KC Royals: Short season ups ante for Danny Duffy

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /
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The KC Royals are headed for a short season. Fewer games means added pressure on a veteran member of the club’s starting rotation.

Back in mid-December, I wrote that 2020 would be the most important season of KC Royals pitcher Danny Duffy‘s career. But that was before COVID-19 established its place in our daily vocabulary, attained infamy, and unfortunately muscled its way into the very fabric of our world.

Now, precisely two months after the pandemic short-circuited spring training and brought baseball to a stunningly sudden stop, the game faces the certainty of a shortened season–Major League Baseball is reportedly set to propose to its players, as early as today, a July startup of a 2020 season cut by approximately half. A campaign slashed so much doesn’t diminish its importance for Duffy. It increases it.

The premise of my December Duffy story was that 2020, the next-to-last season of his monster five-year $65 million contract, is a “must” year for him. Duffy’s well-known love for Kansas City, and his famously expressed desire to be buried a Royal, reflect an unabashed wish to extend his tenure with the club past 2021. But a stellar 2020, I suggested, is a prerequisite to prolonging his KC career.

This is because Duffy has, unfortunately, underperformed. He hasn’t lived up to the expectations that drove the deal. If Duffy wasn’t the staff ace before he signed his mega-deal, he attained that status by default before the ink dried on his contract; fair or not, pre-deal expectations always increase before the beneficiary of a giant contract even steps on the field. But Duffy just hasn’t been the KC Royals’ ace. (In fairness, no one really has, except Jason Vargas when he won 18 games in 2017 before departing for free agency).

Some would argue that his 24-28 record since agreeing to pitch for an average $13 million a season proves he hasn’t been worth the money the club gave him to avoid the uncertainty of an imminent arbitration and the loss of Duffy to his first shot at free agency. The counterargument is that Duffy pitched the last two seasons for bad teams, received meager run support, and flashed signs of the talent and promise lurking inside a man who bleeds as much Royal Blue as anyone else.

Those misfortunes aside, however, the fact remains Duffy, like Alex Gordon, hasn’t fulfilled his or the club’s expectations after signing what will most certainly be his biggest contract. That’s why, if he wants to remain a Royal for life, 2020 is the most important year of his career. A flock of talented pitchers are close to major league readiness, making it imperative that Duffy posts a career year to secure his KC future. If he doesn’t, he may find himself traded this winter or gone to test free agency after 2021 without even a meaningful offer from the Royals.

So it is that Duffy’s is perhaps the most urgent mission of any KC veteran. Gordon is on a one year contract and, barring a catastrophic 2020 season, will be back in 2021 if he wants to be–this franchise won’t deny one of its true faces one more season unless Gordon’s performance warrants it. Salvador Perez‘s deal expires after 2021, but the Royals will likely spend whatever it takes to keep him. Whit Merrifield is under club control through 2022 with an option for 2023.

Simply put, Duffy must perform, a task made more imperative by the short season to come. If baseball resumes, 162 games won’t be played; assuming the true number is 80, and the Royals go with a five-man rotation, Duffy’s chances to prove himself will decrease by half. If he stays healthy (a big if considering his injury history) he should get 16 starts. Each will be crucial–mathematically twice so–to Duffy’s quest to become the ace the KC Royals bargained for back in 2017.

Duffy seems capable of meeting the challenge of a short season. His talent is unquestioned. He’s entering his 10th big league season but, at 31, certainly isn’t too old to pitch well. He’s coming off a decent 2019 season in which his ERA+ and control improved markedly and he won more often than he lost (7-6). And he was excellent in his two Cactus League appearances before MLB pulled the plug on spring training–in six innings, he struck out nine, walked only one and posted a 0.833 WHIP. Small sample, yes; encouraging, definitely.

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Assuming resolution of all issues, not the least of which are health and safety, allows baseball to return this year, a short KC Royals season increases the ante for Danny Duffy. He needs to be all-in. I suspect he will be.

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