This was not how Dayton Moore planned to remake the Royals’ starting rotation, of course. He did not expect tragedy. He could not predict this group. He could not forecast the furious final weeks of the offseason, when the organization zeroed in on the free-agent market after spending most of the winter passing on the available arms.
There was no way to prepare for this, no script to follow, no way replace the smile and electric fastball of Yordano Ventura. But something strange happened in the final days before spring training, something that perhaps surprised even Moore. The Royals entered the offseason needing to fill three open spots in the rotation and then had to replace one after Ventura’s death in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. And somehow, Moore emerged more confident about this year’s starting pitching than he had about any group during his tenure in Kansas City.
“I think this rotation is certainly every bit as good as any rotation that we’ve had,” Moore said. “Truthfully.”
The confidence comes at an important juncture for both the franchise and its starters. In 2016, the Royals’ staff scuffled as a unit, finishing 12th in the American League with a 4.67 ERA. One year later, club officials hope a re-tooled version can match the performance of the team’s rotations from 2013 (3.87 ERA in 968 2/3 innings) and 2014 (3.87 ERA in 986 2/3 innings).
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A final piece of that rotation puzzle landed in camp Wednesday morning, when Travis Wood, a 30-year-old left-hander, officially signed a two-year, $12 million contract. Wood, who spent the last five seasons with the Chicago Cubs, will compete with right-hander Nathan Karns and right-hander Chris Young for the the club’s final rotation spot. He signed with the Royals, in part, because the team offered an opportunity to return to starting after he spent the last two years in the Cubs’ bullpen.
“I wanted to try to get back to it,” said Wood, who posted a 2.95 ERA in 61 relief innings for the Cubs in 2016. “And they’re going to give me an opportunity to do that. So we’re going to give it everything we got.”
If Wood does not win the job in the starting rotation, he will occupy a place in the bullpen. But his addition this week offered more clarity to the Royals’ revamped rotation. As camp begins, the staff features four locks: lefty Danny Duffy and right-hander Ian Kennedy will headline the top of the unit, while left-hander Jason Vargas and righty Jason Hammel will fortify the middle. The final spot could come down to Karns, acquired from Seattle in the offseason for outfielder Jarrod Dyson, and Wood, who started 98 games for the Cubs from 2012-15.
“We like our depth,” Moore said. “We need several pitchers in our organization that can give us innings in a starting role over a course of 162 games.”
In the weeks after Ventura’s tragic death, the Royals made an aggressive push in free agency, looking for arms to fill the void. The hunt paid dividends last week, when the club signed Hammel to a two-year, $16 million contract. But Moore and his lieutenants were not done. All offseason, they had tracked Wood, who entered free agency after transitioning to the bullpen in Chicago. And then came another unexpected development.
On the day before he was to depart for spring training, left-handed reliever Brian Flynn was injured in a freak accident at home, sustaining a broken rib and three non-displaced fractures in his vertebrae after falling through the roof of his barn in McAlester, Okla. Flynn was hurt while trying to repair a hole in his roof. The Royals’ bullpen suddenly had another one. With Wood still on the market, Moore approached team president Dan Glass about one final offseason upgrade.
“I said, ‘Dan, this is what’s going on with Flynn,’ ” Moore recalled. “And I said, ‘We got a chance to maybe to get Travis Wood. This thing is kind leaning our way. He said, ‘Great, it would be a great pickup for us.’ ”
In the span of two weeks, the Royals guaranteed $28 million to two free-agent pitchers who helped the Cubs win a World Series championship in 2016. After an offseason of waiting, the Royals saw an opportunity to take advantage of a soft market.
The decision to acquire Wood was also based on a desire for more depth, Moore said. The Royals believe that Duffy and Kennedy are set to replicate their solid production from 2016. But outside of Kennedy, the rotation lacks a true workhorse. Vargas, 34, is entering his first full season back from Tommy John surgery and may need extra rest, Moore said. Hammel, 34, has never thrown more than 180 innings in his career. And Karns, 29, is a promising starter with upside, but posted a 5.15 ERA last season before missing the second half of the year because of a back injury.
“You can never have enough experience, enough depth, enough guys that will take the ball and do whatever they have to do to get people out,” Moore said.
This leaves space for Wood, a crafty lefty who has burnished a reputation throughout the industry as a “gamer” and “competitor.” Wood does not light up radar guns or mesmerize with his secondary stuff. But in seven major-league seasons, including two in Cincinnati, he has toed the line between serviceable and effective. In 900 career innings, he has posted a 4.00 ERA. When he was pushed from the rotation in Chicago in 2015, he did not complain. He simply went out and transformed into a useful weapon in the bullpen.
“The guy is a grinder,” said Hammel, who pitched alongside him in Chicago. “He’ll come to the trenches and he’ll stay there as long as he needs to. It’s what he did with the Cubs. He’s willing to do every job — any job.”
For now, Wood’s job in Kansas City remains unclear. But as spring camp begins, the Royals believe his left arm can make their pitching staff whole.
“Whatever they asked,” Wood said. “I’m going to take the ball when they give it to me and give it everything I got.”
Royals’ top rotations
Royals general manager Dayton Moore believes the Royals could field their most consistent starting rotation since he arrived in Kansas City in 2006. Here is a look at the club’s best starting rotations since then: