The Royals starting rotation has not been very good recently, although that has been true of the whole team so I am not really picking on them in particular. With the addition of Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, they have a different look than normal though. In fact, if things break right, they could end up being the best starting rotation for the Royals so far this century.
Without doing any research, my first thought for the last truly competent starting rotation was 2014. Just because it was better than the World Series winning 2015 rotation that was very mediocre. When I sorted a Fangraphs leader board for starting pitcher WAR for the Royals over the last 24 seasons, it backed that inclination up. That year’s starting five were James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura, and Danny Duffy. Not only was this their best five, but they stayed healthy too. Duffy started the fewest games and threw the fewest innings of the group and still went to the bump 25 times in the first inning while getting to 149.1 innings pitched. This is the best performance for Kansas City starters in the past 10 years.
In 2024, the Royals will likely have a starting five of Cole Ragans, Brady Singer, Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha, and Jordan Lyles. That 2014 rotation put up 11.7 fWAR, and the early ZIPS projections would have this rotation behind them by a lot, but that was before the Lugo and Wacha additions. I also think the Ragans upside has to be taken into consideration. Again, the projections here were before 2024 even started, so may need to revisit them later.
Ragans is projected for 2.6 fWAR, but last season he put up 2.2 in just 96 innings. The projections take into account the last several seasons, as they should. What we saw at the end of last seasons out of Ragans was a very different pitcher than what the stats are going to say for him going back 3 years. Could Ragans put up a 4 or 5 win season? I think the answer is yes. That’s if he can put up an ERA/FIP in the low 3s for say 150 innings. I’m not sure that it is likely, but it would not be shocking to see that after what he did in August and September.
The part I feel most comfortable with is Lugo and Wacha putting up a combined 3-4 fWAR. Lugo has not been a starter really prior to last year, but he put up 2.8 last season, so even if he falls off some he can get into the 2 range. Wacha put up 2.6 last season, hopefully finding his way back to success after a rough 2018 to 2021. If they put up 5.4 combined last year, then 4 this season seems very plausible. Combine that with Ragans and the Royals rotation is approaching 10 wins already.
Brady Singer is the biggest question mark here for me. He lost velocity and struggled mightily last year. If he bounces back to his 2022 level, again possible, then he could be a 3 win pitcher. He is only 27, so better than that is still not out of the realm of possibility, but at the top end let’s say 3 wins. Now the rotation is in the 11+ fWAR range where the 2014 team was without the fifth starter if things break right.
Can Jordan Lyles be better in 2024 than he was in 2023? Let’s all hope so. He was asked to do things last season that the four previously mentioned players will hopefully prevent him from being asked to do again. No more pushing into the sixth and seventh and eighth and even occasionally ninth inning to save the bullpen. Lyles put up 1.4 fWAR in 2022, so 1 win is possible. I would prefer Daniel Lynch show up in the best shape of his life and steal his spot, but I won’t be holding my breath.
All the normal caveats apply. Pitchers break way too often, but there is a chance this rotation puts up 12 or more fWAR being the best rotation since the World Series runs. If you go back before those 2014 and 2015 teams, the rotations are quite bad for the most part because that 2000 to 2012 period (the dark ages) were often terrible.
There are two seasons where the rotation outdid the 2014 team in that period though. Those were in 2008 and 2009 when they put up 13.7 and 13.9 WAR respectively. 2009 doesn’t count as a rotation being good. That was Greinke almost by himself, probably the best pitching season in Royals history. He put up 8.7 fWAR, so the rest only did 5.2, which is not great. The 2008 team had Gil Meche plus Greinke for 8.4, so again the back end was not amazing, but I will say that your 3, 4, 5 putting up 5 WAR is not horrible.
For this rotation to outdo that squad’s WAR total would take some things going really well, but it is at least possible. I really doubt this season will be that charmed, but even if it is the 95th percentile outcome or something it is still better than most seasons where it was basically an impossibility due to the teams severe pitching development problems.
Please don’t read this and assume I am saying this is some amazing rotation. They could do what I have said here and still end up outside the top 10 for starter pitching WAR. An average or slightly above average rotation just isn’t something we have seen in Kansas City, and I for one am excited that we might see that in 2024.