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Spring training battles: Starting pitching

It is the currency of baseball

MLB: World Series-Cleveland Indians at Chicago Cubs Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In 2003, the Royals determined their Opening Day starter with a coin flip. The five starters to open the rotation that year - Runelvys Hernandez, Jeremy Affeldt, Miguel Ascensio, Chris George, and Darrell May - had a combined 84 Major League starts between them in their careers. Of course, that team won their first nine games.

This year's team will have no such youthful inexperience or uncertainty. Danny Duffy will head up the rotation, followed by Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, and Jason Vargas. The only question is who will take the ball on that fifth day, and even then, the choices are pretty well-known.

Nathan Karns

Karns has shown flashes of brilliance, but has been very inconsistent in his young career. In a lot of ways, he shows parallels to Danny Duffy. He has been used in both the rotation and the bullpen, has had trouble going deep in games, but also shows plus stuff that can miss bats. Karns has struck out a hitter-per-inning in 46 career starts, but has a lackluster 4.19 ERA as a starter with 3.7 walks-per-nine innings.

Karns brings one of the best curveballs in baseball, a knuckle-curve that he throws nearly a third of the time. But his lack of command causes him to crumble the third time through a lineup. In his career, opposing hitters have are hitting .287/.367/.517 against him the third time they see him. That is a big reason why Karns is averaging just 5.4 innings-per-start, the seventh-lowest innings-per-start out of 107 pitchers who made 40+ starts over 2015-2016.

The Royals have mentioned that if Karns fails to make the rotation, he could become a dominant reliever, much like Wade Davis did. In just 16 1/3 career innings in relief, Karns has been a disaster, with a 7.71 ERA and four home runs allowed, although it is a small sample size. Karns had a back injury last year that limited him to just 94 1/3 innings and he has never pitched more than 150 innings in a professional season.

Travis Wood

Wood was a late addition to the roster, signing a two-year, $12 million deal at the beginning of spring training. The deal is market-price for a solid lefty-reliever, but according to reporter Jeffrey Flanagan, Travis Wood has the inside-edge on the rotation spot.

Wood has had success as a starter, being named an All-Star with the Cubs in 2013 when he ended the year with a 3.11 ERA in 32 starts. He was demoted to the pen in 2015 after a disappointing 2014 season and has become a very good lefty reliever. He was nearly unhittable against lefties last year, with an opposing hitter's line of .128/.208/.239 in 120 plate appearances. But he was very hittable for righties, who hit .265/.344/.465 against him in 132 plate appearances. In his career, just as a starter, righties are hitting .250/.325/.424 against him. In the last three years, he has been one of the worst left-handed pitchers in baseball at facing right-handed hitters.

Wood has not been a workhorse, but he has typically gone deeper in games than Karns, averaging 5.8 innings-per-start, compared to 5.4 for Karns. He has command issues, like Karns, averaging 3.1 walks-per-nine innings as a starter. Wood throws a fastball in the low 90s, mixing in a cutter, slider, curveball, and change, striking out 7.1 per-nine-innings.

Chris Young

Haha. Okay.

Chris Young is a long-shot, at best, to make the rotation after a disastrous 2016 season. Young had a ridiculous home run rate last season, with 28 home runs allowed in just 88 2/3 innings. His home runs-per-nine inning was 2.8, half a home run higher than anyone else in baseball.

Still, Young is just a year removed from being a very solid pitcher with a 3.06 ERA and an adequate World Series start. He suffered a forearm injury early in the 2016 season that could be to blame for his home run-happy numbers. Young seemed to suffer from a league-wide home run spike, perhaps from a juiced ball, that could come back down if this year's balls aren't quite as lively. Chris Young probably won't start the season in the rotation, but don't be surprised if he gets a few starts this year.

Others: The Royals still see Matt Strahm as a starter long-term, but it sounds like he will be headed to the bullpen this year as one of their better relief options. Mike Minor will likely be headed to the bullpen this year in an effort to keep him healthy. Kyle Zimmer has high upside, but will need to build up his innings after spending most of his career on the disabled list.