When the Royals signed Bruce Chen last week, there was no doubt in my mind that he was signed with the intention of filling a spot in the rotation. At Fanfest (I think) Ned Yost came out and said that barring something odd, Chen would be in the Opening Day rotation. So my original thought was already confirmed, or at least as much as a thought can be confirmed before pitchers and catchers even report. So that meant that the Royals had pretty much already decided who would fill the 1-4 spots in the rotation, which would lead to an all out brawl for that number five spot.
The candidates are, in alphabetical order, Wade Davis, Danny Duffy, Luke Hochevar, Brad Penny and Yordano Ventura. Dayton Moore mentioned during Fanfest (again, I think) that Kyle Zimmer would likely not pitch competitively until May 1, so he’s out. Other names may arise for this competition, but those are the five real candidates. Ned Yost has also said that he’d be comfortable with Danny Duffy pitching out of the bullpen, at least during the start of the season.
Knowing that Bruce Chen is in the fold as a starter for at least the first few months of the season, I look at this Royals rotation and I see an awful lot of mediocrity. James Shields is dynamic at the top of the rotation. Every team would take him in their rotation, and most teams would love him as their number one or number two starter. The issue for me is what comes after him now. In Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Bruce Chen, the Royals have three guys who we have a pretty good idea won’t be anything special. I’m not saying they can’t be valuable contributors to a big league rotation and to a big league rotation of a playoff team, but you don’t look at any of those three and think that they’re answer to start game two of a season, let alone a playoff series.
I just think that in order to become the team they want to be, the Royals have to have more dynamic arms in their rotation than they currently are looking at to start the season. I think there’s a lot of risk involved with having Duffy and Ventura start the season in the rotation. These are both young pitchers who haven’t proven much and could be big strains on the bullpen due to their sometimes high pitch counts. But they’re also electric arms who could develop into that guy who you don’t want to face right after James Shields in a playoff series. Instead, the Royals will likely go into the 2014 season with three guys who probably won’t blow up on you but who also almost definitely won’t provide what the Royals really need in their rotation and what they had last season with Santana behind Shields in the rotation.
I feel like I’ve said this a lot this off-season, but I actually like Guthrie and Vargas and now you can add Chen to the list of pitchers I like. Like I said before, all three of them are pitchers who can help a team win as members of a rotation. All three in the same rotation is not anything I would touch with a 47 foot pole. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I would bet on the Royals not making the playoffs if they insist on a rotation involving all three of them. Guthrie and Vargas are locks, so if I was running the Royals (and no, that hasn’t happened as of the writing of this article), Chen would be a long reliever/swingman for me, and it could really work with what I would do with this rotation.
I’d make things a little crazy. James Shields is pretty clearly my number one starter. There’s no question there. I’d divide up the rotation a little differently than the Royals would if they used “my” five guys. I’d go Duffy second, Guthrie third, Vargas fourth and Ventura fifth. With Wade Davis and Bruce Chen on the roster, along with Luke Hochevar and even Louis Coleman, you have four relievers who could conceivably give you innings if a young guy struggles in that turn through the rotation. By dividing them up that way, it allows the bullpen to recover from a potential short start that has a way of really making a bullpen implode. If you’re going to have a guy like Wade Davis on the roster, you might as well use him in a way that makes sense. I do think Davis has a chance to be better than a mopup guy, but if Duffy gives you four innings only (and remember, sometimes those four innings could keep the Royals in the game), you want a guy who can come in and get the game to the 7th or 8th. I think Davis can actually do that. Chen can do it too.
And I know what you’re probably thinking at this point. The Royals plan is for Chen to start the first half of the season and then shift him to the bullpen for one of the younger arms who should be ready to contribute after limiting some innings. That’s all well and good, but if the Royals go with a rotation of mediocre veterans over the opportunity to go with high impact arms out of the rotation, those last three months are going to be less important than they think they will be right now.
The Royals offense is improved. The defense is stellar. The bullpen is outstanding (though I still am concerned about some regression). To me, the only way the Royals make a playoff run is by counting on the young, electric arms of Duffy, Ventura and Zimmer to get through the season along with their veteran arms, Shields, Guthrie and Vargas. I might really only be talking about one starter different here, but unless someone steps up and puts up numbers similar to what Santana put up last season, the Royals are going to struggle to get past what they did in 2013. I just don’t see any of the three veterans stepping up to that level. Maybe Duffy and Ventura won’t make it, but they actually have a shot to do it. Going with those two as keys to the rotation might lead to a season worse than 2013, but they’re the best shot to actually be better too, so they should take that chance.
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