The Future of the Kansas City Royals' Rotation: 2014 and Beyond

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The Future of the Kansas City Royals' Rotation: 2014 and Beyond
Orlin Wagner

Here we have the Kansas City Royals' 2014 starting rotation: James Shields, Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen. It's not particularly pretty, but I'll go to battle with it. Kansas City has a great chance to end a 29-year playoff drought this year and those five, for better or worse, are a crucial part of that chance.

In the long term, however, much more is in flux.

This article looks to the future and scrutinizes prospects. Naturally, it will include a lot of speculation and projection. So let's start on solid ground. Let's start with what we know.

Note: Fielding independent pitching (FIP) is an advanced pitching statistic that measures a pitcher's performance on an ERA scale while controlling for the performance of his defense. It has much better predictive power than ERA because it's able to isolate the performance of the pitcher. It will be used occasionally throughout this article.

James Shields is a dominant, right-handed workhorse. He has amassed 200-plus innings pitched in each of the past three seasons. This is no small feat—only 35 other starters hit 200 IP in 2013.

More important is his effectiveness over those past three seasons. In that time, he posted a 3.45 FIP, far better than the league average for starters, which fell right around 4.03. In 2013, his first year with the Royals, he led the entire league in quality starts with 27. That total was matched only by NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.

Viewed through a more traditional lens, Shields' 2013 season becomes even more impressive—his 3.15 ERA was eighth-best among starters in the American League and sixth-best among those who pitched more than 200 innings. 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

But it's quite probable that the 2014 season will be his last in Kansas City. Given a weak crop of starting pitchers headed for free agency after the season and Shields' remarkably consistent excellence, it's likely that a team with much deeper pockets than the Royals will sign him to a nine-figure contract.

Even if KC were to offer him a long-term deal, it's unlikely that it could offer him a per-year salary much higher than his current one ($13.5 million), especially given the big raises that Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are in line for in 2015. The duo will make a combined $18 million in 2014; that figure jumps to $25 million in 2015. 

We also know that Bruce Chen, Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas nearly epitomize what it is to be league average. But there is value in that, especially if they're able to stay healthy and be average all season. If Danny Duffy—who I'll get to later—is recalled from Triple-A, Chen will likely be the first man out of the rotation.

As fans, we have to hope that the organization's decision to sign Vargas to a four-year, $32 million contract will be vindicated. As fans, we have to hope that luck and the Royals' defensive performance will repeat themselves and mask Chen's true pitching ability once again, because his advanced numbers for 2013 look much uglier than the pristine 3.27 ERA that he posted.

As fans, we have to hope that Guthrie can eat innings with reasonable efficiency and justify his spot in the rotation.

As realists, we have to recognize how unlikely it is that things will go so smoothly for that trio. We have to realize that all three of them will probably disappoint the team multiple times during 2014. But only Vargas is signed past 2015; luckily, they don't factor too heavily into the future of the rotation. 

 

The Future: Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Kyle Zimmer, Sean Manaea and Miguel Almonte

We hope that these five will comprise the Royals' rotation of the future. We could see three or four and will certainly see at least two of them pitch in Kansas City this year. So let's get to know them and the reasons why they should make us hopeful about the future of the pitching staff.

After a lights-out spring, Yordano Ventura, a right-handed fireballer with a slight 5'11" frame, has been compared to another diminutive Dominican: Pedro Martinez. While it's ludicrous to start comparing him to the three-time Cy Young Award winner at this stage of his career, it's easy to be excited about a fastball that regularly climbs into triple digits.

Ventura complements his headline pitch with a plus-potential curveball, decent changeup and improving, if inconsistent, command. The good news is that he won't be 23 years old until June and ostensibly still has room to grow.

In four minor league seasons (2010-2013), he has never posted a season FIP above 3.50. In 2013, before being called up to make a few starts for the Royals in September, he turned in his best minor league season to date. Over 57.2 IP at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, he put up a 2.56 FIP and struck out 11.55 batters per nine innings pitched. In 77.0 innings at Triple-A Omaha, those numbers were 3.17 and 9.47, respectively.

Some still think that the hard-throwing righty is destined for the bullpen, but if he can continue to develop his curveball and his command and prove that he's able to stick in a major league rotation for a full season, the future looks bright. 

In June 2012, after making six fairly average starts for Kansas City, Danny Duffy's elbow popped; he needed Tommy John surgery. That was a big setback indeed. Nevertheless, he eventually made his way back to the majors in 2013. After 70 successful rehab innings at Double- and Triple-A, he would return to Kansas City for five starts...five wildly inconsistent, out-of-control starts.

Leon Halip/Getty Images

He failed to average five innings pitched in those five outings and struggled with his command to the tune of 5.18 BB/9. To make the case that these were actually successful starts after all, you could point to his 1.85 ERA. However, his 3.09 FIP and 4.60 xFIP (which accounts for how many of a pitcher's fly balls should have been home runs) look much grimmer, despite the fact that the latter is probably an overstatement, given the rate at which Kauffman Stadium suppresses homers.

