As Royals look to upgrade rotation, which arms should they target?

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The Royals had the second-best rotation ERA through the month of April (3.38). They’re record stood at 7-16. Seven games later, they were 10-20. At this time, the popular thought was the offense would get going and the pitching would decline. That has rang true. The offense has been a Top 10 offense since, the pitching? On the decline.

First, Nate Karns hit the DL after leaving a start with “forearm soreness” at Target Stadium in Minnesota on May 19. It was on the heels of a three-start stretch where Karns was a strikeout machine, fanning 29 in 17.1 IP Then, Danny Duffy hit the DL shortly after, stretching awkwardly at first base on a toss from Eric Hosmer on May 28, in what ended up being a 10-1 loss. He was expected to miss 6-8 weeks, but returned in just 35 days, because gnar. His first start back was super (5.2 IP, 2 ER, 5 H, 4 K, 2 BB in a 7-3 win at Seattle), and he was done in by the long ball on Sunday in a 5-2 loss to Clayton Kershaw (second-best strikeout total (9), but was done in by 3 HR in 7 IP). Karns, initially, was expected to miss a start or two. Then was shut down on June 6 after experiencing discomfort and expected to be back “sometime in July.” The writing was on the wall when he was placed on the 60-day DL, keeping him out until August, before he was out for the season with thoratic outlet syndrome (same injury that ended Luke Hochevar and Kyle Zimmer’s season in 2016).

While the team’s 4.33 starter ERA ranks in the middle of the pack, the current in-house options (those who have already started games this season in the big leagues – Erik Skoglund, Jake Junis, Travis Wood and Luke Farrell, as well as potentially Miguel Almonte, who has appeared twice this season out of the bullpen in four stints with the big club (was scheduled to start May 24 at New York, but it was rained out), but not much else. This group – excluding Almonte and adding Chris Young and out-for-the-season Matt Strahm – has not been good this season. as the fifth starter are much, much worse than that number). A lot of team’s have issues with their fifth starters, but for a seems-to-be contending Royals (44-43, 3 games out), this is not going to cut it. You usually need eight or so starters to get through a season. The Royals have already exceeded that, and the results from the backend are what one would label, BAD.

Opening Day rotation (Duffy, Kennedy, Hammel, Vargas, Karns): 72 starts (39 quality), 419.1 IP (5.2+ IP per start), 26-24, 3.78 ERA, 1.267 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.87 BB/9; team record: 34-38

Everyone else who has started a game: 16 starts (3 QS): 67.2 IP (4.0+ IP/start), 3-5, 6.52 ERA, 1.83 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.9 BB/9; team record: 10-6

Stats are a funny thing, aren’t they? The Opening Day rotation has a better record in their decisions, but a worse team record in their starts, despite much better peripheral stats. Over time, this would even out, and it would not end up well for the Royals.

Some interesting notes:

  • Royals are 21-34 without Vargas (13-21 in decisions).
  • Royals are 4-14 in Hammel starts (lost first eight); 13-4 in Vargas starts.

Over time, this would not end up well for the Royals. Travis Wood is the current fifth starter. He made his only start on July 2, and pitched into the fifth inning, not recording an out, while two inherited runners scored and is probably the best in-house option. He carried a 13.2 scoreless-innings streak dating back to his last run allowed on June 4 (spanning 8 appearances) into that fifth inning on July 2. The Royals won both of Young’s starts despite his 12.15 ERA, 2.70 WHIP in the two outings. He is has since been DFA’d. Strahm, who won his first start of the season (3 strikeouts in five scoreless innings on June 15), but struggled over his next two and returned to the bullpen after posting a 7.71 ERA while being tagged for a .320 BAA over 11.2 innings in the three starts), where he made appearance, leaving early. He then hit the DL, was transferred to the 60-day and underwent surgery for a torn patellar tendon. Junis has started six games, and produced two quality starts, but he was not good. The 24-year-old compiled a 6.00 ERA, 1.57 WHIP and 26/12 K/BB, while allowing nine long balls, hitting four batters and throwing three wild pitches in 33 innings. Skoglund shined in his MLB debut with 6.1 shutout innings, then gave up six earned, while striking out three and walking four in just 3.1 innings over his next two starts. The former 3rd round pick (2014), may be an option in the future, but I wouldn’t trust him the rest of this year. Farrell is a great story. The son of Boston manager John Farrell, he overcame to tumors to make it to the big leagues, and his dad took the day off to do see it. However, it was not a story book debut, as he allowed five earned on seven hits, walking three, while recording just eight outs (16.88 ERA, 3.750 WHIP). There’s also Almonte, who has put up good numbers in the minors this season (13 G, 7 GS, 1.33 ERA, 1.033 WHIP, career-best 10.4 K/9), overcoming a horrendous 2016 (5-8, 5.92 ERA, 1.750 WHIP). He was called up today yesterday the fourth time this season.

