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Building a better rotation

It’s getting difficult to come up with five arms for the rotation.

MLB: JUL 08 Royals Summer Camp Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the topsy-turvy world of COVID-baseball, you can expect your blueprints for a season to be shredded, thrown in the dumpster on fire and sent down the river. The Royals experienced this early in camp when anyone who ever wore a chest protector seemed to test positive for the virus. They’re experiencing it now in the starting rotation.

Brad Keller was felled early in camp and is back, working his way to building starting pitching strength. And on Monday it was announced that Jakob Junis also tested positive, but is not yet ready to compete. When the Royals start playing games for real on Friday, he will open the season on the 10-day IL. This development leaves the Royals starting pitching—which was thin even in the best case scenarios we were dealing with back in March—to so thin that it’s nearly transparent.

We know Danny Duffy will get the ball in the opener. Beyond that…

Mike Montgomery started the first true exhibition game of Summer Camp on Monday. That puts him on target for a Saturday start, which conveniently happens to be the date of the second game of the season. Naturally, the Royals urged bystanders not to read anything into Montgomery throwing on Monday, but how could you not? Especially when he’s, you know, one of two starters who is actually healthy.

Keller is a lock for the rotation, but will have a pitch count in the early going as he builds up his arm strength. That gives the Royals two-and-a-half starters for a five man rotation.

In no particular order, let’s look at some of the other candidates to fill the remaining rotation spots.

Foster Griffin

Griffin, the Royals second selection in the 2014 draft (in the first round, 11 picks after Brandon Finnegan), has experienced quite the bumpy road along his minor league journey. Sensing his career at a crossroads, he decided to pitch in the Dominican Winter League last offseason. And prior to reporting to Tigres del Licey, he spent about a month with a pitching consultant who had him focusing on grips, spin and power. The results in the Dominican were quite pleasing where he showcased a new cutter and whiffed 31 batters in 23.1 innings. He got knocked around a bit in Surprise, but has thrown well in Summer Camp.

Why he will be in the rotation

While the results haven’t been there, Griffin has been durable over his minor league career, throwing over 130 innings in each of the last four seasons. And the Royals kind of need someone to chew up innings at the moment.

Besides, major league debuts are cool.

Why he won’t

Griffin is on the 40-man roster, but the Royals may be reluctant to throw him into the starting rotation straight away, preferring to bring him along at a slower pace through the bullpen. (If it feels like I’m reaching here, it’s because I am. Griffin is probably a lock.)

Jorge López

This is a decidedly unsexy option, especially given how he finished the intersquad portion of Summer Camp.

Why he will be in the rotation

He’s done it before. Not especially well, but he’s done it before. Experience can be overvalued when you don’t have much of it on hand. The stuff is still considered good. That’s a positive, I guess.

Why he won’t

There has to be better options. Even now. López has thrown just under 160 innings for the Royals since arriving in the Mike Moustakas trade in 2018 with a 6.24 ERA. He gives up a ton of hits and really struggles the second time through the order and beyond, making him more suitable to be an Opener, should the Royals decide to go that route.

Jesse Hahn

Hahn was drafted in 2010 by the Tampa Bay Rays, but didn’t make his professional debut until 2012 due to his recovery from Tommy John. That’s foreshadowing. Since arriving in Kansas City through a trade ahead of the 2018 season, the right-hander has made just six appearances (all last September) while spending the majority of the time on the 60-day IL with continued elbow ailments.

Why he will be in the rotation

He’s out of options and the Royals love them some inventory so it wasn’t like he wasn’t going to make a 30-man roster out of the gate. Why not throw him in the mix?

Why he won’t

If Hahn hadn’t made an appearance in September, I would question his existence. That’s not entirely fair… being injured has to suck. Being injured as much as Hahn has, is downright awful. Credit to him for making it back, but with all that time missed, is he a true candidate for the rotation? It’s probably better for him (and the Royals) to work out of the bullpen for the time being. The last time he threw more than five innings in a major league game was June 6, 2017.

Glenn Sparkman

Sparkman, who is starting on Tuesday, threw the third most innings for the Royals last year. That’s probably not a fact you would expect. He also had an ERA over 6 with a 5.4 SO/9 rate.

Why he will be in the rotation

This one is a big stretch. Even with the number of openings. Maybe it comes down to how he looks in the exhibition against the Astros?

Why he won’t

He had his opportunity last summer and just couldn’t capitalize. He doesn’t own a particularly notable platoon split and batters don’t really care when they face him. Last year they hit him just as hard the first time seeing him as the third time through the order. He has a spot on this team, but it’s just not the rotation.

Brady Singer

The top Royals pick in a college pitching-heavy draft, Singer had been ticketed for the majors (and likely the rotation) this year, even before the pandemic threw all the plans into a blender.

Why he will be in the rotation

Singer may not have the highest upside (that would be Daniel Lynch for me) among the Baby Royal arms, but he’s the furthest along at this stage of his career. Plus, he’s looked great in Summer Camp, and Royals fans need someone to dream on in these 60 games. Imagine the excitement if he comes up and deals as the first member of that draft class.

Oops. We may be getting ahead of ourselves. Still, he’s ready.

Why he won’t

Singer is not on the 40-man roster and was in camp as a non-roster invitee. The Royals will need to make plenty of moves ahead of the opener later this week, and may not have the stomach to make the number of cuts necessary to get Singer on the club. (Again, I’m reaching here. Singer has done enough to earn a spot.)

This is also where things get sticky: Service time. The Royals don’t play that game. They simply don’t mess around with a player’s service time. It’s a non-factor for them. When a player is ready, a player is ready. But when a small market team like the Royals is about to put one of their top pitching prospects on the roster, it has to be mentioned. Especially in a short season where the Royals still aren’t expected to contend. As mentioned above, Singer is ready. But if there was any doubt in the mind of the collective front office, it would be difficult to criticize. Honestly, if he’s not ready now, he wouldn’t be ready in a week, or even a month. In other words, if the Royals decide to keep him on the taxi squad, he should be there all season. Players notice these sorts of things. The goodwill the organization earned during the lockdown could be washed away if they start mishandling individual prospects.

I heard former GM Steve Phillips say such a move to open the year with a heralded starting pitching prospect on the roster would be “malpractice” in a short season. Maybe rival GMs would shake their head at such a move, but there’s so much more in play. And with the rotation in a bad spot before a baseball is thrown in real competition, the Royals need Singer.

The Opener

This is the wild card in all the rotation discussion. Given the luxury of a 30-man roster out of the gate, I expect the Royals to carry 16 pitchers. That gives them plenty of options should they decide to roll with an opener. Hahn could be a candidate. López, too. For a while I thought it was a given they’d use at least one in the rotation. Now, I’m not so sure.

Here’s my best guess at how the rotation will lineup through the first five games:

1 - Duffy

2 - Montgomery

3 - Singer

4 - Keller on a limited pitch count

5 - Griffin

At least 2020 continues to provide intrigue.