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Spring training battles: The rotation

Will it be a five-man rotation, or six?

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Kansas City Royals Photo Day
Jackson Kowar #37 of the Kansas City Royals poses during Photo Day at Surprise Stadium on March 20, 2022 in Surprise, Arizona.
Photo by Kelsey Grant/Getty Images

The Royals are hanging a lot of their rebuild on the strength of their young starting pitchers, mostly from their vaunted 2018 draft class. The club is starting to see pitching tree bear fruit, but it is unclear whether it will be an ample harvest.

They will go into the 2022 season with their best starting rotation on paper since their championship core left in 2017. However there are still question marks as to who will be in the rotation, and even how many pitchers will be in the rotation. With a shortened spring training, some teams are considering six-man rotations, although Mike Matheny has not yet given his opinion on the subject. With that in mind, let’s look at the candidates for the starting rotation.

The locks

Zack Greinke

They’re hyping up his ability to teach pitches to the younger guys, but he’s being paid $13 million to pitch. Now age 38, Greinke won’t by “2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke” but he still does a great job hitting his spots and walked just 1.9 hitters per-nine-innings, a better rate than any Royals starter last year.

There are some red flags. Among 129 pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched last year, Greinke had the 11th-lowest strikeout rate. His 4.71 FIP wasn’t great, and he gave up 33 runs in 44 13 innings in his last nine outings last year. But he should benefit from moving out of Houston to a more spacious Kauffman Stadium, with an excellent defense playing behind him, and we should never underestimate what tricks Zack has left in his bag.

Brad Keller

Keller went from being one of the best starting pitching finds in the Rule 5 draft since Johan Santana to one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. He was hammered on Opening Day and found it difficult to recover, posting the 14th-worst ERA among any pitcher with 100 innings.

Keller explained to Alec Lewis of The Athletic that he was able to find a mechanical flaw in his delivery late last year, and he began throwing his slider a lot more, going from throwing it 23 percent of the time in April to nearly 40 percent by August. He ended the season on a strong note with a respectable 3.42 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 52 2⁄3 innings and 22 walks in his final nine starts before a right shoulder injury ended his season in August. With Keller due to become a free agent after the 2023 season, he needs to stay healthy and get back on track to the performance that made him such a steal from the Diamondbacks organization.

Brady Singer

The 25-year old right-hander is probably sick of hearing how he needs to develop a third pitch, but his results have been so mixed it does seem to be the thing keeping him from making the jump to the next level. Singer’s 4.91 ERA last year is underwhelming, but his FIP was nearly a run lower due to a .350 BABIP. He was one of the best in the league last year at keeping balls from leaving the park and had the third-best called strike rate in the majors.

Singer did make some strides in improving his strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate. He only threw 89 change ups last year, but the results were pretty encouraging. If he can mix that in with his sinker and slider, and perhaps get some better luck, he may be able to reach the potential of a first-round pick.

Trying to make the rotation

Kris Bubic

Bubic gets overlooked, but he has the third-most innings on the team since the start of the 2020 season, and he has the lowest ERA (4.40) of anyone on the Royals with at least 150 innings over that time. He has lived and died with the change up, which did not grade as a very good pitch last year according to Fangraphs. When he was good, he was very, very good like when he flirted with a no-hitter against the Cubs. When he was bad, he was horrid, like when he gave up seven runs and couldn’t get out of the second inning against the Cardinals.

Bubic began throwing his curveball more as the summer progressed, but it still remains a work in progress. As a crafty lefty that relies on off-speed stuff, he doesn’t have much room to miss his spots. The 24-year old has been a fine pitcher for a team on the rebuild, but if he wants to be part of the next Royals contender he’ll likely have to improve his repertoire.

Carlos Hernández

Hernández was one of the most pleasant surprises for the Royals in 2021. He jumped up from A-ball to the big leagues in 2020 and held his own in a handful of innings, but really impressed in 2021 with the poise of a veteran and a 3.68 ERA in 85 23 innings.

