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Spring training battles: The fifth starting pitcher

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Pitching is the currency of baseball.

Kansas City Royals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Royals’ starting pitching woes were overshadowed last year by their bullpen woes, but the starters posted a 4.89 ERA, seventh-worst in baseball and the highest ERA by Royals starters since 2010, The front of the rotation wasn’t great with Danny Duffy, Jakob Junis, and Brad Keller posting a 4.26 ERA when starting. But the rotation figures to improve this year, as Duffy has shown flashes of dominance in the past, and Junis and Keller are young enough to have some upside.

Those three figure to be locks in the rotation (if Duffy is healthy), and while there is talk of moving Ian Kennedy to the bullpen, most likely he will begin the year as the fourth starter. The Royals likely won’t need a fifth starter for the first week of the season, but by the second week they will. Who will fill that spot when needed? Here are the leading candidates.

Homer Bailey

The Royals signed Bailey to a minor league deal and the Royals will have to pay him no more than the league minimum if he makes the team, thanks to the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers paying the remainder of his $105 million deal he signed back in 2014. At one point Bailey had no-hit stuff, tossing not one, but two no-hitters in his career. He was a 4.1 WAR pitcher in 2013, which led to his massive contract, but he hasn’t been the same since Tommy John surgery in 2015. Over the last two seasons, he has a 6.25 ERA, third-worst in baseball for pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched.

You might think a move to the bullpen might have the best chance at saving Bailey’s career, but the Royals insist he is in camp to compete for a starting job. Manager Ned Yost seems to be willing to give Bailey a long leash this spring, arguing that veterans have a way of figuring things out before the season starts. But the 32-year old hasn’t found success in five years, and his best years are likely behind him. Bailey has an opt-out he can exercise on March 25 if he’s not on the roster. It feels like he might be an insurance policy in case the Royals suffer a lot of injuries to their pitching staff, but if Ned Yost is looking for a veteran in the staff, they could turn to Bailey.

Heath Fillmyer

Fillmyer is the candidate who had the most success last year, posting a respectable 4.26 ERA, although a 4.75 FIP, in 82 13 innings. He has a below-average strikeout rate, and his walk rate was pretty high last year for someone that doesn’t miss bats, but he was able to retire hitters with a 46% groundball rate. His .277 BABIP last year could foreshadow some regression however, if more of those grounders find their way through the infield.

The 24-year old right-hander is still fairly new to pitching, having converted to the mound in his last year in college before the Athletics drafted him in 2014, so it is possible he has some more upside as he figures out his secondary pitches. Fillmyer did show an ability to go deep in games, pitching at least six or more innings in five of his last six starts last season. Unless he develops some really good secondary stuff, he likely profiles as a fifth starter, and that’s all the Royals will likely ask from him this year.

Ben Lively

Lively made 15 starts for the Phillies in 2017, with a decent enough 4.26 ERA and was a 0.7 WAR pitcher, according to Fangraphs, but he had a 4.97 FIP and a low strikeout rate. Last year he was hit hard with injuries, missing time with a back strain and a shoulder injury. When he was healthy, he was pretty ineffective, posting a 6.85 ERA with the Phillies, although in just 23 23 innings. They placed him on waivers, and the Royals claimed him late in the year.

The 27-year old Lively is a flyball pitcher in an era where you really don’t want to be a flyball pitcher. He has had the most recent success out of any of the candidates, but neither his ceiling nor his floor seem particularly high. Lively does have an option year remaining, so it seems most likely he could be sent to Omaha as insurance, but he’s also not a lock to stay on the 40-man roster if the Royals need a spot.

Jorge Lopez

Lopez showed flashes of brilliance after he was acquired from Milwaukee in the Mike Moustakas trade, nearly tossing a perfect game in a start against the Twins late in the year. Aside from that, his numbers in Kansas City were unimpressive with a 6.35 ERA in seven starts, although that was marred in part by a seven-run outing in just one inning of work in his last start.

Despite some pretty good stuff, Lopez has yet to put up better-than-average strikeout rates. He used his curveball more once he arrived in Kansas City, and his bender has the potential to be an “out pitch” for him. He may need some mechanical tweaks and better command to make it as a starter. Lopez is out of options, so he will make the team, but some think he may be more valuable as a reliever.

Others: Scott Barlow fared well traveling with MLB All-Stars in Japan and put up a high strikeout rate in Omaha, but struggled with his walk rate and will likely serve as depth in Omaha. Glenn Sparkman made three starts for the Royals last year, but didn’t last past the fifth inning in any of the starts and seems better suited for the bullpen. Kyle Zimmer finally looks healthy, but the Royals seem likely to ease him back into pitching in a relief role first. Arnaldo Hernandez is an intriguing option with upside at age 23, but his good velocity has not translated to strong strikeout rates yet. Jesse Hahn and Trevor Oaks will both likely miss the first few months due to injury.

Poll

Who should be the fifth starter?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    Homer Bailey
    (79 votes)
  • 20%
    Heath Fillmyer
    (136 votes)
  • 4%
    Ben Lively
    (32 votes)
  • 56%
    Jorge Lopez
    (371 votes)
  • 5%
    Someone else
    (37 votes)
655 votes total Vote Now