A veteran starting pitcher with a big contract is facing a critical season. How important is 2020 for his future with the Kansas City Royals?
The year was 2017; the month was January. In the quiet of baseball’s winter, a month away from Spring Training, the Kansas City Royals were preparing for an inevitable dismantling of the team that returned championship baseball to town — core players Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and Alcides Escobar figured to be lost to free agency after the 2017 season. There was no reason to believe the notoriously frugal Royals would deviate from their norm of letting expensive free agents go.
Everyone knew it was coming, this last realistic chance for the Royals to contend for a postseason berth before entering a painful rebuild necessitated by free agency and the financial limitations of small market baseball, a lethal combination for a franchise renowned for its stingy approach to expensive players. Fans resigned themselves to losing the Royals’ core, or most of it, after the season, and with it their hopes of consistent championship contention.
And then the Royals made an uncharacteristic move.
On January 16, they signed Duffy to a 5-year, $65 million contract, essentially buying out the talented left-hander’s impending free agency, avoiding arbitration, and securing Duffy’s financial future. The deal signaled the club’s commitment to Duffy and its belief that he could be the long-term anchor of its starting rotation.
Faith in Duffy seemed justified. He had pitched adequately for five seasons before blossoming as the Player of the Year for a 2016 team that finished 81-81 after two straight World Series appearances and a Fall Classic title. He went 12-3, led the club with a 3.51 ERA, and established career highs in inning pitched (179.2), strikeouts (188), BB9 (2.1) and SO9 (9.4). He set a club record with 16 strikeouts in one game and narrowly missed a no-hitter.
Suddenly, Danny Duffy was the Royals’ ace and had the contract to prove it.
But one stellar season and a $13 million average annual value contract do not a staff ace make. Duffy went 9-10 in 2017, his first season under his new deal; Jason Vargas, pitching his final campaign for KC, won 18 games, twice as many as Duffy.
Then, in 2019, Duffy went 7-6, a record matched by Homer Bailey (who surely would have won more games had he not been traded in July); Keller also won seven games, but lost 14; Junis led the staff with nine wins but lost 16. If Duffy had reclaimed ace status, it was by default.
Duffy was 36-33 in the six seasons before he signed his five-year deal, but his numbers since then aren’t those of an ace. He’s 24-28 over that period and has posted a winning record only once. The career highs he established during his breakthrough 2016 season remain his career highs.
That Duffy has pitched for bad teams since he signed his contract hasn’t helped his cause: The Royals have lost almost 100 more games than they’ve won and lost 104 games in 2018 and 103 last season, and the club has scored two runs or less in over one-third of the games he’s started and 3-5 runs in almost another third.
Injuries have also nagged Duffy throughout his career, further complicating his ability to maintain “ace” status, and contributing to the fact he’s only had three winning seasons in nine campaigns.
For 2020, the critical question for Duffy and the Royals is this: can he recapture the 2016 form that spurred the Royals to secure his services for five years? Last season suggests it’s possible. Duffy won more games than he lost; he walked almost 35% fewer batters than he did in 2018; his ERA+ improved 20 points over the previous season; his WHIP dropped from 1.490 to 1.309; and although his SO9 dipped slightly, his BB9 dropped by almost one.
Perhaps even more promising is that the final month of the 2018 season was Duffy’s best. In five starts, he held batters to a meager .185 average, struck out 25 in 30.1 innings, and went 2-0. Importantly, his stellar September came on the heels of another stint on the Injured List.
Last season, then, was arguably Duffy’s best since he signed his big contract. Despite winning fewer games than he had in 2017 or 2018, Duffy posted solid numbers and improved over his unsightly 2018 performance. Other teams’ interest in Duffy resurfaced.
So it is that 2020 becomes a most important season for Duffy. It will be the next-to-last season of his contract; he’ll be a free agent after the 2021 campaign. It will also be his age-31 season, a point at which pitchers must give teams strong reason to believe they can be effective for at least a few more years. It may also be his final chance to stake a viable claim to a future rotation slot, led by top draft choice Brady Singer. The uber-talented pitchers making their way through the club’s farm system isn’t far away from Kauffman Stadium.
The coming campaign may also represent a crossroad for Duffy. The recurring talk of a move to the bullpen has grown louder. Although he hasn’t made a relief appearance since 2016, the pen has been friendly to him — he has a 2.08 ERA and .205 BAA over 28 games. His SO9 out of the pen is 11.4; as a starter, it’s 7.8. Duffy becoming a full-time reliever makes some sense: he’s averaged less than six innings per start since signing his five-year deal and pitching fewer innings per appearance should minimize injury risk.
Finally, Duffy’s love for the Royals and Kansas City is well-known; indeed, his pronouncement that he wants to be buried a Royal reflects his commitment to the only baseball organization he has ever known, one that stood by him when he suddenly left the game early in his career and, later, after an embarrassing DUI arrest. But baseball is a business, Duffy is sure to be traded in the final year of his contract if his 2020 doesn’t give the club reason to extend him.
Danny Duffy wants to retire as a member of the Kansas City Royals. Unfortunately, and despite his indisputable talent, he hasn’t attained the levels of success he and the club anticipated when they agreed to his current 5-year, $65 million contract. Now, entering the final two years of that deal and with free agency looming right around his corner, Duffy must prove his continuing value to the franchise if he wants to extend his KC career. That makes 2020 perhaps the most important season of Duffy’s career.