As the Kansas City Royals continue taking fliers on former Atlanta Braves starting pitchers, one signed last December, Kris Medlen, has the potential to be the deciding factor in the pursuit of a third straight trip to the World Series. Medlen entered the 2015 season rehabbing from a second Tommy John surgery, and did not debut for Kansas City until July 20. Medlen was shelled in his first appearance, giving up four runs in 3.1 innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
That inauspicious debut was followed by 11.0 scoreless innings spanning six appearances. The Royals stretched Medlen out to prepare for a return to a starting role, and he made his first start on August 24, roughly a month after his return to the big leagues. The 30-year-old right-hander would wrap up the season having made eight starts, winning five of seven decisions, and posting a respectable 4.50 ERA. Most of the damage done against him came in two very rough starts in which the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians totaled 13 runs off Medlen in only 9.1 innings.
In the six starts that Medlen pitched well, he gave the Royals 34.2 innings of solid pitching with a 2.33 ERA. Overall, he pitched to a WHIP of 1.269 — very similar to the 1.223 WHIP he posted in his final year with the Braves. He did not pitch deep into games, but the Royals did not ask that of him. The bullpen is good enough.
Last season, Medlen actually threw his fastball and sinker faster than he did in 2013, his only full season of starting in the big leagues. His changeup is still virtually unhittable, and his curveball generated more whiffs than in 2013. Judging by Medlen’s performance, albeit in very limited duty, last season, very little has changed from the pitcher who went 25-13 with a 2.47 ERA and low, low WHIP of 1.096 in 335.0 innings for the Braves in 2012 and 2013. He is still the same pitcher who was destined for stardom before the injury bug hit a second time.
Medlen will enter the 2016 season locked in as the number-four starter behind Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura, and Ian Kennedy. The Royals face uncertainties with all three of those names. Volquez was pumping heat faster than ever, deep into the postseason, on the heels of the first 200-plus inning season of his career. Will there be lasting effects from the increased workload. Ventura was destined for Triple-A to work through command and maturity issues before a Jason Vargas injury saved him from the minor leagues. Ventura’s sophomore season was not a good follow-up to his dominant debut, and he did not pitch well in the postseason. Ventura was the star of the 2014 postseason, but was knocked around to a 6.43 ERA in five playoff starts last year. Kennedy comes over from the National League after allowing 31 home runs in only 168.1 innings. The free-agent acquisition has not come close to duplicating his 21-win season of 2011. Kennedy appears to be decidedly league-average as a starting pitcher, but will eat innings. The quality of those innings remains to be seen.
Medlen is not without his own questions. His turn in the starting rotation was brief last year, and he has only ever pitched one full year as a starting pitcher. The Royals will not be asking him to throw more than six innings on a consistent basis. He may be allowed to go deeper, but with the bullpen still strong, getting 18 outs should be enough. As a number-four starter, Medlen should be matched up against pitchers who do not measure up to him talent-wise. The Royals should find themselves with a chance to win every time he starts, but he must stay healthy enough to make those starts.
The Royals are no one’s top World Series pick entering 2016, mostly due to serious questions in the starting rotation. Volquez and Kennedy are mostly known quantities at this point of their career, while Ventura remains an enigma who may never put all of his raw tools together again. Medlen is the biggest unknown. Had he and Mike Minor stayed healthy, it’s quite possible there would have been no reason for the Braves to trigger a massive rebuild. With a full, healthy offseason under his belt, Medlen will take another stab at starting for a full season. How his body handles the increased workload in 2016 may be one of the deciding factors in whether or not the Royals’ run of American League domination continues.