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Kansas City’s Current Rotation

The Kansas City Royals possess one of the most fertile farm systems in recent memory. In addition to top position prospects Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Will Myers, K.C. has unparalleled pitching talent — Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Danny Duffy and Christopher Dwyer are potential top-of-the-rotation lefties. From the right, there’s Aaron Crow and two of the four youngsters acquired in the Zack Greinke deal, Jeremy Jeffress (likely headed to the ‘pen) and Jacob Odorizzi. Pitching prospects are more volatile than their position player counterparts, so some of the arms listed above will almost assuredly flame out due to injury or attrition. But by sheer volume, Dayton Moore should soon be able to fill out the front of the Royals’ rotation with talented, cost-controlled pitchers.

Before the prospect cavalry arrives, though, things could get ugly. Post-Greinke, Kansas City’s Opening Day rotation figures to include Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, Vin Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan, with Gil Meche a long shot to log significant innings due to a damaged shoulder (he may just stay in the bullpen). Chances are, the team adds a low-level free agent starter or two to compete for the fifth spot.

Dan Szymborski has released 2011 ZiPS projections for K.C. Here are the forecasts for the four guys currently penciled into the rotation, as well as Meche. I’d recommend that fans keep their noses buried in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook this season, because Royals games might look like Charlie Brown‘s All-Stars running on a loop until those celebrated arms arrive:

Good grief. The best adjusted ERA among the Royals’ probable starters is nine percent below average. Is there any hope for these guys?

A look at Hochevar’s peripherals reveals some reason for optimism. The number one pick in the ’06 draft has hasn’t missed many bats (6.01 K/9), but he has shown decent control (3.11 BB/9) and has gotten grounders 48.7 percent of the time, compared to the 44 percent big league average. Hochevar’s career FIP is 4.47, and his xFIP is 4.46. Hardly great, but serviceable. Yet, Hochevar’s ERA is an AARGH!-worthy 5.60.

Hochevar’s career BABIP is .316, a figure that hasn’t been helped by a Royals defense that placed 17th in team Ultimate Zone Rating in 2008, 30th in 2009 and 28th this past year. Also, he has an ultra-low rate of stranding runners on base. Hochevar’s LOB rate in the majors is 62.6 percent. That’s the lowest mark among pitchers with 300+ innings pitched since 2007.

One might think that the 27-year-old struggles from the stretch, but it’s hard to find evidence of that. Our Splits section shows that Hochevar has a career 4.45 xFIP with the bases empty. With runners on, his xFIP is 4.47, and with runners in scoring position, it’s 4.61. His BABIP with no one on is .300. With ducks on the pond, it jumps to .335, and with runners in scoring position, it rockets to .371. His core skills don’t seem to change much with men on, and this predicted LOB formula developed by The Hardball Times’ Dave Studeman suggests Hochevar’s strand rate should be around 71 percent. Hochevar is never going to be an ace. But he’s not a lost cause, either, and he’s under team control until 2014.

Conjuring up enthusiasm for Davies, Mazaro and O’Sullivan is a more difficult task.

Davies is also 27, but he has long since lost the shine of being a touted Braves prospect who ranked as Baseball America’s #53 prospect prior to 2005. An optimist might point to Davies’ 4.46 FIP during a 2 WAR 2010 season, but that came with a home run per fly ball rate under eight percent and an xFIP about half a run higher, at 4.93. A below-average K rate (6.3 K/9 career), below-average walk rate (4.34 BB/9) and a below-average ground ball rate (39.2 GB%) makes for…a below-average pitcher. Davies’ career xFIP is 5.04. With one last season of arbitration eligibility left, Davies may be trying to latch on to another non-contender’s rotation this time next year.

Picked up in the David DeJesus trade with the A’s, Mazzaro could be a cheap back-end starter who helps bridge the gap until the prospects arrive. In 213.2 career MLB innings, the 24-year-old righty has 5.81 K/9, 3.75 BB/9 and a 4.88 xFIP.

Working mainly a low-90s fastball, a mid-80s slider, Mazzaro posted lofty ground ball rates in the minors, and Baseball America praised his “hard sinker” a few years back. Unfortunately, those grounders haven’t translated to the majors — Mazzaro’s career GB% is 41.2. According to Pitch F/X data from Joe Lefkowitz’s website, Mazzaro’s fastball (I’m including both four-seamers and two-seamers here) has induced a ground ball 38.8 percent of the time. There’s a marked difference in his heater’s GB% against right-handed and left-handed batters. Versus same-handed hitters, Mazzaro’s fastball has gotten a ground ball 49.3 percent of the time. Against lefties, just 30.9 percent. Mazzaro never posted high-octane strikeout rates or extremely low walk totals in the minors, so he’ll have to re-discover his earth-scorching ways to stave off big league drubbings.

O’Sullivan is a beefy right-hander acquired from the Angels last July as part of the Alberto Callaspo trade. He has 4.79 K/9, 3.13 BB/9 and a 5.13 xFIP in 135.1 major league innings. He is young, having turned 23 toward the end of last season. And as O’Sullivan’s ZiPS projection suggests, he’s got good control, with a minor league walk rate of 2.4 per nine innings. O’Sullivan’s changeup has been solid — according to Texas Leaguers, the pitch has a 14.3 percent whiff rate (12-13 percent MLB average).

But O’Sullivan’s fastball and breaking stuff don’t fool anyone. According to TexasLeaguers, he’s got a 3.6 percent whiff rate with his fastball (5-6 percent MLB average), and a 6.5 percent whiff rate with his upper-70s curve/slider (12-13 percent MLB average). Also, his ground ball rate fell sharply at the Triple-A level and sits at 39.2 percent in the majors. Unless he shows Maddux-esque touch, it’s hard to see O’Sullivan succeeding with few Ks and ample fly balls. He looks like a filler to me.

With the exception of Hochevar and possibly Mazzaro, Kansas City’s 2011 starters might look like this…

On the positive side, they Royals won’t lose any of their starts by a score of 123-0. And by 2012 or 2013, the likes of Montgomery, Lamb, Duffy and Dwyer will make this sordid staff a distant memory.