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The Great Trainwreck of 2005 (Or the Royals rotation)

In yesterday's entry, I talked briefly about what impact the departure of Mark Redman could have on the Oakland A's 2005 starting rotation. Today, while watching football and chowing down on turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes with marshmallows baked in, I found time to think about what the Royals rotation might look like next season.

The 2004 rotation was an utter disaster, so heading into Spring Training, there are only two pitchers who have a stranglehold on their jobs: Zack Greinke and Brian Anderson. I'm not going to waste a lot of time talking about Greinke's merits to the team, because if you're reading this article, you're either A) A Royals fan or B) A baseball fan to whom I've raved about Greinke. Either way, you probably know all about the 3.85-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the ranges of velocity on his fastball, and his absurd control for a pitcher his age (1.61 BB/9). Unless disaster strikes, the kid's going to be a star in this league for a long, long time.

The other lock, Anderson, had one of the worst pre-All Star break ERA and batting average against numbers I've ever seen, especially for a pitcher with Anderson's solid track record. However, there's plenty of reason to be optimistic that he'll return to his league-average form in 2005. For one, there's little reason to believe that a pitcher who's allowed a career batting average of .287 over 1500 innings will allow a batting average of .320 again. Unless he got old in a big hurry, I don't see that as a possibility. Another reason is Anderson's turnaround in the second half of the season after John Cumberland was fired and Mike Mason was brought in as the interim pitching coach. With apologies for the sloppy table (I'm learning HTML), here's BA's weird season broken up into halves, with his career numbers on the bottom:

ERAH/9K/BB
FIRST HALF7.2314.321.00
SECOND HALF4.179.511.74
CAREER4.7010.112.12

Whether his ERA dropped by 57 percent in the second half was a result of Mason's teachings or just a progression back to his mean will never be known. But the Anderson Royals fans saw after the break was the Anderson they were expecting to see from the get-go: A pitcher with good control who relies on his defense to make plays behind him. He isn't the staff leader Allard Baird envisioned when he signed him, but I think BA will give the Royals 200 innings of league-average pitching, which will make him valuable to the Royals, especially as trade bait.

After Greinke and Anderson, the picture for the 3-5 starters is muddy at best, especially after Darrell May was given a vacation (or reprieve) to sunny San Diego a few weeks ago. The Royals would be well-advised not to give up on Jeremy Affeldt, Starting Pitcher, even though I think he's better suited for short relief. The lack of starters and the dearth of relievers like Nathan Field, Danny Carrasco, Scott Sullivan, and Justin Huisman in my mind should allow Affeldt the opportunity to compete for the third starter spot. Like Anderson, Affeldt suffered through a season that can be best described as bizarre. After making serous progress with his control in 2003, Jeremy was pegged as being one of 2004's sleepers. He ended up sleeping through the entire season, striking out 1.22 fewer batters per nine, and seeing his strikeout-to-walk ratio plummet. The scary thing is that nobody can figure out why he struggled so much.

It's possible that he was plagued with the "disease" that caused every Royals pitcher pitched as badly as they possibly could -- especially when he made starts, because he showed marked improvement as a relief pitcher. But if I had to guess why Affeldt struggled so much as a starting pitcher last year, it was because he tried to pace himself too much by throwing 88-mph with his fastball when he had the ability to throw in the mid-90s. I'm certainly not an authority on stamina when it comes to pitching, but it seems to me that if a pitcher can throw 95, he should throw 95. Maybe he was afraid to "let it go" as a starter for fear that his blister problem might recur. For whatever reason, he didn't cut it loose last year, and I think he'd be a much more effective pitcher with the high-octane stuff.

After Affeldt, there are a bunch of guys who've never really distinguished themselves for one reason or another. Mike Wood did a decent-enough job in 17 starts (at least by Royals standards), and I expect his strikeout rate to rise as he matures. He already has good control and I really like what he did in the minor leagues. I'm going to pencil him in as the fourth starter.

The fifth starter spot is going to be a dogfight between no fewer than four guys already with the team, and Baird's been scouring the market looking for what he calls an "innings starter," which I interpret as meaning an Esteban Loaiza-type. Among the four pitchers who will be candidates (Runelvys Hernandez, Jimmy Gobble, Denny Bautista, and Dennis Tankersley), one will make the rotation, one will be a reliever, and the other two will be sent to the minors or, in Gobble's case, disabled if his back problem doesn't solve itself.

Of those four, I'm most excited to see what Hernandez can do with a brand new ligament in his pitching elbow. It's possible he'll come back throwing harder than ever and with extra break on his slider, which will make him more effective once he re-discovers his control. The Royals will have to be patient with him, because a pitcher's control is usually the last thing to come back after a big arm surgery.

Denny Bautista, in my opinion, still needs to pitch at and master Triple-A before becoming a fixture. And lastly, Tankersley is a guy who I think profiles better as a short reliever. His mechanics always have been and probably always will be not conducive to starting baseball games, and his wicked combination of a mid-90s sinker and hard slider just scream "CLOSER."

The Royals won't be short on quantity to choose from when they break camp next April, but after Greinke and Anderson, they'll be plenty short on quality. Here's the rotation I'd like to see to open next year, with their VORPs to the right:

NAMEVORP
Greinke36.4
Anderson-8.0
Affeldt4.0
Wood2.2
Hernandez11.1*
===========
TOTAL45.7
*2003

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