The Royals starting rotation should offer tangible hope for Kansas City in 2018, with five reliable pitchers primed to take either the next step up or rebound from a disappointing 2017 campaign.
The unquestioned ace of the staff, Duffy enters his 29-year old season with a mission of putting together his ability and major league track record over the course of a full big league season. The lefty has a combined 3.61 ERA over the past two seasons, but with an average of just 163 innings pitched.
If Duffy wants to back up his ace potential, the last hurdle to overcome is staying healthy and producing for 30 or more starts, 200 or more innings. 2017 looked like his true breakout year, following success in 2016 that featured 188 strikeouts and 42 walks over 179.2 innings, but a litany of on and off the field complications halted Duffy’s progress.
Fellow southpaw Cliff Lee finally put all his talent together at age 29, where he won the Cy Young award a 2.54 ERA after pitching just 97 innings the year before. This represents the last real year for Duffy to take the step forward into the Cy Young race. If he again struggles to carry a work load every five days again in 2018, that’s likely just what he is as a pitcher.
Another season with a mid 3.00 ERA is enough to maintain that ace status, but with an unproven, rebuilding bullpen, innings are what Kansas City needs most from its rotation. Duffy averaged nearly 7 innings per start in 2016, and just how close he gets to reaching that mark will be one of the biggest storylines to follow, especially as trade season rolls around.
2016 Ian Kennedy was worth every penny the Royals paid, turning in 195.2 innings, 33 starts, 184 strikeouts and a 3.68 ERA. However 2017 Kennedy saw a drop off at every single statistical category, leading to the highest season ERA of his career.
Kennedy had a 2.30 ERA through his first six starts, but subtle injuries nagged on the 32-year old righty just enough to provide consistent discomfort, but not enough to land an extensive DL trip. Considering the Royals rotational depth issues, Kennedy had no choice put to power through and start every fifth day.
2018 now serves as a chance to regain that 2016 mojo and serve as the front end of the rotation piece the Royals are paying him to be. Kennedy looked sharp in spring training with a 2.50 ERA and 23 strikeouts over 18 innings, but it’s fair to wonder if Kennedy really hit his wall and will never fully rebound. With still three years on his contract, the Royals are counting on it.
The Royals may have been able to overcome disappointing seasons from Kennedy or Hammel, but not from both. Coming off solid 2016 seasons, both veteran righty’s turned in the worst full seasons of their career. Hammel, two years older than Kennedy, didn’t come close to reaching his 30 start, 3.83 ERA 2016 season in Chicago.
Hammel did hunker down and lead the Royals in innings pitched at 180.1, something he’ll again be called upon to do in 2018, but a home run total of 26 allowed in a pitchers park like Kauffman Stadium must improve. Now in a rebuild, the Royals aren’t as likely to stick with Hammel every fifth day if he continues to struggle, especially at age 35 in the final year of his deal.
Unlike Kennedy and Hammel, 2017 saw reasons to be excited about 2018 with Karns on the mound. The 29-year old in year one of a four-year contract turned in a 3.43 ERA over eight starts, with 49 strikeouts to just 11 walks before season ending injury.
That promising start is now accompanied by a spring training line that says Karns has fully recovered, with 1.98 ERA over four starts. But much like Duffy, health has always been a factor for Karns, only topping 15 starts in a season once in his career. However, if Karns can stay on the mound, he has shown all the signs to potentially end up as a front end starter.
The breakout star of 2017 looks to maintain a full-time start spot now in 2018, as the 25-year old aims to show that 9 wins and 98 innings over 16 starts was not a fluke. Junis has also looked strong in spring training with a 1.88 ERA over 4 starts, but fans shouldn’t go expecting Junis to take too big of a step forward.
The right-hander does not have dominant stuff and has never been considered a major prospect, and there’s many examples of strong rookie seasons, followed by sophomore slumps because the league no longer overlooks the AAA rookie. Junis has lots to gain and lots to prove in 2018, especially as the definitive fifth starter, with other prospects waiting in the wings.
There’s a wide variety of names to keep in mind when thinking of who could join the rotation after an injury, with right now Eric Skoglund serving as the first in line starter. Skoglund had a strong major league debut, but struggled to regain that magic in his 24-year-old rookie season.
Acquired via trade this offseason, 28-year old Jesse Hahn is the most major league ready of anyone not in the opening day rotation, but will start the season on the 60-day disabled list with a UCL sprain. If fully recoverd and ready to return come May, if Junis is not performing, Hahn is the top candidate to slide into that fifth starter spot.
Wily Peralta will most likely make the club out of spring training and start in the bullpen, but the veteran did make a handful of starts for the Brewers in 2017 and could slide back into the rotation if KC’s in a pinch.
Prospects to watch include newly acquired Trevor Oaks from the Dodgers, along with former highly ranked starters Kyle Zimmer and Josh Staumont, both of which are coming off disappointing years, but still could make an impact in some capacity. Andres Machado, Heath Fillmyer, Scott Barlow and former Red Sox All-Star Clay Buchholz round out most of KC’s initial starting pitching options.
Opening day at Kauffman Stadium is set for Thursday with Danny Duffy taking the mound at 3:15 p.m.
Copyright 2018 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.