When Karns was ruled out for the season (although he is seeking an option that would potentially allow his to return late this season), it became clear the Royals are going to need a starter if they’re going to contend down the stretch. Dayton Moore has been on record saying the Royals are in the market for a starting pitcher and likely a relief pitcher. He reiterated today that they’re going to need to make a move or two to go ahead and win this thing. So, who is out there?

Last time the Royals did this, they went out and got a frontline guy in Johnny Cueto (http://kcsportsnation.com/2015/07/royal-reactions-heeeeeeres-johnny-royals-trade-minor-league-arms-for-hired-gun-cueto/), but I don’t think that will be the case this time, as Moore said that whoever they get it will have to “fit their budget” – even though we’re not certain what that budget is. So, it’s looking more and more likely that they add someone to plug into the back end of the rotation.

Another question is what are the Royals going to have to give for some of these guys, and what are they willing to give? Moore said today that they’re not looking to move Mondesi unless they’re “blown away.”

Sonny Gray (14 GS, 5-4, 3.72 ERA, 1.16 WHIP): Gray started the “second half” tonight for Oakland, and struck out five over six scoreless innings marking the fourth straight quality start he has produced, allowing just four runs in 27 innings.

Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com reports that the Brewers have shown the most interest in Gray, who will likely come at too high of a price for the Royals, as Gray still has three years of control past 2017; but if the Royals DID land him, it would be a good get. He is arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Cahill (9 GS, 3-3. 3.38 ERA, 1.22 WHIP): Cahill carried an impressive 3.27 ERA with 51 strikeouts through 41 1/3 innings when he hit the DL with a shoulder strain. He threw rather well in his first start back and has plenty of time to show that the joint is at full health. Cahill is a cheap rental piece (1-year, $1.75M) who is posting a 13.2% swinging-strike rate, 62.3% groundball rate and a career-best K/BB rate (63/19). As mentioned above, it’s likely the type of guy Dayton Moore would target.

Justin Verlander (19 GS, 5-7, 4.66 ERA, 1.50 WHIP): Mr. Upton has not been the same guy this year, but he is still Justin Verlander. He is owed $70 million through 2019, so any potential trade partner will likely need to take on a lot of salary. That’ll likely price the Royals out. And, considering its within the division, you can just go ahead and scratch him off the list. In addition, Mark Feinsand of MLB.com reports that he is not currently being shopped. That could change if the team is serious about trimming its payroll and getting younger.

Scott Feldman (18 GS, 7-6, 3.94 ERA, 1.27 WHIP): The steady veteran has separated himself a bit from the herd of back-of-the-rotation starters with a run of strong performances. He’s quite affordable ($3.2M salary).

Marco Estrada (18 GS, 4-6, 5.17 ERA, 1.44 WHIP), Francisco Liriano (14 GS, 5-4, 5.56 ERA, 1.62 WHIP) and JA Happ (11 GS, 3-6, 3.54 ERA, 1.25 WHIP): The Jays are fading and the first two veterans just aren’t performing. All three come with their share of upside and would be fairly easy to move (so long as Toronto eats some salary) as rental assets. Happ allowed six runs (two earned) on seven hits and three walks across four innings in Sunday’s loss to the Astros. He struck out three. His struggles came as a bit of a surprise after he had previously rattled off five consecutive quality starts to lower his ERA to a solid 3.47. Happ will come a bit pricier, as he still has one more year of control ($12M). You can probably cross him off the list, as Moore will likely be looking for a rental.

Cueto (19 GS, 6-7, 4.59 ERA, 1.40 WHIP) and Jeff Samardzija (18 GS, 4-10, 4.58 ERA, 1.15 WHIP): The Giants are going nowhere this season, as they are an eye-opening 27 games out of first place (34-56). Cueto opened the second-half last night vs. another potential deadline arm (Clayton Richard: 19 GS, 5-9, 4.75 ERA, 1.52 WHIP), by going just four innings, allowing three runs before leaving with a blister issue. It’s been an underwhelming season so far for the former Royal, and he might not be the same pitcher he used to be, but he was the NL All-Star starter just last year and his 4.74 FIP suggests that better times may be ahead. I personally would not want to pay the price it would likely take to get Cueto, but he is on record saying how much he misses Kansas City – especially the clubhouse when compared to San Francisco’s – and a change of scenery may be what he needs. His contract complicates matters, with four years of a 6-year/$130M deal remaining after 2017, he does have an opt out clause after this season. But, is it worth the risk? What if he doesn’t opt out?

