The Kansas City Royals’ rebuilding efforts are generally met with optimism. This derives from their young, electric offense. At the same time, that aspect of their ballclub has distracted from the weakness that has severely hindered the Royals’ rebuilding efforts: futile starting pitching.
There’s a bunch of young stars and/or potential All-Stars around the diamond for new manager Mike Matheny‘s ballclub; Whit Merrifield is an elite hitter; Jorge Soler hit 48 home runs last season; Hunter Dozier rakes and plays right field and both corner infield positions; Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez could be the Royals’ long-term answer at the middle infield positions.
No such positive outlets reside in Kansas City’s starting rotation.
Last season the Royals rotation posted a 5.30 ERA and 5.08 FIP. Their starters surrendered baserunners at will, struggled to finish at-bats, and more often than not couldn’t keep their offense in games. Even worse, there’s no standout hurler who looks like a future top-of-the-rotation starter.
Keller was a stealthy option for the Royals in 2018 as he made 41 appearances, 20 of which were starts; he recorded an impressive 3.08 ERA and 140 ERA+. He worked out of trouble and limited damage. Last season Keller was a frequent figure in the Royals rotation, making 28 starts. Across those outings he posted a 4.19 ERA and 1.36 WHIP.
He needs to build off his first full season as a starter. That entails not laboring through at-bats and perfecting his off-speed pitches, which is pivotal for a non-strikeout pitcher as such a hurler relies on catching hitters off-balanced.
Junis has three seasons of experience as a starting pitcher under his belt and has been a mixed bag. The right-hander held his own over his first two seasons, but last season he recorded a 5.24 ERA and 1.43 WHIP across 31 starts.
Concurrently, Junis was able to provide considerable length for a pitcher who labored and struggled to limit damage, averaging slightly over five innings per start. Like Keller, Junis isn’t a strikeout pitcher. He needs to make quicker work of hitters.
The 2019 season was Sparkman’s first as a primary starter, and he struggled mightily to the tune of a 6.02 ERA. Meanwhile, Danny Duffy is 31 and coming off two respectable, but little more seasons.
According to MLB Pipeline, three of Kansas City’s top four prospects are pitchers, that being 23-year-olds Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar. In all likelihood, at least one of them will appear in the show over the next two years and get the chance to earn a permanent spot in their rotation.
At the same time, how long will it take for them to get into a groove and eventually be a reliable force every fifth day? It takes more than one year.
Long-term, are Junis and Keller more likely to be co-aces or middle-of-the-rotation starters? Even if one of them breakthrough and become a reliable force, it’s not going to be enough to propel the Royals rotation and rebuild. There’s no perennial team/threat in Major League Baseball with a mere reliable starting pitcher.
Perhaps the biggest issue of all for the Royals is their competition in the American League Central. The Minnesota Twins won 101 games last season, have a formidable offense in place for the foreseeable future, and added Josh Donaldson and Kenta Maeda in the offseason; the Cleveland Indians have won 91-plus games in each of the last four seasons and still sport a playoff-caliber ballclub.
The first object in the Royals’ way is the Chicago White Sox, who are much further along in their rebuild. Furthermore, one could argue that rebuilding is over for Chicago, and it’s time for them to make the playoffs.
Like the Royals, the White Sox have a lot of tantalizing, young position players. However, their offense includes something else: impact bats that complement the youth. The White Sox also have budding young starters, specifically Lucas Giolito, and they added proven starting pitchers in the offseason.
Their rebuild is miles ahead of Kansas City’s, which pegs them as the fourth-best team in the AL Central.
Two things can be true at the same time: the Royals have a compelling offensive attack and a starting rotation that desperately needs a boost. Even if their offense soars to new heights, it’s not going to change much. As long as their rotation woes drag on, it’ll theoretically lose as many games as their offense wins.
It’s fair to expect some form of improvement in 2020 and 2021. To what extent, though?
You can win without every aspect of your roster being stellar. That said, your lineup and rotation can’t be polar opposites of each other; it offsets itself and takes the franchise nowhere.