KC Royals: Questions loom as Spring Training approaches

(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /
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KC Royals,
KC Royals, /

The KC Royals had one of the worst starting rotations in the major leagues in 2020. Four returning pitchers appear to have spots sewn up for this season, but the fifth rotation slot is definitely up for grabs.

By any traditional or more “modern” analytical measure, inferior starting pitching plagued the KC Royals in 2019. Twenty-one teams’ starting rotations won more games, and 26 lost fewer games, than the Royals’ starters; FanGraphs ranked KC’s rotation above only three others; and the Royals ranked 23rd in ERA, 29th in xFIP, and 25th in WHIP, and 22 teams held opponents to lower batting averages.

Individual wins and losses told a similar tale.  Jakob Junis led KC’s staff in wins with 9, but lost 14. Brad Keller, the club’s 2018 Pitcher of the Year, lost twice as many games as he won; while he tied Danny Duffy and Homer Bailey for second-best with seven wins, he equaled Junis’ 14 losses. (But for Bailey’s trade to Oakland in July, he likely would have surpassed Junis for most wins–he won six with the A’s). Glenn Sparkman was 4-11; Mike Montgomery was 2-7 after joining the club in July. (The records of others who made occasional starts are hardly worth mentioning).

The Royals enter Spring Training with four probable starters but no clear fifth. Duffy, Junis, Keller and Montgomery will likely start; others, such as Sparkman, Jorge Lopez and Kyle Zimmer seem better suited for relief work. Brady Singer, beginning just his second professional season, has a Spring Training invitation and will probably see his first major league action sometime this season, but may not be quite ready to break camp as the fifth starter.

There is no evidence Moore considered pursuing any of the leading free agent starters–pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg would make wonderful Royals but some things are simply too expensive for this franchise. Instead, Moore sensibly opted for lower profile, less costly talent by grabbing Stephen Woods from Tampa in the Rule 5 draft, trading a minor league infielder for former Yankee prospect Chance Adams, and picking up Braden Shipley. With the crop of homegrown talent approaching major league readiness, there was no reason to break the bank.

Of these newcomers, Woods has the best shot at the fifth rotation spot. He went 9-3 with a 1.88 ERA at High A last season, and has a three-year 2.61 ERA. Woods has to stay on the major league roster all season or be offered back to the Rays, a restraint that only increases his chances to stick. Adams could break into the rotation if he recaptures the pre-elbow surgery form that once made him a top pitcher in the Yankee organization. Shipley is a long shot at best.

The fifth starter question is difficult and not likely to be answered until late in Spring Training.