Prior to the 2010 season, I had predicted that the starting rotation would easily be the most productive part of the Royals team. On that point, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Going back and trying to understand why I was so wrong is enlightening. Primarily it started with the fact that Zack Greinke was coming off one of the finest pitching performances Royals fans have ever seen. I also envisioned a step forward for Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies which didn’t come to fruition
I’m not making the same mistake in 2011 and I’m not going to sugar-coat it, this rotation will almost assuredly not be the strength of the team. They lost Zack Greinke in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers which alone would make that an easy prediction. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the rotation performed better than it did in 2010. I say this for two reasons:
Improved Defense – The defense in 2010 was abysmal. It was one of the worst collections of defensive players ever assembled. However, in 2011 the most egregious offenders should be upgraded. Aviles over Betemit at third. Ka’aihue over Butler at first. Escobar over Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop. It’s not a team filled with Gold Glovers, but it should boost the effectiveness of the entire pitching staff.
Prospects – The Royals pitching prospects are getting close to being ready for Major League action and if there are injuries or the team is somehow in contention near the All-Star Break it’s possible we could see some guys promoted. Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow and John Lamb all have a legitimate chance of starting some games for the Royals in 2011. Each would likely be an improvement today in the rotation, but they do need further work in the minors.
Let’s take a look at the rotation as it’s going to be on Opening Day.
Luke Hochevar – The 2006 first overall draft pick has been a disappointment in relation to his draft position. He’s a ground ball pitcher that didn’t really get that many ground balls in 2010. It’s possible he changed his approach or wasn’t exactly confident in the defense behind him. He’s probably best positioned to take advantage of an upgraded defense.
Jeff Francis – Acquired via free agency from the Colorado Rockies on a one year deal. Francis has had some injury problems and missed the entire 2009 season. Before he was hit with the injury bug, he was an emerging ace. He doesn’t have a high velocity fastball, but relies on using command and pitch selection to get hitters out. If he can regain any semblance of the form he showed prior to his injuries, the Royals will be thrilled. If he can’t get it back, there is very little risk. It was the best off-season signing the Royals made.
Kyle Davies – Davies has been a whipping boy of the Royals fanbase for going on four years now. He’s still relatively young and has fantastic stuff, but he can struggle with command and when he’s not on he can’t seem to muddle through and survive. That, however can skew his numbers. He puts up a lofty ERA, but can give his team a chance to win more often than people realize. He had 14 quality starts in 2010 which was good for second on the team behind Greinke. He’s not a great pitcher, but he’d represent an upgrade for many rotations in the MLB. He’s at the point in his career where he is what he is. Projecting great improvement out of him is likely futile. For now, he is an asset to the Royals at the back of the rotation.
Bruce Chen – He’s as likeable a baseball player as there is in the game today. He’s funny, personable and someone that everyone roots for. He’s of Chinese descent, however he was born and raised in Panama and I always get a kick out of hearing a Latin accent coming from an Asian guy. Beyond being likeable, he was very valuable in the rotation for the Royals in 2010. He’s the definition of a crafty lefty, who uses deception, different arm angles and experience to get hitters out. However, when that fails it fails spectacularly. I think that the numbers over-rated Bruce Chen in 2010 and he’s likely due for a significant drop in production in 2011. I believe he’s in the bullpen by the time the All-Star Break rolls around.
Vin Mazzaro – Due to the way the schedule works out, the Royals won’t need a fifth starter until April 16, so Mazzaro will hang back in Surprise, AZ for extended Spring Training. When he does make it to Kansas City, he’s going to be one of the more intriguing pitchers on the staff. He was acquired in the off-season from the A’s in the David Dejesus trade. He’s young, and was a pretty decent pitcher in 2010. He would’ve led the Royals in the percentage of his starts that were "quality"with 67%. That’s a higher rate than Zack Greinke had in 2011. He represents a departure from old-retread pitchers being acquired by the Royals, so he'll be interesting for that at least.
It’s not a good rotation; in fact it could be quite horrible, but I don’t think it will be as bad as some are predicting. If some younger guys like Mike Montgomery or Danny Duffy have a good start to their Minor League seasons they could be promoted and be instant improvements. It’s hard to improve when you lose one of the best pitchers in the game, but it’s possible the defense could be enough to even out that curve.