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Spring training battles: The starting rotation

Who will give the Royals 1,000 innings?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals were able to win 95 regular season games in a championship despite featuring a starting pitching staff with an ERA of 4.34, fourth-worst in the American League. They add Ian Kennedy this off-season, although his numbers were a bit underwhelming with the Padres last season. The Royals will hope his numbers can improve in Kansas City, and he can slot into a rotation that will feature Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, and Kris Medlen.

That leaves the final spot in the rotation up for grabs. Jason Vargas will likely miss the entire season with a UCL injury, and newly signed Mike Minor will likely miss the first two months after suffering a torn labrum in 2015. This leaves four candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Danny Duffy

The spot is really Danny Duffy's to lose. Duffy has shown the best upside, flashing moments of brilliance, coupled with bouts of inconsistency. He has a 3.28 ERA as a starter in the last three seasons since returning from Tommy John surgery, but has averaged just 5.4 innings per start over that time. He has managed to go at least six innings in just 53.4% of his starts in those seasons, compared to the average Royals starter managing six innings 65.8% of the time in those years. Duffy has pitched well, but has not been able to go deep in ballgames, which taxes the bullpen.

Duffy was told to prepare as a starting pitcher in camp, and the Royals seem to indicate they still see potential in him as a starting pitcher. The allure of Duffy as a reliever may be too enticing to pass up, however. Duffy has excelled in limited action out of the bullpen, posting a 1.08 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 16 2/3 relief innings in his career. In short stints, Duffy is able to amp up the velocity and better finish hitters off, and his upside could be as a star late inning reliever if he converts to the bullpen full-time.

Still, a good starting pitcher is more valuable than a good relief pitcher, and Duffy has proven himself to be a solid starter, even if he cannot go six innings on a regular basis. Duffy's spot in the rotation will depend largely on how much command he shows this spring, and whether the Royals believe he has the temperament to stay within himself as a starting pitcher.

Dillon Gee

Last year, Gee was with the enemy, the National League champion New York Mets - kind of. Gee, a six-year veteran with the Mets, was unceremoniously demoted to the minor league mid-season and missed the exciting pennant run that led to the New Yorkers falling to the Royals in the Fall Classic. Gee was a 2 WAR pitcher as recently as 2013, but has posted a 4.49 FIP in 30 games over the last two seasons, leading to his demotion.

The right-handed Gee is still just 29 years old, but his upside is rather limited. His fastball only touches the upper 80s and he benefited greatly from pitching at CitiField with a career 3.54 ERA at home compared to 4.61 on the road. Still, he has averaged over six innings per start in his career and perhaps Royals defenders can convert more outs from his 46% career groundball rate than Mets infielders.

Chris Young

The lanky Princeton grad surprised many around baseball by excelling with the Royals last season, posting a 3.06 ERA and ranking as one of the best free agent bargains. His flyball tendencies fit spacious Kauffman Stadium like a glove, and Royals outfielders kept his BABIP ridiculously low at .209. Young re-signed with the Royals on a two-year deal, but will have to compete for a rotation spot. He began last year in the bullpen, but was in the rotation by May, making 18 starts for the year. The Royals tabbed him again to pitch in Game 4 of the ALDS in Rogers Centre, and he came through with an impressive performance, than outdid himself in Game 4 of the World Series against the Mets.

Durability is a concern with the 36-year old Young, who hasn't made 30 starts in a season since George W. Bush was in office. His dependence on flyballs for outs is a tightrope act that won't work if the balls start leaving the park. Young will almost certainly be in line to get some starts this year, the question is, should he break camp as the #5 starter?

Kyle Zimmer

The Royals top pitching prospect and 2012 first-round pick was expected to already be in the rotation, but he will be a long-shot to make it this spring. There is no doubt he has the stuff to pitch in a big league rotation right now, the question is whether or not Kyle Zimmer is healthy enough. Zimmer has battled bicep tendinitis and had shoulder surgery in 2014, returning last season to pitch just 64 minor league innings. But if he is healthy in spring training, and his stuff is good enough to get Major League hitters out, could he actually break north with the club?

Most likely Zimmer will begin the season in Omaha, working to build up his endurance so he can be ready to help out the Royals soon. But at age 24, the clock is ticking on Zimmer, so expect the Royals to be quite aggressive in promoting him.