His 2021 season was a bit of a head-scratcher though. He had success despite a below-average strikeout rate. And he had a below-average strikeout rate despite one of the most explosive fastballs in baseball. There are some red flags too - a low BABIP, a high-walk rate. But the 25-year old right-handed Venezuelan has impressed with his stuff and could have an inside track at a rotation spot.

Jackson Kowar

It was an inauspicious Major League debut for Kowar in 2021, with opponents hitting an absurd .336/.422/.586 with 38 runs allowed in 30 13 innings. But the right-hander had dominated Triple-A with a 3.46 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 80 2/3 innings, earning the Paul Splittorff Pitcher of the Year for the organization. Which Kowar will we see in 2022?

Some of his big league struggles can be chalked up to some obvious nerves, but his lack of an effective breaking ball was exposed, and he struggled to locate his trademark change up. He has worked on lengthening his stride and improving his slider to fill out his repertoire. Kowar has put up numbers in the minors and has a prospect pedigree, but the jump to big leagues poses a bigger obstacle.

Daniel Lynch

Lynch also struggled initially, but put it all together in his first start back to the big leagues after a brief demotion, when he shut out the Tigers in eight innings of work on July 25. The lefty still had some growing pains, but showed respectable numbers after returning to the big leagues with a 4.35 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 60 innings over his final 12 starts.

Hitters feasted on Lynch’s fastball (.381 average, 12.2 percent whiff rate) and couldn’t touch his slider (.188 average, 41.8 percent whiff rate). His slider usage also went up as the season went along, coinciding with when he enjoyed more success. The results were mixed, but there are enough flashes of brilliance to be excited about a lefty that sits at 94 mph with a plus slider.

Brad Peacock

If he’s healthy, Peacock seems more likely headed to the bullpen, but he has more career starts than anyone on the roster except Zack Greinke. The 34-year old has been hurt the last two seasons with neck and shoulder injuries, limiting him to just a handful of innings. But in 2019 he pitched 91 2/3 innings with 96 strikeouts and a solid 4.12 ERA, working both as a starter and reliever.

Peacock seems likely to be a long reliever who makes a spot start now and then. But he could get called on as a sixth starter to begin the year if the younger pitchers need some time in the minors. And hey, Peacocks are on a roll right now!

Dark horses we could see later

Austin Cox

Cox had an impressive spring training debut with three strikeouts in two shutout innings against the Athletics on Tuesday. The 24-year old lefty was a fifth-round pick out of Mercer University in Georgia in 2018, and has put up solid numbers at each level of the minors. He made 15 starts for Double-A Northwest Arkansas last year with a 3.00 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 63 innings. He will likely need another year in the minors, but a solid start could earn him a call up by mid-summer if the Royals need some more rotation help.

Jon Heasley

Heasley came up for three starts at the end of last year, walking just three batters in 14 23 innings with a 4.91 ERA. He didn’t miss many bats in the big leagues, but struck out 10.3 per-nine innings for Double-A Arkansas with a 3.33 ERA in 105 13 innings. With a fastball sitting at 93-94 mph and solid walk rates, the 25-year old could be pushing for a rotation spot before the end of the year.

Daniel Mengden

The Royals signed Mengden to a minor league deal after a year in Korea, but he’s not among the listed non-roster invitees, so I’m not sure if he’s nursing an injury or they’re already ticketing him to Omaha. The 29-year old right-hander made 48 starts in five seasons for Oakland with a 4.64 ERA in 302 23 innings overall. He doesn’t miss that many bats and his fastball sits around 90-91 mph, but he has MLB experience and can make a spot start in a pinch if needed.

Angel Zerpa

The lefty was a surprise addition to the 40-man roster in 2020, but last year it became clear what the Royals saw in him. He dominated High-A before striking out 10.7 per-nine innings in 13 Double-A starts. He then came up to the big leagues and showed fearlessness, pounding the strike zone over five innings, allowing just two unearned runs in his only start for the Royals. Still just 22 years old, Zerpa is probably a year away, but if one start was any indication, his future looks bright.

My prediction: Zack Greinke, Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernández

Who do you think makes the Royals rotation to start the year?