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If you squint and tilt your head, you can see how the Royals might be good this year

One word: pitching

MLB: SEP 30 Diamondback at Royals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

POP QUIZ: What is the currency of baseball?

This is a bit of a trick question. Sorry. If you said ‘money is the currency of baseball,’ you are not incorrect. Money is the currency of baseball. Money is the currency of everything. That’s because money is currency. Somewhere in a dark cave, Captain Obvious emerges from his slumber to nod his head in agreement.

If you initially thought money, but then thought a bit more because that seemed to easy, you’d probably next answer ‘prospects.’ It’s true: prospects are the only humans who turn into Major League Baseball players. I’m sorry, but nobody from the Overwatch League is developing a mid-90s fastball and a changeup. Gather the best prospects, receive the best big league players. Easy.

For Royals fans, though, you probably thought of pitching as the currency of baseball. That’s because General Manager Dayton Moore said so after one of his first trades as GM.

“Pitching is the currency of the game,” Moore said. “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.”

Never mind that you need a defense behind the pitching, or somebody to pick up a bat to hit the opposing team’s pitching. Also never mind that the Royals have consistently failed to produce starting pitching prospects, and therefore have needed to trade significant prospect capital for James Shields or Johnny Cueto or sign marginal guys for too much money like Chris Young, Bruce Chen, Jason Hammel, or Ian Kennedy.

In 2018, the Royals are going to be awful. Their three best position players all became free agents. One, Lorenzo Cain, has already signed elsewhere. And it makes no sense to re-sign Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer, despite the swirling rumors. Furthermore, the Royals no longer have their Super Bullpen, and their defense has gotten worse from their peak years.

But it is February. Spring Training starts this month. It is the time of eternal optimism for baseball clubs. The players certainly believe in themselves. So how might the Royals succeed?

Well, if you squint and tilt your head, you can see how the Royals could succeed, which is with Moore’s currency of baseball: pitching.

Kansas City will roll out these four guys as the top of the rotation:

  • Danny Duffy
  • Ian Kennedy
  • Jason Hammel
  • Nate Karns

That is not a terrible starting four. There is quite a bit of uncertainty with each player, which is why ZiPS doesn’t like them as a whole. But Duffy was good last year, putting up 3.2 bWAR. Though not as impressive, Hammel put up 1.3 bWAR in 180 innings, and Karns put up 1.0 bWAR in only 50 innings. Kennedy only had 0.5 bWAR in 2017, but he did have 4.0 bWAR in 2016, and while it could be the start of a downward spiral it could just be year-to-year variation.

Duffy isn’t likely to get better, and neither is Hammel, but a modest bounceback from Kennedy and a healthy season from Karns wouldn’t be unreasonable and would make for an underrated and quite solid rotation foundation.

Then you’ve got these two:

  • Jesse Hahn
  • Jake Junis

As a rookie from 2014-2015, Hahn pitched 170 innings over 28 starts and two relief appearances, tossing a 3.23 ERA and accruing 2.3 bWAR. Though he has suffered through some injuries since then, he’s still the same guy, and that production may still be hidden under some rust.

And Junis, well, Junis is one of the best stories of the 2017 season. Junis was pressed into service due to injuries and was actually quite good. He put up 1.3 bWAR over 98 innings and 20 games, 16 of which were starts. Junis is not going to be Pedro Martinez. But conjuring a league average starter making the league minimum is a magic trick that has so far eluded the Moore era Royals.

Want some upside, too? Look no further than these two:

  • Kyle Zimmer
  • Josh Staumont

Both of these guys have huge problems in the way of them realizing their potential. That’s why they aren’t anywhere near a Top 100 prospect list.

But both have tremendous upside. Zimmer has sadly been the punchline for a lot of jokes in his career due to his injury history, but if he can stay on the mound he can be an above average pitcher. As for Staumont, his strikeout figures are very good, and he has extreme velocity that is unteachable. If he can harness his control just a little bit he will be an effective pitcher.

In addition, both of these guys have history in the high minors. Their next step is to the big leagues.

You’ll notice I said ‘if’ a lot up there. If this, if that. The fact of the matter is that every single team can plot a course to the playoffs if they turn enough ‘ifs’ into ‘thens.’ If is a bad word to trust when doing analysis.

The Royals are still likely to be very bad in 2018. That will help them in the long run, and it’s not exactly unforseen. But if they are good, it’s because their starting rotation has a bunch of decent players six or seven deep.

Like Moore said: pitching is currency. You don’t need great players. Get enough ok players at enough spots and you just might succeed. That’s the route to the playoffs this year, as unlikely as it is.