Right before Fan Fest, the KC Royals announced the signing of free agent right-handed pitcher Ian Kennedy. Kennedy will slot in with returnees Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez in the front of the Royals rotation. Earlier in the offseason, they re-signed Chris Young, and after how he pitched in the rotation in 2015, he should be given every opportunity to start in the fourth slot.
So that leaves one rotation spot open with a few intriguing candidates.
Last offseason, the Royals signed Kris Medlen to a two-year deal with an option for 2017. Medlen returned to the Majors in the summer after recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. He is set to make $5.5 million plus $6 million more in incentives, so he should be the front runner for the final spot in the rotation…if he is fully healthy.
Despite being on the postseason roster in 2015, Medlen only pitched twice (and just one inning in the World Series). If he can pitch anything like he did in Atlanta before TJS, it could be another special year in Kansas City.
Lefty Danny Duffy will once again be given every opportunity to start. He has a leg up because he is left-handed and the Royals do not have a left-handed starter penciled into the top half of the rotation (or really any other legitimate candidates in camp).
However, Duffy has yet to prove that he can stick in the rotation for a full season without breaking down physically, mechanically, and/or mentally. If fellow lefty Tim Collins is not fully recovered from TJS, Duffy may fit better in the bullpen, which is something I believe he is better suited for. Or the Royals could choose to send him to Triple-A Omaha to start regularly (if they still see him as a starter).
Medlen and Duffy are the front runners for the final rotation spot, but that does not mean there won’t be competition from the others in camp (if the Royals allow it). Let’s look at the other contenders, ie “the long shots”:
These two are top prospects, but are tagged with “are they starters or are they relievers”.
Kyle Zimmer has great stuff but cannot stay healthy. The Royals used Zimmer as a reliever in the minors in 2015 when he returned to the mound to limit his innings and to keep him healthy. I’m not sure his arm can hold up with the wear-and-tear of a 150 inning season, let alone 200 innings (he has thrown just 216.2 innings since signing in 2012). Miguel Almonte has stayed healthy, but lack of command of all of his pitches limits how deep he can go into games (130.2 innings is the most he has thrown in a season and that was in 2013). That lack of command may force him to the bullpen for good.
The next three contenders are all 2013 TJS survivors.
The lone lefty is Matt Strahm, who was a strikeout machine in 2015 (121 in 94 innings at two levels). The ball is hard to pick up out of his hand for opposing hitters. But like the above prospects, will Strahm start or will he relieve? Strahm did both in 2015 after being a starter all throughout college and he excelled at both.
Right-hander Alec Mills spent the entire 2015 season in High-A Wilmington’s rotation and put up All-Star numbers. Though he gives up his share of hits (122 in 113.1 innings in 2015), he keeps the ball in the ballpark (just 11 home runs in 266.2 career minor league innings). Mills also does not walk batters (54 in his career).
Fellow right-hander Brooks Pounders is a non-roster invitee. With the injuries behind him, he is a workhorse. Pounders earned a big league invite with his second half of 2015, culminating with Pitcher of the Week honors in the Arizona Fall League and pitching for Team USA in the Premier 12 Tournament.
Pounders is just one of about six non-roster invitees who could compete for a starter’s spot.
A year ago, I would have penciled in right-hander Christian Binford into the Royals rotation this season. He seemed to be on the fast track to the big leagues, and then 2015 happened. Binford was hitting the upper 90s with his fastball in spring training (he barely topped 90 mph in 2014) and was pushed to Triple-A Omaha to start the season. Things did not work out, he was sent to Double-A NW Arkansas, and then he got hurt and did not pitch after August 15. This is a big year for Binford in putting his career back on track.
Lefty Jonathan Dziedzic barely touches 90 mph with his fastball but continues to get hitters out as he climbs the Royals minor league ladder. After an All-Star first half in 2014 with High-A Wilmington, Dziedzic dominated the second half of 2015 in the Texas League. Now he just needs to put the whole season together, and that could happen this year.
Then there are the veterans newly signed by the Royals and brought to camp.
There are two lefties: David Huff and John Lannan. Huff has both started and relieved in the big leagues and may be best suited for a swing role. Lannan is a guy who gives a team innings, but does tend to get hit around. He has not pitched in more than 14 games in a big league season since 2011 and he did not pitch in the Majors last season.
Veteran right-handers Dillion Gee and Chien-Ming Wang round out the rotation candidates. Gee’s opt-out date is when spring training games begin, so I think he moves to the front-of-the-class in terms of rotation candidate favorites with Medlen and Duffy. Gee is trying to work himself back to the big leagues after missing out on the Mets World Series run in 2015.
Wang doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. He’s old (he will turn 36 at the end of March) and he has not pitched in the big leagues since 2013. He also has not pitched consistently well in the minors since 2013. Maybe being reunited with pitching coach Dave Eiland will help?
Then late last week, the Royals signed two more veteran pitchers: lefty Brian Duensing and right-hander Ross Ohlendorf. I think both can fill the swing role (like Huff), but most likely will pitch out of the bullpen (there will be more on them later in the week).
*My pick: Medlen because in all honesty, why did they sign him?