The Kansas City Royals rotation had a clear edict in 2013: don’t blow anybody away, but don’t hand the opposition anything. As such, they ranked 27th in strikeout rate, 17th in walk rate and relied on a rangy defensive outfit to make up the difference with all of those balls in play. It worked out well enough, though perhaps below expectations, as the Royals rotation was roughly league average (18th in ERA and fourth in innings pitched).
Well, Ervin Santana is out, replaced by Jason Vargas, and everything else remains largely the same. Does it make sense to commit $36.6 million, 45 percent of your entire payroll, to a rotation that looks to be league average at best? Probably not, but here we are, with perhaps the most unspectacular two-through-four in baseball.
James Shields remains atop the rotation and a team could certainly do worse. A major innings-eater (over 225 in three straight seasons and over 200 in seven straight), Shields posted the second-best ERA and FIP of his career in 2013 (3.15, 3.47), this despite a drop in strikeout rate and an increase in walk rate. The strikeouts aren’t too concerning because they were in line with his career marks, his swinging strike rate hardly moved and his velocity was actually a career-high, but the walks are a bit worrisome since he makes hay from his control. Our own Jeff Zimmerman is concerned that wear-and-tear on the 32-year-old’s arm could be lurking but otherwise, you know what you’re getting here. Believe in the Shield(s).
The middle of the rotation is a haven for mediocrity, with Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen falling in line two-three-four in some order. There’s the slightest modicum of value to be had from each depending on the format – neither of the three walk many batters, and putting balls in play in front of this defense is a prudent strategy. However, the Royals could often go three straight games without a starter reaching five strikeouts, as there’s just no bat-missing stuff in this group.
Vargas is pretty much Mr. Average, hovering around the league-average marks for ERA and FIP in each of the last four years. He might be the best bet to outperform his projections on this team, as he relied more heavily on his curveball and four-seamer last year, explaining the uptick in strikeouts (to a still-very-pedestrian 6.5-per-nine). There isn’t much upside, but you can make a case for ERA and WHIP maintenance in AL-only leagues.
No matter what the salary or 2013 ERA say, I have trouble believing Guthrie is a very good pitcher. Yes, he consistently outperforms his FIP (seven straight seasons), but this is a no-whiff pitcher with a home run problem. The Royals defense and limiting walks can only do so much with that profile. He is the lowest of low-upside plays.
Chen, well, Chen I just can’t figure out. I continually tried to bet on regression for him in daily leagues last year but he kept outperforming the peripherals, somehow surviving a fly ball rate of roughly 100 percent (it was actually 51.7 percent). While he seems to have supressed his earlier homer-prone ways, like with Guthrie, a roster spot is better spent gambling on a higher-upside play.
The final spot in the rotation gets far more interesting, with a couple of options who may have value and one who promises to make you pull your hair out should you own him. Ahh, Wade Davis, we remember your 2013 so fondly. 24 starts with a 5.67 ERA and a .373 wOBA allowed, you are the man who turns the whole world into an army of Jose Bautistas. Of course, your lights-out 10-inning stint in the bullpen shouldn’t keep the team from trying you out as a starter again because you were part of the Wil Myers return, dammit! I mean, look at this part of Zimmerman’s player cap: “Wade Davis has little to no fantasy value because of a lack of talent.” It doesn’t get more scathing than that, and Davis is just far too risky to own at this point.
He’s also possibly blocking two more intriguing arms if he gets the fifth starter spot. Yordano Ventura had a solid 2013 across three levels and will reportedly have no innings cap for 2014, but those innings are expected to come primarily in the minors. He appears close to being major-league ready and offers some really nice potential, especially in dynasty leagues. Danny Duffy could also be blocked, though that’s still the fault of his disastrous 2011. He’s been far better since then, but control issues still loom, which also work to limit his innings per start. The strikeouts make him an intriguing late play, however, if he can earn a spot. Seriously, pray for Davis to move to the bullpen, opening up a spot for one of these two higher-upside plays.
Alternatively, if you play in any Wack Fantasy leagues, the Royals rotation has all the potential in the world. (Wack Fantasy formats are basically formats where the goal is to have the worst stats possible. They’re the best.)
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