He then failed to make enough of an impression this spring to stick in Kansas City, which may actually be for the better, given that Ventura's emergence would have relegated him to the bullpen. 

He'll begin the season in Omaha as a starter with a lot to prove. Time and time again, he has expressed how much he loves the organization and how hard he's willing to work to start at the highest level. Hopefully he'll show his impressive stuff in Omaha once again and remind Kansas City fans why they fell in love with him in the first place.

Since he is the last vestige of a once-vaunted quintet of pitching prospects in the system, fans are desperate for him to prove to be an effective major leaguer. Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi have been lost via trade, John Lamb to injury and Chris Dwyer to irrelevance.

Under club control for this year and four more, Duffy could contribute a lot as a back-of-the-rotation regular. Either in the bullpen or the rotation, we'll almost certainly see him back in Kansas City this season. Hopefully he returns with tighter command and the same ability that's always been there.

Kyle Zimmer, picked fifth by the Royals in the 2012 MLB draft, immediately elicited hope from fans. The big righty looked like he was on the fast track to the majors after dominating the low minors. The beginning of 2013, however, told a different story.

Over his first 12 starts at Single-A-plus Wilmington, he posted an atrocious 6.32 ERA. People began to worry that he might not fulfill his massive potential after all.

But from that point forward, with a slightly altered delivery and improved command, he went on a tear. In his final 10 starts of 2013, in Single-A-plus and Double-A ball, his ERA dropped to 2.43. Belief in Zimmer was restored. Over those same 10 starts, he struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings. The stuff was tremendous, the command was there, and even though his advanced numbers were a just a little bit less staggering, it once again looked like a 2014 call-up was possible. 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

However, his season came to an end prematurely after a case of biceps tendonitis struck him in mid-August. It's a minor setback, but a troublesome one nonetheless, given the encouraging string of starts that he was putting together. 

This year, he will start the season at Northwestern Arkansas, and fans and team executives are already thinking that he may make his first major league appearance later this season. If he looks as dominant as he did toward the end of last season, that's not unreasonable. With a great arm angle on his delivery, a powerful fastball and a 12-6 curveball full of potential, Zimmer's ceiling is at the top of Kansas City's rotation. The sooner he can get there, the better.

With the eighth pick in the 2013 MLB draft, the Royals selected Hunter Dozier, a shortstop prospect who was not thought of particularly highly by most who track prospects.

What we didn't know at the time of that pick was general manager Dayton Moore's ultimate plan: With the 34th overall pick, Kansas City selected Sean Manaea—a pitcher once considered by many to be a solid top-five pick.

Manaea just one summer earlier had dominated the Cape Cod League, posting a 1.21 ERA and striking out 85 batters while walking just seven in 51.2 innings pitched. With that, the 6'5" lefty established himself as a top prospect.

But after tearing the acetabular labrum in his left hip, his stock fell to the point that Moore was able to make one of the wisest decisions of his tenure. Because the lesser Dozier could be given a relatively small signing bonus, the money was there to sign Manaea. 

Early reports out of camp have been positive—the organization is pleased with Manaea's progress, according to The Kansas City Star. With his big, strong frame and dazzling stuff, Royals fans should begin to salivate if the positive reports keep coming in. If he fulfills his potential, he'll be a dominant, front-line lefty.

The good news is that his floor isn't all that low, provided that he comes back healthy. It's hard to imagine him ending up as anything less than a productive, middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. If you don't believe me, just ask Jason Parks, whose scouting report on Manaea, published a few weeks ago, read, in his words, "like pure smut."

Miguel Almonte has never been the Royals' sexiest prospect. With a strong fastball and plus changeup, Almonte, signed out of the Dominican Republic a few years ago, projects optimistically as a No. 3 starter and more realistically as a solid back-of-the-rotation starter or excellent reliever.

It's difficult to talk extensively about his numbers, because he's only spent one year in Single-A ball. It was, however, a very productive season. In 130.2 innings last season, he turned in a 2.76 FIP, struck out 132 and walked just 36 batters. 

Granted, Single-A isn't the majors. And Almonte is still several steps away. If he continues on his current trajectory though, we could see him in the majors in mid-to-late 2015. He'll be just 21 years old next week, and while he doesn't have the highest ceiling of the system's pitching prospects, he could start contributing at a very young age. 

These are the five young starters whom Royals fans and management hope will carry the pitching torch into the future. 

2014 is a big year for Kansas City; the playoffs are within grasp for the first time in nearly three decades.

The rotation is led by Shields, who will almost certainly be gone after the season. Ventura steps into the rotation this year with "phenom" status. Of the five young pitchers mentioned, he's likely to have the most immediate impact. Duffy and Zimmer could both contribute at some point during the year. Manaea and Almonte are more likely to make an impact in 2015 and beyond. 

Prospects will break your heart—I know that as well as the next baseball observer. It's unlikely that all five of them will hit. But it's April, a time for hope. The Royals have five impressive young starters, and if even two or three of them fulfill their potential, the future looks bright for Kansas City's rotation. 

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Note: Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs.

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