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The wildcard in the Royals rotation

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One starter has the ability to swing the pendulum more than anyone.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It appeared to most people that the Kansas City Royals would undergo a rebuild during the 2018 season after Eric Hosmer left for San Diego. It was the logical thing to do. Cain and Hosmer were gone. It didn’t appear that Moose would be back either. Rebuilding seemed like the only logical choice for the Royals.

The problem with this is that the Royals hate the term “rebuild.” Dayton Moore and company prefer the term “reload” to “rebuild” and the Royals will not undergo a typical, Astros style rebuild. Instead, the Royals have brought on veterans Alcides Escobar, Lucas Duda, Mike Moustakas, and Jon Jay to help this Royals team resemble a competitive ball club during their “reload.”

Since the Royals insist on remaining competitive during their reload, they’ve actually done a decent job of constructing a roster to do just that. This team (probably) won’t be very good and will (hopefully) not be bad enough to help them secure a top five pick in next year’s draft.

On any team that possesses a desire to contend, you must have decent-to-good starting pitching. The Royals’ rotation currently looks something like this:

  • a number one that has never thrown 180 innings in a season, and exited his last ST start due to shoulder tightness
  • a number two that posted an ERA over five last season
  • another starter in Jason Hammel that also posted an ERA over five last season
  • a second year starter that has less than 100 career big league innings
  • and Nate Karns

This rotation as a whole is going to be something of a wildcard. Will the Royals get good Danny Duffy for most of the season? Can Ian Kennedy return to 2016 form? What about Jason Hammel? Can Jake Junis resemble the pitcher we saw during his second stint in the big leagues last season? That’s a ton of question marks for the rotation of a team that signed Jon Jay, Mike Moustakas, and Lucas Duda to one-year deals this offseason.

Perhaps no starter in the Royals organization is a bigger question mark however than Nate Karns. Karns has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career, but hasn’t thrown more than 100 innings since 2015. Last season in 45.1 innings with Kansas City, Karns posted a K/9 of 10.13. That is the best K/9 that Karns has posted in the big leagues. The stuff is there, his curveball is devastating, he just can’t stay on the field.

After missing nearly the entire season in 2017 season due to injury, Karns appears to finally be healthy this spring after undergoing Thoracic Outlet Surgery. This spring, Karns posted an ERA of 1.98 over 13 23 innings. He struck out 18 batters in those innings. The fastball is back, the curveball looks as sharp as ever. The biggest questioning remaining for Karns seems to be: can he stay healthy in 2018?

A healthy Nate Karns could be an incredibly valuable asset to the Kansas City Royals in 2018. If Karns can find a way to return to his 2015 form, a season in which he threw 147 innings and posted a 3.67 ERA, he could prove as both a valuable rotation piece, and a valuable trade asset.

The biggest reason that Nate Karns will be the biggest wildcard in this Royals rotation is because the 2018 rotation will likely be remembered as good or bad depending on the performance of Nate Karns.

Danny Duffy, Jason Hammel, and Ian Kennedy have all been pretty consistent in their performances in the last three or four years. 2017 was actually an outlier as far as poor performances go for Hammel and Kennedy. Neither of them had ever posted an ERA over five throughout a complete big league season before. If both of these guys return to something close to their career averages in ERA (4.51 for Hammel, 4.08 for Kennedy), and Duffy pitches much like he has since 2014, this Royals rotation could be serviceable.

The guy with the biggest chance to set them over the top is Nate Karns. The three guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph allow this rotation to be serviceable. Nate Karns has a chance to put them well above average. If Nate Karns pitches to a 1.5 fWAR in 2018 like he did in 2015 (I think he’s capable of 2-3 fWAR, personally), the Royals top four starting pitchers could combine to post more combined fWAR in 2018 than they did in 2017. Add in a full season of Jake Junis, and this rotation could potentially flourish.

But not if Nate Karns only makes eight starts again. If Nate Karns isn’t able to pitch much this season, Jake Junis will be thrust into the four spot in the rotation and the Royals will have to piece the five spot together with the probable likes of Eric Skoglund, Brian Flynn, Trevor Oaks, etc. The Royals need Nate Karns to stay healthy to give the rotation a chance at being above average. If Karns can stay healthy, the Royals may actually be able to hold their own in 2018.