They are the defending World Series champions and again competing for the playoffs with a core that will be around at least one more season, so this is all relative, but the biggest hole in the Royals’ organization is obvious three games out of five and often more.
The sport’s greatest small-market success story was built through shrewd drafting, forward-thinking trades, and prioritizing athleticism and power pitching earlier and more than many other organizations.
But their biggest failing is in starting pitching. Their current rotation includes just two homegrown players, and it’s only that many because injuries opened a spot for Danny Duffy.
It’s a particularly curious weakness considering the men in charge. General manager Dayton Moore came from the Braves, who built a 14-year postseason streak on starting pitching. Moore constantly refers to starting pitching as “the currency of baseball.” And, yet, the Royals are tracking to finish in the American League’s bottom third in both rotation innings and ERA for the second consecutive season.
“We ought to be able to develop starting pitching,” Moore says. “We should be able to do that.”
The shortcomings hurt in more ways than the obvious. Free-agency is a notoriously inefficient market, and the Royals have been forced to throw their limited dollars toward starting pitchers.
Including Omar Infante, the Royals are paying 11 free agents from other organizations around $74 million this year, using annual average value of contracts. Two-thirds of that money — $48.8 million — is going to seven men in an effort to fill five rotation spots.
A handful of scouts helped create another way to measure an organization’s ability to develop starting pitchers: Look at the opening-day rotations of every team in the last five years. We added Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement to approximate the effectiveness of those pitchers, and sorted them by their original organization.
The Royals ranked 28th in rotation spots (13), and 16th in total WAR (27.4). That’s perhaps better than many fans would’ve guessed — it’s mediocre, not terrible — but still well below the standard for a club so heavily dependent on amateur scouting.
The measurement does not directly correlate to overall success. The Rangers were the runaway winner, and the Cubs are among the worst. But for an organization built through the draft and international scouting, it is the most significant hole in an otherwise impressive body of work.
When fully healthy, the Royals’ lineup includes Eric Hosmer, Sal Perez, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, and Whit Merrifield. All of them — plus Jarrod Dyson and Brett Eibner — were brought to pro ball by the Royals.
But in the last decade, only three homegrown pitchers — Zack Greinke, Yordano Ventura, and Duffy — have made even 10 starts with an adjusted ERA within 10 percent of the league average for the Royals.
“We fully expect at some point to have a rotation that’s completely homegrown,” Moore says. “That’s our goal. That’s what we want.”
The single biggest problem with the Royals’ ability to develop starting pitching is on a minor-league disabled list because of shoulder fatigue.
If that’s an oversimplification, it’s a small one. When discussing the Royals’ struggles in developing starters, two executives — one with the club, another with a rival — mentioned Kyle Zimmer’s health.
Zimmer was expected to be in the Royals’ big-league rotation two years ago. Instead, shoulder issues have limited him to 74 1/3 innings in the last three seasons. It’s created an empty spot in what organizations hope is a conveyor belt from the minor leagues to the majors.
The Royals aim to have a legitimate prospect pitcher starting every night from Class AA on down, believing in the old baseball line that you need four or five average or better starting pitcher prospects to get one in the big leagues.
Zimmer is a good example here, actually, but he is more the highly talented headliner for a challenge that all big-league teams face.
Baseball people will tell you that the sport’s highest attrition rate is with starting pitchers. Injuries — particularly to the elbow and shoulder — explain only part of it. Sometimes it’s the development of a third pitch, sometimes it’s the ability to navigate a lineup a second and third time, and sometimes it’s the natural sorting out that happens in all positions from one level to the next.
In the last 10 years, the Royals have had 12 pitchers in Baseball America’s annual top 100 prospect rankings:
Dan Cortes never made the big leagues, Luke Hochevar did not stick as a starter (and is now a very good reliever), Aaron Crow is a middle reliever who hasn’t pitched in the bigs since 2014, Chris Dwyer’s career is stalled in the minors, and Zimmer can’t stay healthy.
Mike Montgomery has a 2.51 ERA as a reliever for the Mariners, and could be back in their rotation soon. Jake Odorizzi (technically a Brewers prospect, but debuted with the Royals) looks like a rotation mainstay in Tampa, and John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea all debuted as starters in the last year. Yordano Ventura and Duffy are the only ones still with the Royals.
At the moment, the Royals have some high-ceiling arms in the lower levels but no one poised to breakthrough soon.
If the Royals are failing to produce enough pitching prospects, they are failing a test for which there are no clear answers.
The Rangers push their starters to pitch further into games, and the Rays (14th in starters, fifth in WAR) tend to hold their prospects back a year longer than others. Both have had success producing big leaguers, while otherwise good organizations like the Pirates (30th and 27th), Astros (25th, 23rd) and Cardinals (20th, 18th) have struggled to turn out homegrown starters.
While the Royals have clearly not been able to produce as many big-league starters as they’d like, they’ve been able to navigate the problem better than anyone.
The most obvious is their acquisition and development of so many talented position players, and the construction of one of the game’s best bullpens.
Both approaches have been tailored to Kauffman Stadium, with athletic defenders and the belief that relief pitchers who can command fastballs, attack the strike zone and compete will have more success in Kansas City than other places.
The Royals’ other great success here is in winning the four biggest trades they’ve made involving starting pitchers. They got Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar for Zack Greinke, James Shields and Wade Davis for Wil Myers and others, and last year used pitching prospects to fill the big-league team’s two biggest needs.
They sent Manaea (and Aaron Brooks) to Oakland for Ben Zobrist, and got Johnny Cueto from Cincinnati for Finnegan, Lamb, and Cody Reed. All but Brooks are now starting in the big leagues, so it’s possible both trades will be remembered as wins for both sides.
In that way, Moore held true to that line he’s said so many times about pitching being the currency of baseball. He used it to buy exactly what the Royals needed.
The loss of those prospects, and Zimmer’s sore shoulder, have made the challenge even bigger this year. An organization that’s found fixes in the past must look for one more.