Royals’ Danny Duffy in line to start Opening Day as club remains mum on assignment

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy.

The worst-kept secret at Royals camp involves an Opening Day pitching assignment and a left-hander who sometimes wears a bear suit.

For now, the worst-kept secret is not even here.

Danny Duffy, the droll, jocular, bearded face of the Kansas City starting rotation is in Los Angeles, preparing to watch the United States take on Japan in the World Baseball Classic semifinals Tuesday after helping his country survive on Saturday night against the Dominican Republic.

He allowed two runs (one earned) in a 6-3 victory at Petco Park in San Diego. The performance came after a dominating effort against Canada — four scoreless innings, seven strikeouts — in the first round.

Duffy will not pitch again in the WBC. Yet his upcoming schedule and first regular-season start remain a matter of significant intrigue, especially in Surprise. He is scheduled to return to the mound for the Royals on Friday against the Seattle Mariners in Peoria. The start will come 10 days before the season opener against the Minnesota Twins on April 3 at Target Field. Duffy will be perfectly in line to make his first Opening Day start on regular rest — even if Royals manager Ned Yost is not ready to confirm what amounts to an open secret.

“Read into whatever you want,” Yost said. “We’re still adjusting the schedule.”

For now, however, the schedule is not a coincidence. The Royals intend to evaluate Duffy when he returns to camp, ensuring that his body survived the early spike in intensity at the World Baseball Classic. But barring any setbacks or unforeseen developments, he will be positioned to take the ball against the Twins in Minnesota.

Even the club’s only other candidate for the honor, right-hander Ian Kennedy, is expecting to see Duffy against the Twins on Opening Day.

“I always just figured Duffy was,” Kennedy said.

Duffy would appear to be the logical choice. He emerged as a frontline starter in 2016, posting a 12-3 record and a 3.51 ERA in a career-high 179  2/3 innings. His peripheral numbers were also the best of his career. He struck out 188 batters, besting his previous career high by 75, and cut his walk rate to just 2.1 per nine innings. He signed a five-year, $65 million extension in the offseason, guaranteeing he will remain a Royal through the 2021 season.

Five things to know about Royals left-handed pitcher Danny Duffy.

Yet when it comes to revealing his Opening Day starter, Yost has generally preferred opacity to transparency. Last year, he did not notify Edinson Volquez of his Opening Day assignment until March 26. In 2015, Yost announced that Yordano Ventura would start Opening Day on March 25.

Recent precedent would suggest Yost could be close to naming his choice later this week. But when a reporter asked Yost about the timeline on Sunday, he suggested being at Target Field on April 2 for the Royals’ workout on the eve of Opening Day.

“I’d be in Minnesota if I were you,” Yost said.

On Monday morning, Yost relented, saying that an announcement on the club’s rotation schedule would come later this week. He announced that Nathan Karns would round out the five-man unit. He stopped short of anointing an Opening Day starter.

If Duffy, 28, does begin the season against the Twins, he would mark the Royals’ seventh different Opening Day starter in eight years. Only James Shields held the role for consecutive years. The list also includes Zack Greinke (2010), Luke Hochevar (2011) and Bruce Chen (2012).

“I always think it’s cool when a guy experiences that for the first time,” Kennedy said.

Duffy’s participation in the World Baseball Classic did offer some pause, though Yost stressed that it would not affect Duffy or the Royals’ schedule. Duffy started twice for Team USA and adhered to a workload and pitch counts that would have mirrored his starts in spring training. In his final appearance for Team USA, he threw 74 pitches, still building up toward the regular season. Still, a raucous and competitive environment at the WBC spurred some anxious moments.

“You can say he’d still do the same number of innings and pitches had he been here,” said pitching coach Dave Eiland, noting that Duffy looked a little amped up on Saturday. “But the intensity level is altogether different.”

Back at Royals camp, Yost and Eiland continued the tradition of leaving their starters in the dark in the opening weeks of spring training. Still, the possible regular-season rotation schedule is not always difficult to decipher.

“They just tell us when we’re starting in spring training, and we try to figure it out,” Kennedy said. “(Jason Vargas) was talking about it. Same with Jason (Hammel). They usually don’t tell us.”

During four seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kennedy, 32, made three Opening Day starts, filling the role from 2011-2013. He signed a five-year, $70 million deal with the Royals before last season, recording a 3.68 ERA in 195  2/3 innings in his first season in Kansas City. He has no preference in his rotation spot, he said. But he did relish the experience of Opening Day.

“You jump right in,” Kennedy said. “You don’t have to wait for all those nerves to build up and watch all the games, like, ‘Man, I want to play.’ 

If Duffy starts on Opening Day, Kennedy would likely be slotted second in the rotation, an assignment that could come with a consolation prize. He would be in line to start the Royals’ home opener against the Oakland A’s on April 10.

Jason Vargas and Jason Hammel are set to fill the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in the rotation, in some order, while Nathan Karns is in line to hold down the No. 5 spot. An open date during the first week of the season could allow Duffy to come back on regular rest and start the fifth game of the season at Houston. But Karns would then start on Sunday, April 9, before the home opener the following day at Kauffman Stadium.

For now, the Royals are not committing to any scenario.

“I’ll give it to you all by the end of the week,” Yost said. “I’ll lay it all out by the end of the week.”