Royals shouldn’t pen Danny Duffy to a relief role in the majors

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03/19/2014 5:38 PM

05/16/2014 12:36 PM

The Royals’ season changed the other night when Ned Yost confirmed the worst-kept secret in the Cactus League. Yordano Ventura, who is drawing wild comparisons to Pedro Martinez, will be in the starting rotation.

Already, some rival coaches and players are crying uncle on the 102-mph fastball and a curveball and change-up that seem to get better every day. Listening to scouts talk about Ventura is a bit like listening to a teenage boy talk about Kate Upton.

But the consequences for the 2014 Royals don’t end with Ventura. There is an overlooked part of this equation that is still uncertain, but is critical and potentially damaging to another important piece of the pitching staff.

Ventura’s “competition” for the last rotation spot was left-hander Danny Duffy, himself once the franchise’s hot pitching prospect. So instead of the original plan for Duffy to develop in Class AAA Omaha and provide insurance, the Royals are looking at him to complete their big-league bullpen.

The plan stinks of letting emotions trump logic, and of an overreaction to a few setbacks in what is

still a strong bullpen

without Duffy or Luke Hochevar.

This is risky, to say the least, and is in place without even close to unanimous agreement within the organization. A team that already has a surplus of relievers and needs rotation depth is set to put a talented left-handed starter into the bullpen?

There is so much that can go wrong here, most notably putting a pitcher who struggles with command and steady emotions into critical late-inning spots chock-full of adrenaline.

Remember Duffy’s return from Tommy John surgery last year, when he gave up a triple to the first batter he faced and then allowed him to score on a wild pitch that nearly went over the backstop?

Internally, the Royals are adamant that they are not giving up on Duffy as a starter. General manager Dayton Moore oversaw the process in which Zack Greinke returned to baseball after walking away, found himself as a reliever and then won a Cy Young Award as a starter. No two people or situations are exactly the same, and Duffy isn’t as talented as Greinke, but there is some potential symmetry here.

One plan could be for Duffy to be in the big-league bullpen for the first few months before going to the minors to transition back to the rotation. But recent Royals history is also full of starters who go to the bullpen, never to return. Aaron Crow is the best current example.

The decision-makers within the organization are split on a lot of things with Duffy. There are differing opinions about his best ultimate role in the big leagues and the best route to get there from here. Duffy is, apparently, fully on board with at least a temporary role in the big-league bullpen and that should be considered, but Moore and his assistants are the ones paid to make the best decisions.

The story of spring training across baseball this year has been injuries to pitchers. And without Duffy, the Royals would have four bad options to patch a hole in the rotation: wear out the bullpen (which would tax the other starters), stretch Wade Davis out in a hurry (which would weaken the bullpen), or plug in Chris Dwyer (who has struggled this spring and has not had extended success beyond Class A ball).

Letting Duffy try out for a bullpen spot is not without merit. He’s scheduled for no more than 150 innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. The Royals are at that win-now stage, and the dream scenario of Duffy going all Greinke and building confidence while saving his arm for a second-half return to the rotation is tantalizing. Duffy is now 25 years old, and sooner or later the club needs to get value.

There is no perfect solution here, and good for the Royals in considering every possibility with an important piece.

But this plan also comes with a hint of desperation, both about what the Royals may see in Duffy and their bullpen. Spring-training struggles of Tim Collins shouldn’t influence Duffy’s career.

In terms of both Duffy’s value

and

a critical season, the most concerning part is that his problems with command and controlling adrenaline are not just red flags against moving to the bullpen — we’re talking about flashing neon signs with tornado sirens.

Nobody knows how this will turn out, of course. Duffy won’t move to the bullpen unless the Royals think he can be a big help. He’ll have three or four chances to pitch in a game before the season opener in Detroit on March 31, and his chances are probably 50-50.

Duffy wants to be a major-leaguer, and he should. But the Royals are a stronger organization with him as a starter.

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