The dilemma comes down to arithmetic. There are five spots in the Royals’ starting rotation. By early next week, barring any unforeseen injuries, ailments or freak occurrences, the club will have seven pitchers competing for those positions.
For a club with championship aspirations, the desire to win each day trumps all other sentiments, general manager Dayton Moore explained.
Implicit in his message: If pitchers like Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy replicate their first-half struggles, either man could lose time in favor of veteran Kris Medlen. As the second half begins, the Royals hold the American League’s best record and carry a 4 1/2-game lead in the American League Central.
“We’re in a position to compete to win our division,” Moore said in a telephone conversation. “We want to make sure that we’re running our best guys out there every single day. The rotation, from top to bottom, has been an area of evaluation for us. It hasn’t been a concern, really, because we’ve had people step up and do it. But we’ve had to continue to evaluate what we’re doing and who we are and who’s throwing the ball well.”
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The group remains in flux. Moore intended to conference with manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland before Friday’s doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox to formalize a plan to reintegrate Medlen and Jason Vargas into the roster. The next two weeks should provide some clarity on the rotation’s composition. So the first five games of the break could serve as a showcase for Duffy, Ventura, Chris Young, Edinson Volquez and Jeremy Guthrie.
The team must activate Medlen, who has made six starts on a rehabilitation assignment from his second Tommy John surgery, by Monday. Moore indicated the club was “leaning toward” activating Vargas from the disabled list for his next outing. Vargas has been out since June with strained flexor muscle in his left elbow. That could come as early as Tuesday, given a vacancy in the pitching schedule created by Friday’s doubleheader.
And then, of course, there is the trade market, where the Royals are expected to be active. The team has shown interest in Reds ace Johnny Cueto, according to rival executives, but they are also expected to pursue almost all the available pitchers on the market, including even White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija.
Samardzija will start the first game on Friday for Chicago. Many in the Royals clubhouse consider him a loathsome figure, a player who antagonized them from Oakland’s bench during last year’s Wild Card Game and played a substantial role in the fireworks between the Royals and the White Sox in April. The front office may have a more charitable view of Samardzija, especially if it believes the Royals’ defense can improve his 4.03 ERA.
Yet there will be plenty of teams striving for pitching help before the July 31 trade deadline. Few possess internal options like Kansas City.
Their surplus shunts aside other in-house candidates. Joe Blanton has acquitted himself well enough, with a 4.50 ERA after sitting out all of 2014. Like veteran reliever Jason Frasor before him, he may lose his roster spot this week. Brandon Finnegan also likely will be optioned to the minors as Medlen and Vargas return.
At Class AAA Omaha, former top prospect John Lamb is striking out more than a batter per inning with a 2.68 ERA. The Royals held him out of the Class AAA All-Star Game on Wednesday because the team could use him as their 26th player in the second game of Friday’s doubleheader.
“We haven’t made the decision yet,” Moore said. “But we just wanted to keep all of our options open.”
In the same vein, Moore insisted the team still has not determined a role for Medlen. The most likely scenario involves him pitching as a reliever. Medlen is under contract for 2016, and the team wants to be cautious in deference to his injury history.
But Medlen has shown flashes of his former greatness during his rehab outings. He pitched seven scoreless frames for Class AA Northwest Arkansas on Wednesday. Moore indicated the team had not discussed the possibility of a six-man rotation.
“It’s a fluid situation, obviously,” Moore said. “We need Duff and Ventura to pick it up for us. But we’ve got some options. So we’ll just have to wait and see.”
The Royals designated Ventura and Duffy as their top two starters to open the season. Ventura has dealt with injuries, emotional outbursts and lingering inconsistency. He has a 4.73 ERA. Duffy missed a month with shoulder soreness. He has posted a 2.66 ERA in four starts since returning from the disabled list.
Both Ventura and Duffy have minor-league options. Each could contribute as a reliever, given the swing-and-miss potential of their pitches. Young began the season in the bullpen. He could return there, even though his 3.24 ERA as a starter is the team’s best.
Guthrie, 7-5, 5.36 ERA, provides the organization with little value as a reliever. His ERA is a full run higher than it was in 2014. Yet Moore lumped him in with Volquez and Young as sources of veteran stability for their rotation.
So the arithmetic remains the same. Five spots. Seven pitchers. These next two weeks before the trade deadline should prove instructive on Kansas City’s plans.
“I’d rather have too many than not enough, for sure,” Moore said. “But ideally, you want to get five guys out there and go to the post every fifth day with the same guys.”