The Royals and Their Aversion to Injury-Prone Pitchers

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Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Without making a single move this offseason, the Royals already have 4 of their 5 starting pitchers in place. With Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Jason Vargas, and Jeremy Guthrie all under contract for at least 1 more season, the organization only needs to fill that final spot, once taken by James Shields. Obviously there are many different directions they could go, and until a move is actually made, all we have is speculation and the whispers of rumors.

As I wrote last week, Ervin Santana would seem to be a good fit with his former club, even with the draft pick compensation attached to him. Today, however, I don’t want to focus on a single pitcher who the Royals could sign, but more on a factor that may cause the team to avoid signing a certain type of free agent pitcher.

In looking at the starting pitchers Dayton Moore has most recently signed as free agents, a common trait stands out. Last year, I noticed that the Royals seemed to target fly ball pitchers more frequently than ground ball pitchers, although Moore would probably be open to signing a ground ball pitcher if he also displays a quality I think the organization values above many others: durability.

The Royals have gotten a lot of recognition for how healthy they’ve been in the last couple of years, and while some may be quick to dismiss this as dumb luck, the organization deserves a lot of credit for it. There is some luck involved, but the Royals also have one of the best training staffs in the game, and when they seek to fill holes with players from outside the organization, they seem to target players who can stay healthy.

While the signings of Vargas and Guthrie were not particularly flashy, they did show that the Royals want to get plenty of innings from their starters, and it’s tough for a pitcher to throw many innings when he’s on the disabled list. Guthrie hasn’t thrown fewer than 175 innings since becoming a full-time big leaguer in 2007, and the only things keeping Vargas from 5 straight 200-inning seasons were a blood clot and an appendectomy.

If the Royals are going to spend money on a pitcher, they want to make sure they get their money’s worth.

There is certainly an argument to be made that they could get enough value from a better pitcher in his limited innings to make the risk worthwhile, but this does seem to be the team’s preferred method. They want to get close to 200 innings from their starters, and even if the pitchers aren’t elite on their own, the defense should elevate their run prevention to a near-elite level.

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It’s for this reason that I don’t foresee the Royals going after some of the injury-prone, high-ceiling starters on the market this winter. Personally, I’d love to see them take a flyer on either Brandon Morrow or Brett Anderson. Both guys have long histories of injuries, along with a record of strong performances when healthy.

Morrow hasn’t had great earned run averages in the last couple of partial seasons, but 4 of his last 5 seasons have produced above average adjusted FIPs, suggesting a better defense behind him could help quite a bit. He still has a fastball that can sit close to 94 MPH, and even though his strikeout rates have been down recently, he’s mostly been a fly ball pitcher, and we’ve seen that type of pitcher be successful in Kauffman Stadium before.

As for Anderson, he’s only 26-years old and has a career ERA- of 91, so at first glance he seems like a very attractive free agent. However, he hasn’t had a full healthy season since 2009 due to a laundry list of injuries. He’s a ground ball machine, and when healthy, shows excellent command, as shown by his 6.4% career walk rate. Anderson is a very good starting pitcher when he’s on the mound.

Both pitchers will likely receive a 1-year, incentive-laden contract, with a relatively low base salary during the offseason. More than likely, neither one will receive that contract from the Royals.

To a certain extent, this approach may steer the Royals away from Brandon McCarthy as well. McCarthy, like Morrow and Anderson, has had to deal with plenty of injuries throughout his career, although he just had a 200-inning season for the first time. Following a disappointing stint in Arizona, McCarthy seemed to turn things on with the Yankees, with a 2.89 ERA in 90.1 innings. He also had more velocity on his fastball this year, and part of that could be due to a new weightlifting program he switched to last offseason that resulted in more bulk on his slender frame.

That increased muscle mass might also have had something to do with his ability to stay healthy in 2014. That, combined with the fact that there is no draft pick attached to him, makes McCarthy one of the top targets available after the big 3 starters are off the board. It’s part of why McCarthy has indicated he plans on waiting out the market to see how high his value will go. Several teams are going to want to sign him, and I think the Royals should be one of those teams. I just don’t think they will be.

Without any indication from members of the front office, this is nothing more than a theory, of course. There were rumors that the Royals were interested in Josh Johnson last offseason, and they might make a run at one of the guys listed above. Since the team can probably count on close to 200 innings from 3 starters already, with Duffy likely not too far behind, they may be willing to take a risk on someone like Anderson, especially if the money is right.

But based upon their recent history, I’m guessing the Royals, if they do jump into the free agent market to find that other starting pitcher, will do so with their sights set on someone who is more likely to hold up for the entirety of the contract, whether that’s for 2015 or beyond.

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