With rotation reeling, Royals require immediate pitching help
Teams looking to move a starting pitcher before next Friday’s non-waiver trade deadline should reach out to Royals GM Dayton Moore immediately. Among the 10 teams currently occupying playoff spots, none has a worse rotation ERA this season than Kansas City, which has a 4.32 mark that ranks 24th in all of baseball. Worse, the reinforcements the team was anticipating this month—via the returns of righthander Yordano Ventura and lefthander Jason Vargas from injury—have quickly gone up in smoke. The former, who hasn’t turned in a quality start since May, was lit up by the Pirates on Monday and optioned to Triple A on Tuesday only to be recalled on Wednesday after the latter threw just 26 pitches before tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow in the second inning of Tuesday's game.
Demoting a talented and temperamental young player like Ventura was unlikely to have been a decision the organization took lightly. It's thus a strong commentary on the Royals’ rotation depth, or lack thereof, that he was recalled before making even a single appearance in Triple A. Their other option to fill Vargas's spot was Joe Blanton, who won two games as a starter earlier this year and was impressive in relief against Pittsburgh on Tuesday night—striking out five against no walks and allowing just two singles in 3 2/3 innings—but he has been below average now for years. The veteran righty was torched for nine runs in 7 2/3 innings in his other two starts this season and has posted a 77 ERA+ in 86 starts and 13 relief appearances over his four most recent campaigns; he didn't pitch in the majors in 2014 after being released by the Athletics in mid-April.
The team’s other in-house rotation solution, former Braves ace Kris Medlen, gave up four runs in 3 1/3 innings in relief of Ventura on Monday night in his first major league appearance since 2013. Medlen actually pitched far better than that line would suggest: He struck out four Pirates against no walks, threw 71% of his pitches for strikes and displayed velocity that actually exceeded his previous level (91.8 mph versus 90.7 in '13, per BrooksBaseball.net). However, he is coming off his second Tommy John surgery, and the list of pitchers who made a successful return to starting after a second Tommy John surgery remains limited to Chris Capuano.
As for Ventura, he has struggled all season. The righty has turned in just four quality starts, none of them consecutive, in 14 turns and experienced a drop in his signature velocity (his average fastball falling from 98.2 mph last year to 96.7 this year). Mix in his early-season issues with cramps and his temper and the ulnar nerve irritation in his pitching arm that forced him to the disabled list for nearly a month, and it’s not a huge surprise that Kansas City decided to give him some time in the minors to get straightened out. He won’t get that opportunity now, however. Instead, he’ll slot right back into the major league rotation knowing his team isn’t convinced he belongs there after allowing 15 runs in 15 innings over his last four starts, two on either side of his DL stay.
The Royals have some additional depth in 24-year-old lefty John Lamb, 25-year-old righty Aaron Brooks, 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan and minor league veteran Yohan Pino, all of whom have passed through the 25-man roster at least once this season. However, the most impressive of that bunch thus far this season is Lamb, who was called up as Kansas City’s 26th man for last Friday’s doubleheader only to be returned to Triple A without having made his major league debut.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Royals’ rotation doesn’t inspire much more confidence. Danny Duffy has had good results in four of five starts since returning from biceps tendinitis in late June, but while his last three outings have all been quality outings, he has walked seven men against just five strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings in that span. Jeremy Guthrie’s 5.36 ERA was inflated by the 11 runs he gave up in one inning against the Yankees on May 25, but it's still 4.42 in his other 17 starts, and his strikeout percentage (11.9) is the third worst in the majors among qualified pitchers. Since joining the rotation full time on May 10, Chris Young’s strikeout percentage has been 14.2, also among the lowest in the majors, and he has averaged just 5 2/3 innings per start over that span, recording an out in the seventh in just two of 13 turns. Vargas was more of the same, striking out just 5.7 per nine innings with a 3.98 ERA this season, figures in line with his typical performance over the previous five seasons (3.92 ERA, 5.9 K/9).
In light of those performances, Edinson Volquez has emerged as the team’s ace by largely replicating his 2014 performance, but the advanced metrics continue to insist that his results are unsustainable. While Volquez has posted a 3.13 ERA since the start of '14, his Fielding Independent Pitching figure over the same span has been an even 4.00, and Baseball Prospectus’s Deserved Run Average calculates that Volquez should have been charged with 3.91 runs per nine innings based on his performance. Part of the problem is a below-average strikeout rate; worse, Volquez's lack of strikeouts isn't even helping him pitch deeper into games, as he has failed to average six innings per start.
On the season, Kansas City’s rotation has averaged the second fewest innings per start in the majors (5.5, besting only the Rockies) and posted the fourth-lowest strikeout-per-nine ratio in the majors (6.10, edging only the Twins, Blue Jays and Rangers). Given the quality of their bullpen and their defense, the Royals have been able to succeed despite those low strikeout and innings totals, but that means that their bullpen is already maxed out in terms of workloads. Indeed, only the Diamondbacks have required more innings per game from their bullpen than K.C.'s 3.4 per game, with Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson all on pace to appear in 70 or more games this season and lefty Franklin Morales a possibility to reach that figure as well. That leaves little to no leeway for the Royals' bullpen to compensate for additional shortcomings in the rotation.
The solution, then, would seemingly be a trade for a starting pitcher, particularly one who eats innings. Consider in this context just how valuable James Shields was for Kansas City over the last two seasons, not only because he was an above-average starter, but also because he devoured innings. Shields led the AL with 228 2/3 frames in 2013 and finished fourth in the league in that category last year, ultimately throwing 252 innings between the regular and postseasons. The Royals weren't shy about trading top prospects to get two years of Shields prior to the 2013 season, and it should not be shy about trading top prospects for a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter now, even if it’s only for a three-month rental.
Kansas City is a good young team and something close to a lock on a playoff spot (84.1% chance of winning their division and 93.4% chance of a playoff berth as of Wednesday morning, per Baseball Prospectus’s Playoff Odds). Still, it the Royals want to go deep into October again, they need to keep their best bullpen arms fresh and have at least one starter that the other team doesn’t want to face in an elimination game. Volquez is not that pitcher, and unless a miracle occurs, neither is Ventura. That pitcher is currently suiting up for another team, and Kansas City has nine days to find a way to get him.