Opinion

Ask Rustin: A Danny Duffy story, his Cy Young chances, September callups and a perfect Sunday

Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Duffy.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Duffy. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The Royals are 64-60. They have won eight straight, 13 of 15 and now sit just four games out of the second American League Wild Card spot with 38 games to play. They open a three-game series here at Marlins Park on Tuesday night.

But before we get started, here is a quick behind-the-scenes thing about Danny Duffy and this story in Sunday’s newspaper. By now, of course, you know that Duffy is in the midst of the best season of his career. He is 11-1 with a 2.66 ERA, a number that ranks second in the American League. He has won 10 straight decisions. His WHIP (1.01) ranks first in the league among qualified starters. His strikeouts are up. His walks are down. And so on.

All season long, we’ve heard Duffy talk about the changes he’s made — a new breaking ball, working strictly from the stretch, a new approach — but I was hoping to write something a little more comprehensive, so I tracked down Duffy on an afternoon in Detroit.

He was hanging out in the dugout during a rain storm. We did the interview in a tunnel near an indoor batting cage. Talked for about 15 minutes. OK, so usually, this wouldn’t be all that interesting. But after talking about pitching for about 10 to 12 minutes, I segued to the questions he probably knew was coming.

Duffy is set to be a free agent after next season, so I asked him how he would react if the Royals approached him about a possible extension this winter. I asked a couple follow-ups. And the answers are in the story. But here was one part that was hard to convey in the story. After the third or fourth questions about the subject, I had at least one more follow-up, so I said something like: “I don’t mean to dwell on this, but … ”

And that’s when Duffy cut me off.

“We can dwell on it,” he said. “Because I could sit here and talk about this all day.”

So, yeah, it was just one moment from a 15-minute interview. So many factors go into contract negotiations and possible extensions. And basically every athlete ever will say they are open to a long-term extension — which brings the opportunity for guaranteed money and financial security.

But in this case, Duffy wanted to make it clear. He was sincere about this.

So on to the mailbag. The podcast recommendation is “Everything is Coming up Podcast!” and the random album recommendation is Phosphorescent’s “Muchacho”.

There is something called the Cy Young Predictor, a formula created by Bill James and Rob Neyer, to forecast Cy Young balloting. Right now, it is not very favorable to Duffy, in part because of the innings he has thrown.

Duffy won’t be able to make those innings up over the last month of the season, but he will be able to make his total look a little more respectable. He could also be helped by the fact that, for now, there isn’t a clear-cut favorite. In fact, when parring down a list of contenders, it’s hard to stop at five.

But here are five that could challenge Duffy (The list doesn’t include Baltimore closer Zach Britton, Chicago’s Jose Quintana, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber and Boston’s Steven Wright, all who have a reasonable case):

 
IPERARecordFIPfWARK/9
Danny Duffy138 2/32.6611-13.663.29.54
Chris Sale168 2/33.1515-63.434.18.8
Cole Hamels160 2/32.813-43.992.48.91
Rick Porcello1653.2217-33.6937.47
J.A. Happ150 1/33.0517-33.892.67.96
Michael Fulmer125 2/32.5810-43.662.47.45

There are a lot of moving parts here and a lot of different scenarios. Royals general manager Dayton Moore has said the club could use the designated hitter spot as a way to keep Mike Moustakas and Cheslor Cuthbert involved. Cuthbert could also slide over to second base at times if Raul Mondesi struggles to hit.

Here are a couple things to remember:

1. It’s a long time until spring training next February and the Royals will have to make some other decisions this offseason that could factor into their infield alignment in 2017.

2. Kendrys Morales will likely become a free agent in the offseason and the Royals’ payroll is projected to increase again next season — even before possible free-agent acquisitions. That offers some incentive to find an internal replacement at designated hitter.

3. Alcides Escobar has a $6.5 million team option for 2017 and a $500,000 buyout. It is not easy to find shortstops, and all things considered, $6.5 million is not particularly expensive. But Escobar is in the midst of another sub-par offensive season, and, according to the FanGraphs’ version of WAR, he’s been the worst every-day shortstop in the American League.

In one scenario, the Royals could look to dump Escobar in a trade — the return would likely not be sizable — then slide Mondesi to shortstop and Cuthbert to second base. But one thing to keep in mind: For all of Escobar’s offensive struggles, this strategy likely has more risk than some fans might want to acknowledge.

Mondesi has not yet proved he can hit at the major-league level, and while Cuthbert’s range and defense at second base would likely be a downgrade from even Christian Colon. In other words: Mondesi is still 21 and club officials are confident his bat will develop with time. But are we sure he’d be an offensive upgrade over Escobar in the short term?

Again, it’s a long time until spring training. But the most likely scenario probably involves Escobar returning at shortstop, Mondesi starting at second base and Cuthbert getting regular at-bats while logging time between DH, third base and second base.

Good question. I think Whit Merrifield will be back. Terrance Gore as well. At one time, the Royals were hopeful that Bubba Starling could be an option in September. And his speed and defense could play in a role off the bench. But after a rough season at Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, it’ll be interesting to see what they do there.

If he is healthy, Scott Alexander could be back in the bullpen. Same goes for Kris Medlen and Jason Vargas. Brooks Pounders could return as well. And then there is right-hander Alec Mills, who is on the 40-man roster and could also be an option if the Royals are looking for depth in the bullpen.

One name I didn’t mention: Hunter Dozier, who is batting .303 with 15 homers and an .884 OPS in 95 games for Class AAA Omaha. Dozier is not on the 40-man roster, meaning the Royals would need to make a corresponding move to create space. But that would be somewhat easy. Luke Hochevar, who had season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, could just be moved to the 60-day disabled list.

1. Two-on-two basketball, played outside, two and threes to 21. If sand volleyball can be a thing, this should be, too.

2. They should also have more weird running events. If swimming is going to have all these strokes, there should be a 100-yard back pedal and one even where you just have to hop along the track on two weeks. That kind of thing.

Let’s start with a caveat: This answer doesn’t include something obvious or cliche like golfing with my dad or a day at the beach with your family. This is the kind of Sunday you can pull together at the last minute. So here we go.

First of all, this Sunday is in September or October. It’s the fall. 72 degrees. A little breezy.

I would wake up around 8:45 a.m., try to wake up while reading the paper and watching the first 10 to 15 minutes of “Meet the Press.” Around 9:15, I walk down the street and have breakfast at Happy Gillis. Drink some coffee. Read some more news. Try to find some longer piece to read. Order the breakfast sandwich. Maybe a bloody mary. But only one. Because …

After about two hours of that, there’s randomly a pickup basketball game in some park around noon. (Huge.) The court is good. The rims are solid. The game is good. The breeze dies down a little. And we play for like two hours.

After that, you go home, regroup for an hour or so, and then find a bar with a nice patio, good TVs and a jukebox. And for the next three to four hours, you get a good group of people, lounging on a patio, playing songs on the jukebox while NFL games play in the background.

Perfect.

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