KC Royals: Danny Duffy is still a puzzle to be solved

(Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)
(Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images) /

Four years after signing a big KC Royals deal, Danny Duffy is still a mystery.

Between now and Opening Day, the Kings of Kauffman writers are analyzing how various KC Royals performed last season and predicting how they might fare this year. Up today is veteran pitcher Danny Duffy.

What to do with Danny Duffy is a question the KC Royals thought they answered back in the winter of 2017 when, preparing to face off with him in salary arbitration, they opted instead to give him a five-year, $65 million contract to avoid the impending arbitration and Duffy’s first eligibility for free agency.

Four years later, with the start of Duffy’s final contract season just a couple of weeks away, the question of Duffy hangs over the Royals. He’s hard to figure, a hurler of inarguable talent who never seems to reach his full potential—only once since signing the deal grounded primarily in promise and his 12-3 effort in 2016 has he posted a winning record (7-6 in 2019), and he’s a combined 21-26 in the other three seasons. He’s pitched fairly well out of the bullpen when he falters in the rotation, but the club didn’t intend to buy a reliever with its $65 million.

Why Duffy hasn’t measured up to the most lucrative contract ever given a Kansas City pitcher is ultimately a product of three things: inconsistency, some poor run support, and pitching for bad teams. His control over the first ingredient is, of course, far greater than any influence he has on the other two. He doesn’t hit and isn’t responsible for putting the club together, but his records of 9-10 (2017), 8-12 (2018), that 7-6 in 2019, and 4-4 last season, together with their accompanying 3.81, 4.88, 4.34 and 4.95 ERAs, reflect an ever-present inability to stay consistent.

And Duffy’s three Cactus League appearances this spring provide further evidence of this frustrating inconsistency. Entering Monday afternoon’s game against San Francisco, he’d pitched twice and been battered for six runs and eight hits (including two home runs) in five innings and had walked more batters (three) than he’d struck out (two).

But manager Mike Matheny gave him the start against the Giants and the downtrodden Duffy was suddenly at his best. He pitched four perfect innings and struck out four, lowering his ERA from 10.80 to 6.00 in what was easily the best single-game performance by a Kansas City pitcher this spring. He proved once again that no one knows which version of Duffy will show up for any given game.

So, what will the final season of his contract bring?

Baseball Reference and FanGraphs projections for Duffy’s KC Royals season

According to Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, Duffy will get plenty of work in 2021 with passable results. Baseball Reference predicts he’ll pitch 148 innings with a 9-9, 4.68 record, and FanGraphs (Depth Charts version) projects he’ll work 151 innings and go 8-10, 4.81.

What kind of 2021 campaign will Duffy actually have for the KC Royals?

Predicting how Danny Duffy will perform this season is like trying to solve a jig-saw puzzle that lacks a couple of pieces. At worst, he’ll likely be a .500 pitcher, perhaps a little worse or a little better. At best, he’ll be the pitcher the Royals anticipated he’d be and match those 12 wins he earned in 2016, and lose just a handful of games.

But projecting Duffy’s record is only part of predicting what 2021 holds for him; where he’ll be when the season ends is another question entirely. Again, this is the final leg of the 10-year veteran’s current contract, and similarly-situated players frequently find themselves the subject of midseason trade speculation. Stellar first-half work will make Duffy attractive to contenders come July and increase the likelihood of Kansas City moving him for prospects; on the other hand, they’ll be tempted to hold on to him if they find themselves in contention.

Poor pitching, on the other hand, will land Duffy in the bullpen, with a possible trade (if any takers can be found and the Royals are willing to swallow some salary), or DFA to follow if he doesn’t improve. The Royals have traveled a long way with Duffy, but may not be willing to go farther without seeing more from him than they have in recent years. There are too many good young prospects waiting in line.

Next. All eyes are on Hunter Dozier. dark

What lies in store for Danny Duffy this season is hard to say. He’s been a difficult puzzle for the Royals to solve.