True Starting Pitching Improvements?


There’s been a lot of focus on starting pitching improvements for the Royals going into 2012, but the team is seemingly staying pat for the offseason. I haven’t seen any rumors involving any free agent or trade targets lately, so we may well be where the front office wants to start the season. Of course, given that the team tends to make moves without much warning, an acquisition could happen at any point. Still, I feel like we’re at our stopping point.

That being said, I wanted to take a look at how this rotation stacks up to the one we started 2011 with and take some glances at where we could find ourselves following the season.

Well, to start 2011, the Royals used a four-man rotation. Given their schedule and well-placed off days, they were able to get by on this plan for a while. Until the fan favorite Sean O’Sullivan filled in as the starter of game 14, the four starters looked like this:

1. Luke Hochevar
2. Jeff Francis
3. Kyle Davies
4. Bruce Chen

Not the most awe-inspiring group of pitchers ever, but it worked…sort of. Anyway, as the Royals won’t truly need a fifth starter until April 11th, at the earliest, we could potentially see only four starters to begin the season. I’m tempted to think the Royals will do this, but these are the likely options at all five slots of the rotation nonetheless:

1. Luke Hochevar
2. Jonathan Sanchez
3. Bruce Chen
4. Danny Duffy
5. Aaron Crow/Felipe Paulino

So, two of them are the same, which gives us some ground to work from. In the case of Chen, I expect we’ll see the same Chen we have the last couple seasons. I wasn’t as sold on him last season (and am not sure about a two-year deal before this season), but he proved me wrong and I now expect we’ll see the same production as we have in the past. As for Hochevar, I think that he’ll be closer to his second half of 2011 (3.52 ERA, .222 BAA, 1.134 WHIP) than his first half (5.46 ERA, .271 BAA, 1.382 WHIP), but both showed low BABIP (particularly the second half). If I had to predict, I’d see roughly a 4.25 ERA on the season for Hoch, though I’m notably a Luke fan and likely biased. Anyway, I would say we should expect something close to his full-season numbers from 2011 as we go into 2012. So, let’s say that those two are basically steady.

Moving on to the other comparisons.

Between having Sanchez and having Francis for an entire season, it’s a hard choice. Sanchez will likely strike out about twice as many as Francis did last season. However, he’ll also probably walk at least twice as many. For two pitchers that are so different in style, they really even out in results. Like Francis, Sanchez will be wanting to step forward from a rough previous season. If Sanchez can knock his walks back just a bit, he can likely contribute more than Francis could. Given that he allows about 3.5-4 hits fewer per nine innings than Francis, he could really settle in. But that’s a considerable “if” to rely on. I’m sticking with negligible improvement or change.

As for Danny Duffy and Kyle Davies, I choose Duffy. Duffy had a better campaign in 2011, even with Davies starting seven fewer games. As it was his first season, I would expect him to settle in and pitch a little better in 2012 than he did last season. Given fewer walks and a drop in home run rate, Duffy could take a big step forward this season. I think he should be able to take that step and move to a #3 or #2 starter for this team, but that remains to be seen. All that’s clear to me now is that he’s an improvement over both Davies and his 2011 self. So, that’s one step forward for this team.

And for the fifth starter, Felipe Paulino will likely get a strong case to keep his role from last season, though I’m sure Aaron Crow will give him a run for his money. Whether either of them would be an upgrade over the various fifth/fourth starters that rotated through the season is unclear. However, I don’t think I’d expect Paulino to do quite as well as he did in 2011. That’s based solely on the fact that he hasn’t pitched that well for that long in his entire career. Like Chen, he could surprise me, but I can’t imagine we get anything better than we got from Paulino from a fourth/fifth position (depending on the time of the season). So, I would think it’d be even to a loss in output from that spot.

I guess the moral of the story is that this rotation doesn’t give us any obvious advantages over last season’s. Could we still win more games? Probably, depending on the strength of the lineup. Nonetheless, unless multiple starters take steps forward and Crow or Mike Montgomery show up as All-Star starters, I can’t imagine things will improve too greatly.

Where will that leave us after the season? Well, Jonathan Sanchez will be a free agent after 2012. Luke Hochevar and Felipe Paulino will be going through arbitration. Bruce Chen, Danny Duffy, and Aaron Crow will be standing pat. So, most of this group will be able to stick around until 2013, excepting a trade of some sort. If the Royals can get good value out of Sanchez, he may be a strong trade candidate come July, but we’ll see how that works out. Anyway, there doesn’t seem to be too much turnover potential unless the Royals really look to improve their rotation in some way. And with Montgomery, John Lamb, and Jake Odorizzi getting close to cracking into the majors, there are options for the next couple years anyway. Not much to worry about.

So, really, I don’t think we took any considerable steps forward or backward, starting rotation-wise, this offseason. If you disagree, I’d love to hear your reasons why we did move forward or backward. Basically, there just isn’t enough change from last season. And given that I don’t expect a huge amount of improvement from any players, with Duffy being the closest to that point, I can’t justify predicting improvement.

It could be another interesting season of youth, however, as we may see the aforementioned Montgomery and Odorizzi at some point. What they could contribute is debatable, but I’m wagering on a similar starting pitching contribution to last season.

But I’d love to be wrong.

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