We can just go ahead and cross Samardzija off the list, thanks to his history with the Royals. Could you imagine him and Cain in the same dugout?

Gerrit Cole (18 GS, 7-7, 4.43 ERA, 1.30 WHIP): His name has been mentioned, but its not certain if the Pirates will sell at the deadline. He may be one of the highest-upside pitchers around, but he’s taken a turn for the inconsistent since going 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and 1.09 WHIP back in 2015. Still, he’s gotten unlucky in terms of HR/FB rate this year (it’s a career-high 17.9 percent), and some positive regression on that front will help his stats normalize. And like Gray, he hasn’t hit arbitration yet, and will not be a free agent until after the 2020 season. Unlikely the Royals are willing to pay what they’ll likely have to.

Ervin Santana (18 GS, 10-6, 2.99 ERA, 1.08 WHIP): Santana, the 2017 All-Star who leads the majors with four complete games (more than any team combined), has clear interest, if he were available. The Twins are currently in the divisional race (currently 3 games out with the Indians playing a late game), although most of us think they will fall off. He, like Cueto, has history in Kansas City, but the problem is it would be highly unlikely that the Twins would move him within the division – although they did send the Royals Josh Willingham at the non-waiver deadline in 2014.

Edinson Volquez (17 GS, 4-8, 4.19 ERA, 1.42 ERA) and Tom Koehler (10 GS, 1-4, 8.00 ERA, 1.73 WHIP): Volquez is another former Royal – who arguably had his best years of his career in Kansas City, who shows up on this list. He started the season 0-6, then threw a no-hitter (on Yordano’s birthday, because, baseball), and has been a lot better since. He is under contract through 2018 ($11M per), but could be had for cheap, considering. The Royals have also been named a team at least kicking the tires on Dee Gordon, so maybe they could be a part of a package deal (Gordon has multiple years of control and is likely unrealistic). Would you take Steady Eddy back, Royals fans?

As for Gordon, he doesn’t make much sense, but the Royals are reportedly in the market for a leadoff hitter.

Koehler has been terrible this year, and had they had better options, he would likely be removed from the rotation – which happened once already this season (when he was optioned to AAA). That said, despite this season, he has an OK track record (4.39 ERA, 1.392 WHIP). He is arbitration eligible after this season, and can hit free agency after the 2019 season. I would say a hard pass; but he is still likely a better option than anything in-house.

Jaime Garcia (16 GS, 2-7, 4.55 ERA, 1.35 WHIP): The Braves are a fringe playoff contention team, but if they fall out of it, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports that Kansas City is interested in the southpaw. he’s compiled an ugly 2-7 record, but the is a free agent at the end of the year and could give the Royals solid innings and playoff experience if they can make it into October.

Jeremy Hellickson (18 GS, 5-5, 4.49 ERA, 1.24 WHIP): Hellickson has a career-worst HR/9 (1.76). But, this is on the heels of a season where he went 12-10 with 3.71 ERA and 1.153 WHIP, becoming only the second player in MLB history to accept the qualifying offer. Earning $17.2M this year, he is a free agent in the offseason, and while his price tag is high, his trade price will be a lot lower. A team looking for a rental arm could do a lot worse.

Yu Darvish (19 GS, 6-8, 3.49 ERA, 1.129 WHIP): I’ve heard this name quite a few times now, but I don’t see it for the Royals, as he will simply be too costly. But, he would be a two-month (or more) rental on the final year of a 5-year/$56M deal. Darvish, who was an All-Star this year and has been in four of his five year in the leage, would be the top rental starter if made available – and that’s not really what the Royals are looking for this year. While the team continues to stall out, it likely won’t sell unless the Wild Card is truly out of reach (2 games out). And even then, it seems there’s at least some belief within the organization that holding onto Darvish will help with efforts to re-sign him.

The Royals have lost four in a row, and sit at 44-44, but sit just three games out of first place in the AL Central. If they want to truly contend, they’ll need to upgrade their rotation – even if just a small piece.

Stay tuned.

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