Last year, Royals starting pitchers finished with the worst ERA in the American League (4.76), the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.12), and threw the highest percentage of balls (36.9 percent). Royals pitchers gave up 94 runs in the first inning - only five teams in baseball gave up more runs in the first frame. The Royals hired manager Matt Quatraro and new pitching coach Brian Sweeney hoping they could turn around a pitching staff that has been near the bottom of the league for several seasons. Early on, Quatraro has exuded optimism that they can turn things around.
“Pitching wins, that’s the history of the game,” Quatraro said. “These guys are going to take a step forward. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
What the Royals lack in quality, they may try to make up with quantity. They have built up an arsenal of pitchers that can at least plausibly start a big league game without embarrassing anyone. Dan Szymborki at Fangraphs wrote that for his Royals ZIPS projections, “they have the gentlest dropoff between their top five starting pitchers and their next five (or 10) starting pitchers of any team in baseball I’ve run so far. In other words, they employ Royals pitchers, but they have a generous reserve of them.”
That these pieces can be so interchangable means the rotation will be a fluid situation all year, and this may be by design. The Royals want to have flexibility to play matchups, and to protect their young arms from getting too exposed.
“We like the depth we have on the pitching side right now,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “That was very intentional, but now keeping them all healthy and having healthy competition for the last couple spots in the rotation and bullpen [is the goal]. I think when you have the depth you have, our pitchers know they have to be focused right from the get-go. And there’s competition and positions that need to be won.”
So the rotation you see in early April may not be the rotation we see in June or September. Events are subject to change! But as things stand at the beginning of spring training, here is what the starting rotation looks like.
Brady Singer took the “L” in his arbitration hearing, but he’s gives the Royals the best chance to win every time he takes the mound. The 26-year-old former first-round pick had a breakout season in 2022. Singer didn’t make the rotation out of spring training last year and was demoted a week into the season, but he ended up as the 22nd-most valuable starting pitcher in the American League with 2.9 WAR, according to Fangraphs. He led all Royals starters with a 3.23 ERA, 3.58 FIP, and 8.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings. He did throw his change up about twice as much as he did in 2021, with some improved results, but his sinking fastball and his slider remain his bread-and-butter. He may be the Opening Day starter, and we can hope that he has a long-term deal with that assignment.
Zack Greinke is back after some contract haggling that left him with an $8.5 million deal that allows him to earn as much as $15 million with incentives. Greinke was in the top ten in the American League in walk rate among pitchers with at least 100 innings. In 18 of his 26 starts he gave the Royals 5+ innings with 3 or fewer runs allowed. The Royals will look for that kind of consistency again, but there is some worry that at age 39, Zack’s performance could fall off a cliff. The contract structure protects them a bit against that, but it would be nice to see Zack finish off a potential Hall of Fame career on a strong note.
Jordan Lyles will be in the rotation after signing a two-year, $17 million deal, which actually ties for the 12th-largest free agent club history. Lyles has only been a 1 WAR pitcher three times in his career, including last year when he put up 1.4 fWAR with the Orioles with a 4.42 ERA. His 359 innings pitched over the last two years are the 15th-most in baseball over that time. That’s the primary reason the Royals signed him - to take the ball every fifth day, go deep in games, and give them some innings so they don’t have to overuse their bullpen.
Daniel Lynch had five starts last year where he pitched at least five innings with no runs allowed. He also had five outings where he gave up five or more runs. He has shown flashes of brilliance at times, but his inconsistency is why he ended the season with an umpressive 5.13 ERA, even as he improved his strikeout rate and walk rate. He could benefit the most from the change in pitching coaches - his 7.99 ERA in the first inning in his career is the second-highest in baseball over the last two seasons - suggesting he hasn’t been well-prepared for games.
Battling for a rotation spot
Kris Bubic has a lot of similarities with Lynch as this point in their careers. Both have an ERA over five in over 40 career MLB starts, both have seen a lot of their struggles come in the first inning - Bubic has a 6.75 career ERA in the opening frame. Bubic has been maddeningly inconsistent. He tossed seven quality starts including seven shutout innings, but also have five starts where he allowed five or more runs, including a pair of starts where he couldn’t get out of the first inning. He doesn’t have the stuff of Lynch, and we’ve seen a bit more of him, so his career faces a bit more urgency, and he’ll need a strong showing this year to be tendered another deal next off-season.
Jonathan Heasley has some good spin rates, but has been unable to translate them into much in the way of results so far. He could be another project for the new pitching development team to unlock more from, but time is ticking on the 26-year old as well. Heasley has only struck out 5.8 hitters-per-nine-innings, with high walk and home run rates, not a good recipe for success. The Royals should use this season as an opportunity to get one long last look at Heasley to see if he can improve and become part of their future.
Brad Keller was tendered a contract for $5.775 million, suggesting they want to see him bounce back as a starter. Keller has had a pretty rough go of lately with a 5.24 ERA over the last two years combined, the seventh-highest in baseball for anyone with 200+ innings pitched over that time. If he could somehow recapture the magic of 2018-2020, he could be a useful asset to trade at the deadline - he was 37th in fWAR among starting pitchers over that time. But it may be difficult for him to find success with such a low strikeout rate, particularly when he walks so many hitters.
Ryan Yarbrough will serve the “break in case of emergency” role for the Royals. In a perfect world, he won’t have to make any starts. But more than likely he’ll make 8-10 starts to keep the Royals from having to burn out their young starters or call a guy up too early. The Royals signed Yarbrough to a one-year, $3 million deal to be a strike-thrower, as he was in 2018-2021 when he was among the league leaders in lowest walk rate. His walk numbers spiked last year, and he’ll have to get them back down, because he won’t miss many bats with his high-80s fastball.
Max Castillo had two terrific starts to begin his Royals career, then had three awful outings after that. Castillo gets good extension and has not been as wild as some of the other young starters. He seems like a useful Swiss Army knife on the pitching staff who can fill in as needed - starter, long-reliever, short reliever. I would expect him to get a start or two, but I don’t think the team sees him as a full-time starter.
Carlos Hernández has a fastball that can hit triple digits, but he hardly seems to get any whiffs from it. He could still be an option as a starter after an impressive 2021 stint, but completely regressed last year and has a 5.61 ERA as a starter in 21 starts. My understanding is the team will use him in the bullpen to see if he can get more consistency as a reliever, a role I think he could flourish in. But I wouldn’t totally close the book on him starting either.
Jackson Kowar has fallen far off the prospect radar after looking completely overmatched at the big league level, then following up with a dismal season at Triple-A last year with a 6.16 ERA and high walk rate for Omaha. When J.J. Picollo talks about how they’ve developed guys in the minors only to have them not succeed in the big leagues, Kowar is who I think of. He has a plus change up, but has had trouble locating his fastball, and while his breaking ball has potential, it hasn’t developed as anticipated. The former first-round pick turns 27 years old in October, and if he doesn’t turn it around quickly, he may be another pitcher draft bust for the Royals.
Angel Zerpa has looked impressive in a handful of innings for the Royals, but he ended last year with an injury and was pulled from Winter League ball after just one outing this off-season, so expect the Royals to take things slow with him. The 23-year-old lefty attacks the zone with poise with good sinking action. He doesn’t miss many bats at all, but he could be a useful back-of-the-starter who relies on groundballs so long as he continues to keep the walks down.
Who should be the fifth starter?
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