No one expected the KC Royals’ starting rotation to be spectacular this season. Even the most optimistic Kansas City fans had to know the rotation wasn’t great and, even with the offseason addition of veteran Mike Minor, wouldn’t be.
Going into spring training, Brad Keller, who won his second team Pitcher of the Year award last season after going 5-3 with a 2.47 ERA, was the closest thing to an “ace” in a five-man rota widely projected to include him, Danny Duffy, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic and Minor. That’s because Duffy has never been the ace the club presumed he’d be when he signed a five-year, $65 million contract not long before spring camp opened in 2017. He pitched fairly well last season, but 4-4 with a 4.95 ERA didn’t make him the best on staff.
And while Singer and Bubic at times proved why they’ll likely become stars, both last year displayed flaws characteristic of the inexperienced pitchers they were and are. Minor offered veteran savvy and leadership, but also came with the uncertainty his 1-6 record last season created.
But all that considered, did anyone think the Kansas City rotation, whoever it might consist of on any given day, would be this bad?
Through Saturday night’s 7-1 loss to Boston, the Royals’ starters rank too low in too many critical categories. Only three major league starting staffs have worse ERAs than the Royals, only seven have surrendered more hits, only five have given up more runs, and just one has a worse OBA. And Kansas City starters have the worst WHIP in the big leagues.
That the club’s starters are frustratingly inconsistent is beyond dispute, and part and parcel of that inconsistency is their inability to go deep regularly, a malady currently revisiting Keller. Although he leads the team with six wins (and seven losses after Saturday, when he gave Boston five runs in five innings), he’s made it into the sixth only once in his last five starts (and lasted only an out in that contest), didn’t get to the fifth three times, and didn’t reach the third in two others. He’s also given up at least five runs six times.
Keller’s aren’t the staff’s only problems, though.
Bubic was gone from the roster before the season started, optioned to Omaha after a poor spring. Excellent relief work after he returned to KC in early May earned him six straight starts, but after opponents battered him for 15 runs over his last three, Bubic pitched out of the pen again Friday.
Singer, who has just three wins in 14 starts, left Wednesday’s game after three innings with right shoulder tightness; the Royals revealed after the game he’d been tight the game before and was removed out of caution. When, and for how long, he’ll pitch next remains to be seen.
And the anxiously awaited promotions to the majors of top pitching prospects Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar have been disastrous. Lynch was back in Omaha after three starts produced two losses and 14 earned runs in 18 innings (including eight in his second game). Kowar is in the bullpen after failing to get to the second inning in his debut, and to the third in his second start, and giving up eight runs. He pitched in relief Saturday night, but in three innings surrendered a two-run homer, threw two wild pitches (he now has four in three games) and hit a batter.
The damage caused by the loss of Duffy, who at 4-3 with a 1.94 ERA was KC’s most reliable starter when he went down with a left forearm flexor strain over a month ago, is probably irreparable.
(Fortunately, Minor has been better than anyone but Duffy, and takes his 5-4 record against the Red Sox this afternoon).
Is there a remedy for everything that ails the KC Royals’ starting pitchers?
Unfortunately, no quick fix exists to apply to Kansas City’s rotation. Moving now to the future—in other words, promoting Lynch and Kowar—hasn’t worked. And trades are ill-advised and unlikely. The price will be high (probably one of the excellent pitchers the club is developing in the minors) even for an average starter, and why should the KC Royals sacrifice talent for immediate pitching help when their postseason hopes are fading fast?
Without pitching improvement soon, it’s hard to argue pitching coach Cal Eldred should survive the season and, as Kings of Kauffman’s Batoul Hammoud suggested recently, a change there could help. Perhaps the Royals will commit to an “opener” strategy—Kyle Zimmer started in that role Friday and pitched two good innings, and Ervin Santana might also fit. Maybe Lynch can find his way at Omaha, then contribute in KC. Kowar could straighten himself out in the pen. Bubic and Keller might become consistent. Duffy may pick up where he left off when he returns.
If all that happens, or even a good part of it, and Minor continues his steady work, the rotation will be fine. That’s a lot to ask, however.
And things might get worse before they get better.
The KC Royals’ rotation must improve. Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes.