Few teams have experienced as much of a dramatic overhaul to the starting rotation this winter as have the Kansas City Royals. The starters underperformed in 2012, posting a combined 5.01 ERA, and the organization brought new blood. In fact, the Royals could conceivably break camp with a starting rotation that features five pitchers who were not on the 25-man roster last year on Opening Day. Crazy.
The top four starters in spring training are guaranteed spots in the rotation, according to manager Ned Yost. That means James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis will anchor the staff for the Royals to begin the season. That also means the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation has not been settled, and four pitchers are vying for the opportunity to break camp as a starter: Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, Luis Mendoza, and Will Smith.
Left-hander Bruce Chen lulled the AL Central to sleep in 2011, nibbling his way to a 3.77 ERA over 155.0 innings, but his magic seemed to subside last year. His BABIP rose 26 points to .304, his strand rate dropped, and his home-run rate rose. That combination led to a 5.07 ERA in 2012 and put him in danger of losing his starting role this spring. For fantasy owners, whether he starts or relieves shouldn’t matter. He’s still not worth owning in any fantasy format. He hasn’t reached his career-average strikeout rate — which is already below-average at 6.78 K/9 — since the 2003 season, and ZiPS forecasts another year for a 5.00+ ERA. Stay away.
Once a first-overall pick in the 2006 draft, Luke Hochevar has perennially been a disappointment for the Royals, as he owns a career 5.39 ERA (4.46 FIP) in six seasons. Until he can strikeout enough batters to make it worth taking a chance that the ERA may drop, he’s undraftable. I would actually like to see Hochevar transition to the bullpen and become strictly a fastball-slider guy. His slider is arguably his best pitch, and his fastball might play up in shorter stints.
Luis Mendoza had the best ERA (4.23) and FIP (4.28) of the four starters competing for the final spot in the rotation. He generates ground balls and throws with above-average velocity for a starter, but he doesn’t project to provide anything valuable to fantasy owners. His 5.64 K/9 strikeout rate was well below average last year, as was his brutal 1.42 WHIP. The Royals’ offense may help him log a few wins if they improve from a disappointing season, but that’s about as far as it goes. No real help here, either.
Finally, Will Smith is a 23-year-old southpaw who may have the hardest time cracking the rotation on Opening Day. He got his first cup of coffee with the Royals last year, but struggled to a 5.32 ERA in 89.2 innings. His strikeout rate was below average and his WHIP was a ghastly 1.61. Part of it was the .340 BABIP, but part of it was his inability to miss bats. The left-hander only compiled a 6.4% swinging-strike rate and a 28.2% O-Swing%, which is below the 30.7% average for starting pitchers last year. If he can continue his strong start to the spring, he could sneak into the fifth spot, but it wouldn’t be anything worth celebrating for fantasy owners. He’s going to have to show dramatic improvement before he can threaten being selected on draft day.
In terms of parsing out the rotation depth chart for the Kansas City Royals, it’s rock-solid until reaching the fifth spot. It appears to be a wide-open race this spring. Unfortunately, for fantasy owners, none of the four options project to be worth drafting to begin the season.
Don’t forget about left-hander Danny Duffy, though. The 24-year-old lefty was throwing 95 mph and striking out more than a batter per inning before Tommy John surgery ended his season. He could return midseason and be an under-the-radar pickup off the waiver wire. Simply keep tabs on his rehab this season — he threw a 30-pitch bullpen session last week — and monitor his eventual minor-league tuneups to see if he’s worth adding, as he should be a better option than any of the four potential fifth starters discussed above.
EARLY DEPTH CHART