worth another look at starting somewhere. Maybe we will come back to that later in the season.
Despite the risks, I think Danny is a good bet for the Royals and even while struggling with control he has been valuable already. His next three years in arbitration would need to be bought out to get some free agency years, and in looking at arbitration salaries for starters this year (Jeff Samardzija, Justin Masterson, Juan Nicasio, Rick Porcello, and quite a few others), my guess is that it will cost the Royals between $12 and $20 million to keep him through arbitration (with some chance he figures it out in there and gets more since Max Scherzer is at $15.5 for this year alone). I would propose buying out 2 years and getting two option years beyond that if the Royals wanted to try and get this set up properly to have him guaranteed through his age 32 season rather than 28 as it stands now.
What would such an endeavor cost? If Chris Sale is willing to sell 3 years of free agency on a 5 year $32.5 million deal, then it shouldn’t be too expensive. If arbitration is going to cost you $15 million anyway, then 2 years at say $8 and $10 million would be a guarantee of around $33 million. Then 2 option years for the team where you set the bar high to let Duffy know you aren’t trying to get a freebie, so set the options at $15 million each and sell it as a $63 million dollar deal. If that doesn’t work I would also be willing to give some incentive clauses as well, as long as they are tied to him being a productive starter. Maybe make the option years automatically vest at certain innings pitched levels, or bonuses at the different innings pitched levels if Duffy preferred. Anyway, I think this would be a good move though there is no reason to believe such a thing is going to happen.