Ball Star

Reshaping the rotation won't be easy

Updated: 2012-09-29T01:17:07Z

By BEN NIELSEN

The Kansas City Star

There is no debate whether or not the Royals need to improve their pitching staff -- the numbers are quite clear the starting rotation is terrible. The question is whether or not the Royals can fix their rotation enough in one offseason be leap from a 70-plus win team to a 90 win team.

Fifteen- to 20-game improvements are not easy to pull off in one season, but Dayton Moore may have to pull that off this offseason if he still wants to hold onto his GMDM title.

With a week left in the season, the Royals’ starting pitching staff has tossed 854.2 innings and allowed 498 runs (472 earned, 4.97 ERA). This breaks down to an average of 5.5 innings per start (second fewest in the American League) and 3.2 runs allowed per start, which translates into the Royals having the second fewest quality starts in the American League.

By comparison, the last eight teams to make the playoffs for the American League -- Texas, New York and Tampa Bay twice; Minnesota (2010) and Detroit (2011) -- averaged about 993 innings pitched (6.13 IP per start) and 475 runs allowed (2.93 runs allowed per start). So far in 2012, only the Seattle Mariners have a pitching staff that meets this criteria and are not in the playoff hunt, while the Baltimore Orioles are the exception to the rule as a contender with a pitching staff that does not live up to these standards.

Essentially, the Royals have to figure out a way where their starting rotation as a whole is averaging a quality start. And the bigger question may be this: Can the Royals reasonably flip their rotation in one offseason and create a staff comparable to playoff teams of the last two seasons?

The answer is… unlikely, but possible.

Now before you freak out and set your 2013 World Series tickets on fire please consider that we are looking at the Royals from the perspective of only their starting rotation. If you were to look at Oakland or Tampa Bay just through the prism of their hitting you would not find a playoff caliber team. The Orioles are competing with a rotation that does not meet these standards in a much more difficult division.

But, again, Baltimore has been the exception so far this season, and if the Royals want to win the AL Central, they are going to need to be as close to these benchmarks as possible.

Part of the issue with proving if it is possible to hit those standards in one offseason is we have to speculate who the Royals can and cannot afford to sign or trade for in the offseason. While it would be nice for the Royals to make a deal for the supposedly available David Price, it may not be realistic for the Royals to give up what the Rays would want in return.

On the other hand, trading for Dan Haren (a player the Angels may let walk at the end of the season instead of picking up his option so they can re-sign Zack Greinke) may be a move the Royals can make. We also don't know if the Royals will be able to re-sign Jeremy Guthrie. So let’s operate as if the Royals will, somehow, re-sign Guthrie and obtain the following two pitchers, Haren and Edwin Jackson.*

*There are certainly other pitchers I'd like the Royals to go after in free agency or via a trade, but the point of this exercise to see if it is reasonably possible to flip their rotation in one offseason and not create a wish list.

There are several possible rotation orders if the Royals ended up with these two pitchers plus re-sign Guthrie. Because we don't know what can be expected out of Danny Duffy, Felipe Paulino and Jake Odorizzi for next season, I have decided to leave them off the rotation - again, for simple exercise purposes. Below are the three year averages from 2010 to 2012 of a rotation that includes Haren, Jackson and Guthrie.

1. Haren (213 IP, 96 runs)

2. Jackson (197 IP, 94 runs)

3. Guthrie (198 IP, 104 runs)

4. Bruce Chen (160 IP, 82 runs) and Will Smith (30 IP, 15 runs)

5. Luke Hochevar (189 IP, 114 runs)

Total: 987 IP, 505 runs

The first thing we notice is the Royals should potentially be able to hit that 993 innings pitched mark with a few moves this offseason. Will Smith is combined with Chen because Chen has a history of getting hurt at some point in the season (this is the first year he's had 30 or more starts in a season since 2005 and only the second time in his career).

The problem is the runs allowed. Some of this is inflated by Haren's nagging back injury this season and Guthrie's stint in Colorado, but even if you adjust for those things the Royals would still need Hochevar or Chen to be better pitchers than they have. Some may point to Luis Mendoza or Will Smith as options, but the reality is that, at least for 2013, they are basically still the same pitcher as a Chen. For example, in 152 innings this season, Mendoza has allowed 79 runs, which is almost on par with what Chen has done on average the last three years.

This doesn't mean each contending staff is loaded with studs, however. Among the contending teams, most have a regular starter with an ERA well above the league average for a starting pitcher (4.12). Pitchers like Scott Feldman (Texas), Freddy Garcia (New York), Tommy Hunter and Jake Arrieta (Baltimore), and Francisco Liriano and Phillip Humber (Chicago) all have ERA's above 5.12 – a full run above average - for the season as their team's fifth starter.

The thing to notice is these pitchers all exist as their number five starters and teams with two well below average starters don’t have them in the rotation at the same time unless there is an injury. Even if the Royals can go out and add the likes of a Haren and Jackson while retaining Guthrie they would still be sending two of Chen, Hochevar or Mendoza out there 40-percent of the time. While maybe one of those three could be a fifth starter on a contending rotation, most contenders don’t have two or more of those kinds of pitchers in their rotation.

However, while the Royals may have to add three pitchers plus re-sign Guthrie to be considered of having a contending rotation when Opening Day rolls around, it does not mean the Royals couldn’t contend in the AL Central as a team with “just” adding two pitchers and keeping Guthrie. The key will ultimately be what Kansas City can get out of Duffy, Paulino and/or Odorizzi for half of a season. If they can’t get much out of them or it takes longer for Duffy and Paulino to come back, then Moore will have to find another pitcher for the rotation.

| Ben Nielsen, bnielsen@kcstar.com

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