Last month, the Royals potential pitching rotation for 2019 was dealt a legitimate blow when Eric Skoglund was suspended 80-games for violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Skoglund figured to be a major competitor for a spot in the starting rotation. Now, if any of you follow me on Twitter or read this website, you might know that I was never a believer in Skoglund. At all.
Regardless of your opinions of Skoglund, however, he was going to be a candidate for the starting rotation and that is now scrapped until at least July. For a team that had the 5th highest ERA in the American League last season, losing arms isn’t great.
With that being said, as we look towards spring training, one word comes to mind when I look at the potential starting rotation: unremarkable. Coming off of a season that saw Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel combine for 222 innings, that isn’t actually the worst thing in the world.
It is my theory that the Royals pitching rotation might not actually be terrible in 2019, specifically when it comes to the starters. Here is why.
Let’s start at the top.
I’m not here to argue that the top of the Royals rotation is a world-beater, but they are at least solidified. And if you squint hard enough, you could find worse top-ends than Danny Duffy, Jakob Junis, and Brad Keller.
Duffy is coming off of his worst full season as a professional but he missed bats at a decent rate despite a fastball that completely ran out of gas in the last two months of the season. And when he isn’t the official spokesperson of the Kansas City Chiefs fan, he is vowing to revamp his velocity in 2019.
Then you have Junis. His 2018 season was a garbage sandwich on artisan bread. His April and May were beautiful, along with his August and September. In those months, he produced a 3.44 ERA over 134 innings, striking out 125 in the process. Wonderful bread. In between those two nice pieces of bread was literal garbage, to the tune of a 7.43 ERA as he dealt with a lower back injury. It’s reasonable to think he rebounds, if healthy.
Finally, you have Keller. A anti-analytics wunderkind and K/BB anomaly. He finished 2018 with the 7th worst K/9 in baseball and the 4th-worst K-BB% in baseball. He also finished with a 3.08 ERA and 3.55 FIP, good for 16th and 24th in the league, respectably. Keller might have been the flukiest pitcher in baseball, but ZiPS saw enough to have him as the second-best pitcher in the Royals rotation, above Duffy, and hot on Junis’ trail.
At the end of the day, those three guys are projected for a combined 5.7 fWAR. That’s nothing to write home about, but that mark would have been better than six starting staffs in 2018. Kansas City’s starters won’t be the 1998 Braves, but they also won’t be the 2006 Royals.
Now, the bullpen. While the starting rotation might be somewhat bearable, the bullpen could prove to be a ticking time bomb, not unlike 2018. But there are two things we can look forward to: First, there is a 23-year-old lefty who ZiPS projects as a 1.1 fWAR pitcher out of the bullpen. Secondly, that pitcher’s name is Richard Lovelady.
Arguably, or perhaps inarguably, the greatest name in Royals history, Lovelady the pitcher has quickly risen from rookie ball to Omaha, dominating most of the way.
Unfortunately, the rest of the bullpen might be a huge mess and it isn’t a 100% guarantee that Lovelady will even break camp with Kansas City. Kelvin Herrera was far and away the best reliever on the Royals in 2018 and he is long gone. Keller was the third best Royals reliever based on fWAR, but he is now a starter. You have Tim Hill sandwiched in between those two with a 0.5 fWAR.
After those three, the Royals bullpen combined for a -3.6 fWAR. That is offensively bad. According to fWAR, no bullpen in baseball was worse than the Royals bullpen in 2018, even with the contributions from Herrera, Keller, and Hill, two of which won’t be in the Kansas City bullpen this season.
There is hope, however. For starters, Brandon Maurer, Justin Grimm, and Blaine Boyer won’t be in a Royals uniform this season, the truest sense of addition by subtraction. Replacing those guys with replacement-level arms, or even slightly-sub replacement level arms, is a net positive for 2019.
Let’s count Hill as one of those guys, along with Kevin McCarthy, Brian Flynn, and now Brad Boxberger. There are a ton of guys that will get extended looks in Spring Training like Arnaldo Hernandez, Scott Blewett, Josh Staumont, and Kyle Zimmer. The Royals might see some of those guys as starters, but as we saw with Matt Strahm, that won’t keep them out of the bullpen in the short-term.
We can also non-rostered guys like Lovelady and Jason Adam into the mix. Long story short, the bullpen should be better in 2019 than 2018, if not only because you can’t get much worse than 2018.
The upside for the Royals pitching rotation isn’t great, but it could be worse.
Kansas City’s starters didn’t set the world on fire in 2018, but the top of the rotation wasn’t terrible and could improve in 2019. The bullpen is a question mark, but since the punching bags are no longer in uniform, things can only go up from here.
And then there’s Jorge Lopez, who might just be the most important pitcher on the staff. He will almost certainly get a long, long look at the starting rotation. He has fantastic stuff, which makes him a high-upside bullpen candidate if he isn’t put in the rotation.
The Royals were bad at just about everything last season, but if the right pieces fall at the right time, the pitching rotation could be, as I have noted, unremarkable to average. For a 104-loss team, that isn’t the worst thing in the world.