Ten years ago, Dayton Moore arrived in Kansas City, fresh from the Braves, a dynasty that dominated the National League standings for well over a decade due largely to the best starting pitching in baseball. Dayton Moore was intent on carrying the Braves tradition over to Kansas City, which had succeeded decades earlier with a young, dominant starting rotation of its own when they won the championship in 1985. Upon taking the job, Dayton Moore remarked:
"Pitching is the currency of the game...We're going to explore every avenue, every place we can go to continue to acquire pitching talent, plug it in and hopefully get the right blend."
In his first full season, Dayton Moore improved the Royals pitching staff from fourteenth in the league in ERA to seventh. The improvement came largely from a revamped bullpen - which finished sixth in the league in ERA, and free agent starting pitcher Gil Meche - who signed the largest contract in Royals history.
The Royals stayed near the bottom of the league in ERA until 2013, when they topped the league. Although Dayton Moore had been on the job long enough to have seen pitchers he drafted reach the big leauges, just eight starts were made that year by pitchers drafted or developed by the Royals - five from Danny Duffy and three from Yordano Ventura. The Royals spent $38.3 million of their $92 million payroll that year (41.6%) on six starting pitchers acquired either through free agency (Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen) or trade (James Shields, Wade Davis, Ervin Santana, and Luis Mendoza).
The Royals depended more on homegrown talent in 2014 and 2015, when Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura combined to make 107 starts. However, Duffy's inconsistencies caused the Royals to move him to the bullpen, and with no further talent coming in through the pitching pipeline, the Royals felt obligated to invest even more in free agent starting pitching for 2016. The Royals spent a whopping $70 million on Ian Kennedy, to join free agent Edinson Volquez, signed the previous season. The Opening Day rotation featured four pitchers acquired by the Royals as free agents - Kennedy, Volquez, Kris Medlen, and Chris Young.
One month into the season, with Medlen and Young faltering, the solution isn't some young promising arm coming up through the system, but another free agent - former Mets pitcher Dillon Gee. And if falters, the Royals will likely turn to another free agent - Mike Minor - who is currently rehabbing in Northwest Arkansas.
David Lesky, writing in Baseball Prospectus Kansas City highlighted the issue last month.
In the last three seasons, through this run of unprecedented success in Kansas City, the Royals have gotten 117 starts from pitchers they developed. That’s 117 starts out of a possible 486. If you were wondering, that’s 24 percent.
To put some context to that, let’s take a look at the rest of the American League Central. The White Sox have gotten 178 starts from pitchers drafted (or signed internationally) and developed by them. That’s 36.6 percent. The Tigers got 179 starts from their own, or 36.8 percent. The Indians got 124 starts, which is 25.5 percent. And finally, the Twins got 112 starts from homegrown talent, which is just 23 percent.
Why does it matter if the pitchers are not homegrown? Well, pitchers acquired via trade require giving up talent. To get James Shields and Jonny Cueto, the Royals had to give up Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Brandon Finnegan, and Cody Reed. The Royals won two pennants and a championship, so I doubt any Royals fans regret those trades. But the point is, the Royals felt they had to sacrifice the long-term for the short-term because they had not developed enough starting pitching. And now James Shields is gone. Johnny Cueto is gone. And the rotation is struggling.
Second, free agent pitchers are expensive. Money spent on Ian Kennedy, Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, Kris Medlen, and Jason Vargas is money that can't be spent on second base or right field, two other areas of concern. Third, free agent pitchers are typically on the wrong side of 30. According to Baseball-Reference, the Royals have the oldest pitching staff in the American League (although that includes relievers). No American League team this year has gotten fewer starts from pitchers under the age of 30 than the Royals. Older pitchers break down and decline.
Finally, and most importantly, the starting pitching lately has not been good. Spending money on free agent starting pitching is great if you have an unlimited budget like the Dodgers. However the Royals, even though they are spending more than ever before, must still shop in the mid-tier aisle of starting pitching. And the results have not been good recently. Last year, the Royals finished with the fourth-worst ERA among starting pitching staffs in the American League, yet they were able to overcome it with a dominating pen and defense. This year, they are fourth-worst again, only this time they are not able to overcome the pitching deficiencies.
Free agent starting pitching can help complement a young rotation or put a contending team over the edge as it did last year. But a small market team like the Royals needs to develop young starting pitching on its own to produce a sustainable winner. To his credit, Dayton Moore has developed or acquired some young quality starting pitchers - Yordano Ventura, Jake Odorizzi, Sean Manaea, Cody Reed, and Brandon Finnegan. And maybe things will change if Kyle Zimmer is healthy, Miguel Almonte takes a big step forward, and Josh Staumont learns to throw strikes.
But now in 2016, the Royals are left with few homegrown arms, and it is costing them early in the season.