Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The 2012 Royals: The Starting Rotation

Hard to believe Opening Day is upon us, but it's true. Here's a look at the starting rotation for the Royals heading into the season.

Let's be honest, the starting rotation is the biggest group of question marks on the Royals' roster as we head into the 2012 season. The good news is that I am not convinced they are all that bad.

People seem to forget, last year at this time many expected the Royals to have a historically bad rotation. That group was Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, Bruce Chen, and Sean O'Sullivan at the start of the year. Now look, only two of those guys are back. I would argue that Jonathan Sanchez, Danny Duffy and Luis Mendoza are all upgrades over the 2011 rotation.

Of course, this is by no means an outstanding group. There are reasons to be concerned about all these guys.

Let's start with Chen, since he has been designated the Opening Day starter. Personally, I would have picked Hochevar, but whatever. Without a true ace, the order probably doesn't matter much, and will matter even less as the season unfolds. Chen basically gets by with smoke and mirrors, except he really doesn't have that much smoke left at age 34. At this point, he is the proverbial crafty lefty. He doesn't strike out many (97 in 155 innings last year), but he doesn't walk many. Rather, he lets them hit it and depends on his defense. Sometimes this backfires and the opponent piles up the hits and runs, but in his last two seasons, it has worked more often than not. The good news for Chen is that he allows fly balls more often than not, and the Royals outfield with Lorenzo Cain should be even better at tracking those down than they were last year. Of course, the best thing a pitcher can do to get outs is pile up strikeouts, but I feel good about Chen's ability to continue being successful with his game plan.

I would have picked Hochevar for the top of the rotation based on his success after the All-Star Break last year. We had seen flashes of brilliance from Hochevar before, but that was his longest stretch of sustained success to date. A very mediocre pitcher suddenly turned into a top-of-the-rotation guy (6-3, 3.52 ERA, 66 hits, 68 Ks, 24 BBs and a 1.13 WHIP in 79 1/3 innings). It wasn't Justin Verlander, but it was pretty good. If the light bulb has indeed come on for Luke, the Royals will be in good shape. The biggest concern facing this wave of young talent is that the hitters seem to be way ahead of the pitchers. It would be extremely helpful for one of the previous generation of pitchers to become a rotation anchor.

Speaking of the light bulb coming on, I think the Royals took a flier on Sanchez to see if it would happen for him this year. The problem with Sanchez has always been his control--even in his best major league season (2010), he led the National League in walks. Now, spring training stats are pretty much worthless, but Sanchez did only walk 6 batters in 11 1/3 innings this spring. That's a little more in line with his walk rate from 2010 than his rate from 2011. I'm a little worried about Sanchez switching to the tougher American League and leaving the pitchers haven of San Francisco's AT&T Park, but his upside is quite good--he should get lots of strikeouts, and he is more of a ground ball pitcher, which is good news for someone with Alcides Escobar behind him.

One year ago, Luis Mendoza was merely organizational filler. One altered delivery later, he was the Pacific Coast League's pitcher of the year and part of a major league rotation. I admit, I did not think Mendoza could sustain his success, but he pitched well for the Royals in two September starts and kept right on rolling in spring training. He has definitely earned a chance to see if he can do it for the long-term. I don't know what to expect from Mendoza, but his strikeout rate improved as the season went on last year at Omaha, and he had a very good strikeout ratio in the spring. If that keeps up, he probably will be successful.

Finally, Danny Duffy. One of the joys of last season was watching various young position players reach the majors and succeed to varying degrees. But Duffy was the only starting pitcher we got to experience that with. I'm excited to see him continue developing as a major-leaguer. Like Sanchez, Duffy's big problem is control. Unlike Sanchez, Duffy is only 23 and there is more reason to expect his control to improve.

Yes, this rotation has question marks. I suppose the good news is that, for the most part, we are now hoping pitchers who have more talent and upside will put it together, rather than Davies and O'Sullivan and a retread like Francis. It's not much, but it is a little progress. The other good news, which I will discuss in the next post, is that the bullpen looks really good. And the offense should also be good, so if the starters can just keep the team in games, pitch 6-7 solid innings, the Royals will have a chance to win.

Up next: the bullpen

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