The Kansas City Royals finished the 2016 season at 81-81, good for third place in the American League Central. After two consecutive trips to the World Series, the Royals finished 13.5 games out of first, and eight games out of a wild-card spot. Their disappointing season can be attributed to a number of things, but their pitching hurt them in 2016. Their 4.21 ERA and 1.35 WHIP were both 18th best in baseball, and while their bullpen was impressive, the starting rotation largely under-performed.
It’s hard to continue writing a piece such as this with the recent passing of Yordano Ventura. On January 22nd, 2017, the Royals’ young pitcher died in a car accident in his native country of the Dominican Republic. The loss of young, talented baseball players over the past few years is incredibly hard to stomach, despite the controversy surrounding their deaths, but they act as a reminder to not take anything for granted. Yordano’s passing leaves a hole not only in the Royals’ rotation, but in the heart of the organization, and baseball as a whole.
2016’s Opening Day starter Edinson Volquez declined his option to remain with the Royals and signed with the Miami Marlins, hauntingly enough to fill the hole left by the late Jose Fernandez, leaving Ned Yost with a choice to make regarding the starting rotation. I’m no Ned Yost, but here’s what I think the Royals’ starting rotation will look like when the 2017 season begins.
- Ian Kennedy: The Royals will be sending their fourth different starter in as many seasons to the mound on Opening Day. Kennedy isn’t the Royals’ best pitcher, I give that nod to Danny Duffy, but Kennedy has the experience and consistency to lead Kansas City’s rotation in 2017. The 11-year veteran was 11-11 with a 3.68 ERA and a 1.221 WHIP in 2016. He held hitters to a .236 batting average, his lowest mark since his amazing 2011 campaign. Kennedy finished just below Duffy in nearly every pitching category, but what separates the two is Kennedy’s track record of consistency. He surpassed 180 innings pitched for the sixth time in his career, Duffy hasn’t reached that mark yet, and I believe that will give Kennedy enough of an edge to take the top spot in the Royals’ rotation.
- Danny Duffy: The Royals locked down their top pitcher with a five-year, $65 million contract earlier this offseason. Duffy started the season in the bullpen, but quickly became the team’s most reliable starter. In 26 starts he went 12-3 with a 3.51 ERA, a 1.141 WHIP, and an impressive 188 strikeouts in 179.2 innings. The highlight of his season, and the entire Royals team’s for that matter, occurred on August 1st in a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Duffy set the Royals’ record for strikeouts in a game with 16, and carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning. He walked just one batter and was removed after a lead off double in the eighth by Desmond Jennings, but his performance absolutely helped his case in emerging as the team’s top pitcher. As I said earlier, Duffy will need another high-quality season if he wants to establish himself as the ace of the rotation, but there’s no question that he has the most talent. The 28-year-old could easily top this list next season if he can repeat his 2016 success, but until then I see him pitching out of the number two spot in the rotation.
- Jason Vargas: The 34-year-old, who is celebrating his birthday today, impressed after signing with the Royals in November of 2013. He posted a career-best 3.71 ERA over 187 innings in 2014, and appeared ready to be an important part of the Royals’ rotation for the next three seasons. However on July 21st, 2015, Vargas left a game with an apparent arm injury, and was diagnosed with a torn UCL in his left elbow the next day. He required Tommy John surgery, and was forced to miss the remainder of the 2015 season and nearly all of 2016. However Vargas made it back to the majors last season, starting three games in late September. Across those three games he threw 12 innings, gave up just three runs, and struck out 11. He’s heading into the 2017 season healthy, and ready to prove he still has the ability to be a solid piece of the Royals’ rotation.
- Doug Fister: The heartbreaking loss of Ventura leaves the Royals with a difficult hole to fill, both on and off the field. However, their answer from an on-the-field standpoint could be free agent Doug Fister. The Royals could go with Mike Minor or Chris Young to fill a rotation spot, but I think they’ll look to the free agent market. Fister put together a disappointing season in 2016, with career-worsts in ERA, WHIP, and BB/9 in 180.1 innings with the Astros. His struggles led Houston to part ways with the 32-year-old, making him a free agent. Fister has a proven track record of durability, surpassing 170 innings four times, and his durability and veteran presence could be enough for the Royals to bring him on board.
- Nathan Karns: Karns was traded to the Royals in exchange for Jarrod Dyson earlier this offseason, and despite his less than impressive 2016 season, he’ll surely have an excellent chance at remaining in the Royals’ rotation. Karns’ numbers in 2016 weren’t eye-catching, to say the least, but he did show signs that he could be a decent back-end starter in the major leagues. After posting a promising 3.67 ERA in 147 innings in 2015, Karns posted a 5.15 ERA in 94.1 inning last season. His ERA wasn’t the only stat that took a hit, as his WHIP and walk rates both increased significantly. However Karns still struck out batter at an impressive rate, striking out 101 batters in 2016. He’ll be the beneficiary of limited pitching depth on the Royals, and will likely spend the season pitching in the number five spot in the rotation.
It’ll take a lot for the Kansas City Royals to reestablish themselves as World Series contenders, but that’s not to say they can’t do it. Check out how I projected their lineup will look like here, and as always let me hear your opinion on how you think the Royals’ should look in 2017.
The Royals start their season on Monday, April 3rd against the Minnesota Twins at Target Stadium.