The Royals' unsurprising decision to place Yordano Ventura in the starting rotation left the team with a key decision on where odd man out Danny Duffy should begin the season: in the Triple-A rotation or the Major League bullpen. The Royals front office has apparently reached their decision and will let Duffy compete for the final spot in the bullpen, according to Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star.
McCullough points out that the Royals are (shockingly!) going against what they publicly stated for most of the spring; the loser of the Duffy/Ventura battle would head to Omaha and likely be the first starter called up when one of the original five needs a break because of injury/ineffectiveness. It's certainly a possibility that Duffy will still serve as the team's sixth starter, but all signs now point to him beginning the year as the team's seventh reliever.
The team hasn't guaranteed Duffy the last spot, but unless the southpaw turns into 2000 NLDS Rick Ankiel over his final four appearances of the spring, I have a hard time picturing Francisley Bueno or Donnie Joseph beating him out for the final spot.
Publicly, the Royals are claiming they still envision Duffy as a successful starter at the major league level and that pitching out of the bullpen will help him more than pitching in AAA. Noted Leader of Men Ned Yost talked with McCullough about the decision, stating:
"You can have success in Class AAA doing exactly what you're doing now. They're going to swing at pitches out of the zone. If you're going to have success, he's going to have to do it up here."
Even though I question the team's decision, I do understand what Yost is getting at. Duffy has mostly overpowered hitters in his two stints in Omaha, but has not translated those skills into sustainable success in Kansas City. It's certainly possible facing major league hitters, even in a different role, will help Duffy more than heading north on I-29 will.
Still, there are few things that make me pause about Duffy beginning the year as a reliever. The first is Dave Eiland's comment to McCullough that the lefty will "alter his arsenal" and not use his curveball, instead focusing on his fastball, changeup and slider. I guess you can make the argument that this should help Duffy focus on locating his other three pitches, particularly his fastball, but pitchers dropping pitches can be a sign of a more permanent move to the bullpen.
It's also fair to question if the Royals will be willing to move Duffy back to the rotation if he pitches well in the bullpen. It would be aggravating to see Duffy throw 25-30 strong innings to start the season, then hear Royals brass talk about "not messing with success" and keeping Duffy in the bullpen while we watch the Wade Davis Experience start every fifth day instead.
Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star, not known for his critical takes of the Royals organization and front office, thinks the move "stinks of letting emotions trump logic, and of an overreaction to a few setbacks in what is still a strong bullpen without Duffy or Luke Hochevar."
I'm in the Duffy to AAA camp, but it some ways I consider the discussion to be academic. Duffy will likely be the next starter the Royals turn to no matter where he starts the season, so he probably will not spend a ton of time in Omaha or the bullpen before starting in the majors. I would suggest that starting in AAA would still prepare Duffy better than starting in the bullpen, but I also don't want to assume every decision the Royals make about a pitcher is incorrect; the organization may truly believe and could be correct that Duffy to the bullpen is the more beneficial to his future as a starter.
I think it's fair to follow Rany Jazayerli's lead and take a "wait-and-see" approach with this move. I don't think we have enough information to blast the Royals for being completely incompetent with Duffy, but the organization also does not have enough of a track record for us to trust their decision making. Regardless of where he begins the season, the Royals will likely still need Duffy to perform well as a starter at the major league level to have a real shot at competing for a playoff spot.