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Who is and is not part of next year’s rotation?

The starting pitching needs to improve for the Royals to have a shot.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The play of young Royals hitters like Bobby Witt Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino, and MJ Melendez, among others, has given fans some hope of better days in the future. But much of the rebuild will depend on the development of young Royals pitchers. Dayton Moore likes to stress patience with pitchers, but most of these pitchers have at least 20-30 big league starts under their belt and it may be time to start filtering the wheat from the chaff.

For the Royals, the harvest hasn’t been plentiful. Brady Singer is the starter with an ERA under 4 and a FIP under 4.50 (aside from old man Zack Greinke). Royals starters overall have an ERA of 4.76, fourth-worst in baseball. Only five starting pitching staffs have walked more hitters, only four have fewer strikeouts.

J.J. Picollo discussed the rotation recently on Cody and Gold on 610 Sports and indicated that the pitching staff needs to improve on this year’s numbers.

“When we think about 2023, what’s our rotation going to look like? I’d like to think over the last three weeks of the season guys will make us feel a lot better but right now we need to get better.”

Right now, Brady Singer looks like the only lock in next year’s rotation. The 26-year-old right-hander has turned the corner after being demoted to begin the year, and has put together a terrific performance. Out of 109 starting pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched this year, Singer ranked 33rd with a 3.07 ERA, and he is 27th in lowest walk rate. He is looking like the bulldog the Royals saw in him when they drafted him in the first round and should be the closest thing they have had to a frontline pitcher in several years.

The Royals have indicated they would have interest in bringing Zack Greinke back, it is simply a matter of whether the 38-year-old would want to continue playing baseball, and whether he wants to continue doing so in Kansas City.

Brad Keller was demoted to the bullpen in mid-August and the experiment has been a disaster thus far. Keller has a 7.50 ERA in 12 innings as a reliever with a high walk rate and opponents hitting .333/.419/.463 against him. Keller is arbitration-eligible and will be due a raise over his $4.825 million salary this year, but with his disappointing performance this year, the 27-year-old will certainly be a non-tender candidate.

Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic are two left-handers that have shown some flashes of brilliance but needed more consistency, something Picollo pointed out.

Of all pitchers with 100 innings, Bubic, Lynch, and Keller are all among the 13 worst pitchers in ERA. Bubic, a lefty who relies on hitting spots and mixing speeds, is fourth among such pitchers in walk rate with Lynch and Keller not far behind. Bubic and Lynch are likely to be in the mix for a rotation spot next year, but the leash may be shorter after some regression this year.

Heasley has less experience than those pitchers, but the results have been similar - good innings, but not enough of them. He has gone 6+ innings in five of his seventeen starts, but has an ugly 5.51 ERA overall, with a terrible strikeout-to-walk rate.

The Royals acquired Luke Weaver from the Diamondbacks and had him work out of the bullpen this year as he recovered from injury, but he has been a starter in the past. With him expected to earn a raise from his $2.875 million salary through arbitration, the Royals are likely to give him a shot at the rotation. The 29-year-old right-hander showed some flashes of solid pitching early in his career, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him the last few seasons, and he had a 5.28 ERA in 25 starts with Arizona over 2020-21.

Carlos Hernández looked to be a rotation piece after an impressive stint in 2021, but he regressed badly this year with an 8.02 ERA in 46 innings. His 100 mph fastball has not translated into strikeouts at all, and his high walk rate continues to be an issue, making it likely he converts to the bullpen full-time.

Jackson Kowar is another pitching prospect that was expected to be a factor this year, but has regressed badly with a 6.30 ERA in 18 starts for Triple-A Omaha. Angel Zerpa could be a rotation candidate after missing a chunk of this season with a knee injury. Max Castillo, the right-hander acquired from the Blue Jays for Whit Merrifield, has looked impressive in two outings with the Royals.

There aren’t many candidates to jump into the mix in the upper minors. Drew Parrish or Austin Cox could get a look, but Alec Marsh and Asa Lacy regressed badly this year, and Jonathan Bowlan has struggled recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Royals could look to add a free agent, but don’t expect them to shop in the high end, according to Picollo.

“We’re always looking at that. We don’t rely on the free agent market the way some large market clubs do, so we’re trying to find guys that we can maybe have some wins on the margins. Who has some characteristic that we like, abilities we like, that maybe we can take them to the next level and get a solid two or three years out of them.”

Who do you think should be in next year’s starting rotation?