Almost all of the talk around the Kansas City Royals lately centers either on their apparent goldmine of prospects or just how bad they’re going to be until they arrive. There isn’t a whole lot else to focus if your not a fan of the team in terms of their on field product for 2011. The starting rotation could have at least a few intriguing arms in it though and the Royals have a few extra options to choose from to round it out with.
The Royals have six candidates that have spent at least a couple seasons starting at the big league level and one rule five draft selection who has a outside chance of making the rotation as well. They only have two clear cut choices to make the rotation out of the seven candidates, Luke Hochevar and newcomer Jeff Francis.
Francis, a lefty, is the one guy outsiders will definitely want to keep tabs on this season. He joined the Royals after spending his whole career to date with the Rockies on a one year contract for two million dollars. If Francis is healthy the Royals could get their money’s worth by the trade deadline and spin him to a contender for a useful prospect or two as well. He did miss all of 2009 however and only made 19 starts in 2010 for the Rockies.
The results from the 104 innings of work were encouraging. Francis had a career low 1.98 walks per nine innings and a career high 47 percent groundball rate. That helped him to a career best 3.88 FIP despite only striking out 5.78 batters per nine innings. He got burned with a career low strand rate of only 64.5 percent(well below the league average) that figured to be the main culprit in his unimpressive 5.00 ERA.
Before missing 2009 Francis put together three straight seasons of at least 32 starts and 183 innings pitched. In both 2006 and 2007 he had FIPs just below the league average. His walk rate has been below league average since 2006 and that will be crucial for him again in 2011 as he’s never struck out more than 6.90 batters per nine innings in any season. He’s the leading candidate to be the ace of this staff and more importantly could find himself getting thrown into a pennant race if the Royals decide to deal him.
If you had to pick one guy in this bunch to have a mini breakout this season it would be the rotation’s other lock, Luke Hochevar. Like Francis, Hochevar had his lowest FIP in 2010 at 3.93 but thanks in part to a low 65 percent strand rate had a 4.81 ERA. Hochevar’s numbers actually make him look like a right handed version of Francis. Like Francis, he keeps his walks down, doesn’t strikeout a ton of batters out, and has good but not great groundball rates as well.
Hochevar does have advantages compared to Francis, he’s three years younger(27) and also throws harder. There’s reason to believe his strikeout rates can jump further. After striking out only 5.02 batters per nine in 2008 that number jumped to 6.67 in ’09 and 6.64 in ’10. The strikeout rates were still slightly below average in the last two seasons, but his swinging strike rate was above average both years. Last season in particular he got hitters to whiff on 9.4 percent of their swings compared to the league average of 8.5 percent. An ability to repeat that in 2011 could give a nice boost to his strikeout rates.
If his strikeout rates do see a boost and he holds his walk rate down around 3-3.20 per nine innings the only thing holding him back would be his career long abysmal left on base percentages. Stranding or not stranding runners generally isn’t regarded as a skill but Hochevar has come nowhere near a league average mark in his time with the Royals. If you chalk that up to luck and his luck changes in 2011, Hochevar could see a big drop in his ERA to go along with a modest drop in his FIP.
After the top two the rest of bunch is far less interesting and doesn’t show a whole lot of promise either. The closest thing to a lock for a spot left is Kyle Davies. That’s not based on an assessment that says he’s the best pitcher of the five remaining candidates or even the one with the most upside. He’ll get in simply because his best value to the club at this point is to soak up innings at the expense of giving the spot to someone who isn’t ready for it yet.
Davies will be 27 this season but unlike fellow 27 year old, Hochevar, Davies hasn’t done anything to standout in his career. In 706 big league innings he’s had a 5.49 ERA and a 4.93 FIP. Nothing in his career numbers leaves much hope either. He has unremarkable batted ball rates, doesn’t strikeout that many hitters and doesn’t have excellent control either.
His best season came in 2008 when he had a 4.06 ERA and 4.22 FIP but was his only season with anything approaching a league average walk rate at 3.46 BB/9 IN and he looked to benefit from a career best 6.9 percent HR/FB rate as well. Both look like outliers compared to the rest of his career marks and this came in 113 innings, his lowest total from 2007-2010. Unless something drastic changes, Davies looks like a future back of the bullpen swing man.
That leaves two spots to be filled from four likely candidates. Before the suspense gets to you, the remaining four are Vin Mazzaro, Sean O’Sullivan, Bruce Chen, and rule five selection Nate Adcock. The last one, Adcock, has never pitched above Single-A in his career and will be 23 this season. He pitched well enough in high A last season with a 3.29 FIP but the rest of his history shows no reason to let the kid jump two levels and grab a rotation spot.
Chen is the oldest of the three remaining and the entire group as well. He’ll be 33 to open the season and is coming off his best season since 2000. He’s certainly been around, this will be his thirteenth season in the majors. He’s been a swing man for most of his career making 292 appearances, 144 of which have been starts. His 6.29 K/9 IN, 3.66 BB/9 IN and 1.09 HR/9 IN were all just a little ways off the league average in the wrong direction.
Chen wound up making 23 starts in 33 appearances covering 140 innings of work in which he had a 4.54 FIP. He managed to turn a career best 8.1 percent HR/FB rate, an above average 74.3 LOB% and a .275 BABIP into a decent 4.06 ERA. The repeatability of any of that is highly unlikely for 2011 given his age and body of work. But Chen is the type of pitcher that doesn’t seem to have a problem going out and doing whatever is asked of him. He’ll hold a spot in the rotation until someone takes it from him.
Sean O’Sullivan should be, besides Adcock, the most likely candidate to get sent down to Triple-A or start out in the bullpen for 2011. He, like Davies, doesn’t have anything that distinguishes him and hasn’t excelled at much in his time in the show. O’Sullivan does however still have time on his side since he’ll only be 23 for most of the season. He could benefit from more time in the minors, where he hasn’t done anything to concretely show he should stay up with the Royals.
Last season between 19 appearances and 14 starts with both the Los Angeles Angels of Anahiem and the Royals, O’Sullivan had a 5.49 ERA and a 5.53 FIP to go with it. Between 135 big league innings in 2009 and 2010, O’Sullivan has stuckout 4.79 batters per nine and served up 1.80 HR/9 IN. His one saving grace was a solid 3.13 walks per nine innings, a mark he’s mirrored in the minors. He needs to find a way to get more strikeouts and cut down on the homers before he can hope to be effective.
That should leave the last spot to newcomer Vin Mazzaro. He came over from the Oakland A’s in the David DeJesus deal. Mazzaro is 24 and made 18 starts in 24 appearances for Oakland in 2010. He did wind up with a 4.27 ERA but only a 5.13 FIP. Like most of the rotation candidates he didn’t strikeout many batters getting only 5.81 per nine innings. In both his seasons with Oakland he struggled with the long ball and walked 3.75 per nine innings between the two seasons.
There is cause for optimism with Mazzaro though. He’s exhibited good control in the minors and according to StatCorner.com has also had impressive groundball rates. Lastly, all three of his off speed pitches(slider, curveball, change-up) had positive run values last season according to FanGraphs. There’s enough there to see some upside for Mazzaro in 2011.
The Royals rotation isn’t a dazzling collection of electric arms, that much is for sure. That being said, Hochevar and Mazzaro could turn out to be valuable middle rotation starters and Francis could pitch himself into a pennant race somewhere and build his value for next off season. Those three are noteworthy guys to keep tabs on this season from a rotation that doesn’t deserve to get looked over completely.