Now that Homer Bailey is off to Oakland, I’m realizing that I may have underappreciated him a bit. I mean, it’s hard to get excited about a 33-year old on a one-year contract who puts up back of the rotation numbers on a losing team. Unless Kevin Merrell crashes through his projected ceiling and becomes a star, I’m likely to forget all about this trade – and the Homer Bailey era of Royals baseball, for that matter – before the season’s even over.
But pitchers of Bailey’s caliber are valuable, even if they’re not particularly exciting. For Oakland, he’ll help solidify a rotation that’s been in flux all year. And for Kansas City, he brought back a lottery ticket and provided some much needed depth to a club that was never destined to have a great rotation. The Royals were actually quite fortunate to have Bailey perform as well as he did, which was far from a given coming into the season. Without him, it could have been a whole lot worse.
To say the Royals pitching depth is lackluster would be an understatement, and the proof is right there in the first half numbers. Prior to the All Star break, KC starters combined for 2.7 fWAR, making them the fourth-worst rotation in baseball. To put that into some context, Max Scherzer – all by himself – was worth 5.5 fWAR. The Royals starters’ collective ERA of 5.21 was 7th worst and their FIP of 5.12 was 5th worst. Their K/9 (7.22), BB/9 (3.59) and Hard Hit Rate (40.6%) were all in the bottom five. No, this is not a good rotation.
Even looking at individual pitchers, there are no true standouts or cause for excitement. Really, the most amazing thing is that they’ve all been largely healthy, a miracle in and of itself. Brad Keller was the team’s best first half starter, despite showing significant regression from his excellent rookie campaign. He’s looked good at times, but he’s really not the sort of pitcher you want leading your rotation; any time your best pitcher’s K/9 and BB/9 are within roughly two points of each other, you’ve got problems.
Trailing Keller is Homer Bailey, who was just good enough to warrant a trade. The word “serviceable” seems to be thrown around quite a lot to describe Bailey’s performance as a Royal, which seems to fit. The same could be said for Danny Duffy, who is experiencing a dip in velocity and seems to be searching for the right mix of pitches to lean on, and to a lesser extent Jake Junis, who is being exposed as a bit of a one trick pony. Jorge Lopez and Glenn Sparkman have not been good overall, but have had their moments, and if you squint you can see the potential in both of them. They may not end up being Major League starters, but there’s a reason they’re getting a shot.
And yeah, they’re getting a shot in part because they’re all we’ve got. Ideally, they’d be figuring this stuff out in the minors behind a stellar staff in KC, but we’ve already established that we’re not working under ideal circumstances here. If these guys are in the Major League rotation, you have to assume that the AAA starting squad is probably pretty lackluster as well, which is exactly the case.
Foster Griffin, who is currently on the injured list, is the only regular Omaha starter with an ERA under 6.00 and no one in the rotation is striking out a batter an inning. The PCL is a notorious hitter’s league, especially this year, but even when compared to their peers, the Storm Chasers don’t have a single starter with an average or better ERA. They’ve also been experimenting with openers (a lot, actually), and that’s really only done to compensate for a lack of starting pitching. The AAA squad's performance was surely a motivating factor in acquiring Mike Montgomery in the Maldonado trade instead of going after younger talent. With Bailey gone, they may not have felt like they had anyone qualified to take his place. That's unfortunate, to say the least.
You could argue that the Royals should have more pitching depth in AAA and you wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, I’d nod emphatically right along with you as you laid out that argument. But this isn’t an article about drafting and development; we all know the Royals have not excelled in those areas in recent years. We also know that there’s starting pitching in the low minors that is excelling and (hopefully) will make an impact in a few years. Sure, it would be nice if there was a glut of pitching talent in Omaha, but that’s simply not the way it is. Given the circumstances coming into this season, I think the Royals did exactly the right thing with their rotation. It may be the only part of the major league roster they totally nailed.
Despite a significant lack of pitching depth, the Royals set the tone early by sending Ian Kennedy to the bullpen before the season even started in order to make room for their young starters. With the exception of Bailey, who turned out to be perfectly (yawn) fine, they didn’t sign any cheap veteran starters, instead opting to open the season with a rotation with an average age of 27 — not exactly spring chickens, but still. We could easily have been watching a rotation of Kennedy, Duffy, Bailey and a couple of Jeremy Guthrie clones while Keller, Junis and the rest of the gang toiled in Omaha. Instead, they let the kids play, and they’re seeing what they’ve got in these guys at the big league level.
If the first half was any indicator, it’s quite possible they don’t have much. Jorge Lopez was sent to the bullpen when his struggles became too great to ignore, and he may not be the last of this group to see such a demotion. There’s nothing all that wrong with that. If the current rotation turns out to be a future bullpen (I actually think this is a possibility), that’s obviously not ideal, but at least they were given every opportunity to succeed as starters and weren’t supplanted by crummy veterans and relegated to the bullpen prematurely.
The goal of this season was never to win (I don’t believe you, Dayton), it was to give young, major league ready players every opportunity to show that they belong, and that’s exactly what the Royals have done with their starters. Every unproven pitcher who has any business starting a major league game right now is in the rotation, and this year's veteran starters actually make sense in the context of a rebuild. The fact that this is noteworthy is concerning, but I'll take it. More, please.