Ace Ventura: A Shields-less Royals’ Rotation

It’s time for our Depth Chart Discussions to begin. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will begin breaking them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find them gathered here.

The Kansas City Royals’ rotation lost its staff ace this offseason as James Shields moved on to greener pastures, and by greener, I mean he signed a contract with the San Diego Padres worth $75 million over four years with a 2019 team option. The 33-year old was the only member of the American League pennant winner’s rotation who bested a 3.0 WAR (Shields posted a 3.7 WAR), and one of only two starters to eclipse 200 innings pitched (Jeremy Guthrie was the other). Beyond the absence of Shields, the rest of the rotation is likely to feature four familiar faces, at least to open the year.

Our depth charts show Yordano Ventura atop the rotation, and he’s easily the most interesting starting hurler. Ventura’s rookie season was a successful one, which he finished as the 46th ranked starting pitcher. The young flame-thrower topped all pitchers in average fourseam fastball velocity at 98.24 mph per the BP PITCHf/x leaderboard, yet his power arm yielded just the 37th highest strikeout rate (20.3% K) among qualified starters. Judging by his 10.3% swinging strike rate, tied for the 20th highest mark among qualified starters, there might be some strikeout upside for Ventura to tap into. An uptick in strikeouts would be welcomed as it would help offset a likely drop in ERA from a 3.20 mark in 2014 that bested all of his ERA estimators. Ventura checked in as the 61st ranked starting pitcher on our Top 300 fantasy player rankings. I’m a bit more bullish on his 2015 stock having ranked him 45th, but even that doesn’t line up with his NFBC ADP where he’s being selected 31st at the position on average. The 23-year old right-handed pitcher looks like an over-draft candidate.

The second most valuable returning member of the rotation is Jason Vargas, who totaled a 2.6 WAR. At this point in his career Vargas is what he is. The southpaw is a soft tosser who succeeds by limiting walks, missing just enough bats and relying on his fielders to create outs. The 32-year old is likely to pitch to the tune of a high-3.00s to low-4.00s ERA with a league average-ish WHIP and a below league average strikeout rate.

Guthrie, the right-handed version of Vargas, is in the final year of his three year, $25 million contract. Guthrie throws harder than Vargas, but his formula for retiring batters is roughly the same. Unfortunately for Guthrie, he misses fewer bats. The former first-round pick has been a reliable source of innings, but he hasn’t finished a season with an ERA south of 4.00 or a WHIP below 1.30 since 2010.

The last returning member of the rotation is Danny Duffy. He made 31 appearances for the Royals, six in the bullpen and 25 starts. As a starter, Duffy managed a misleading 2.55 ERA. His underlying statistics from last season paint a less rosy picture of his 2015 outlook. Duffy finished last year with a 3.92 FIP and an even uglier 4.45 SIERA. The BABIP and HR/FB gods shined down favorably on the lefty last year, and regression is almost certain to rear its ugly head this season and topple his ERA in the process. Steamer projects Duffy’s ERA to slide to 3.88 in 2015. The young starter throws hard averaging 94.19 mph with his fourseam fastball last year per Brooks Baseball, but only his slider coaxed empty swings at a double digit percentage (11.30%). His lack of a true put-away offering leaves me bearish on his strikeout potential this year.

The Royals biggest offseason addition to their rotation was Edinson Volquez. His 2014 performance was unlike anything previously demonstrated by the veteran pitcher. Volquez sacrificed strikeouts to walk fewer batters posting a full season career low strikeout rate and career best walk rate. That said, his 8.8% walk rate was worse than the 2014 league average of 7.6%. Volquez’s 3.04 ERA was more than a full run lower than all of his ERA estimators. Again, that’s despite his new found control. Even the slightest dip in preventing free passes coupled with a rise to his .263 BABIP (a .295 BABIP was the league average last season and .298 is his career mark) could leave Volquez without a rotation spot before season’s end.

Colleague Eno Sarris has previously pointed out since 2011, the average team uses 10 different starting pitchers over the course of a single season. With that in mind, there are three pitchers on the Royals who are projected to open the year outside of the rotation who are interesting to varying degrees.

Kris Medlen is the man projected on our depth charts to throw the most innings of the intriguing trio. Medlen was non-tendered by the Braves, and the Royals inked him to a two-year contract with a mutual option for a third year as he rehabs in the hopes of returning to the mound from his second Tommy John surgery. Royals general manager Dayton Moore has stated that a return from Medlen in the second half of the season is a good guess. There isn’t an extensive list of starting pitchers who have successfully returned from a second Tommy John surgery, but J.J. Cooper of Baseball America pointed out a handful of success stories that at least provides some hope Medlen isn’t doomed. For now, Medlen is a disabled list stash option in large leagues or any league with multiple DL slots.

A pair of possible relievers, Brandon Finnegan and Luke Hochevar, should also be on AL-only gamers’ radars. Finnegan was selected in the first round of the 2014 June Amateur Draft and quickly ascended to the majors, playing a prominent role in the bullpen down the stretch and into the playoffs. He made only five minor league starts spanning 15 innings at the High-A level before the Royals jumped him to Double-A and fast-tracked him to the majors by using him in the bullpen exclusively. His success in the pen could prompt the team to keep him in the majors in that capacity, but it’s also possible he’ll be stretched out and developed as a starter in the minors. Regardless, he’s unlikely to start for the parent club out of the gate.

Hochevar, on the other hand, shouldn’t be dismissed as a potential starter. Prior to signing Volquez, Royals manager Ned Yost spoke at baseball’s Winter Meetings about the possibility of Hochevar being brought into spring training as a starter. Yost pointed to the fact working as a starter could be less taxing on Hochevar’s surgically repaired (he missed last year due to Tommy John surgery) elbow. The former number-one pick in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft has failed miserably working as a starter throughout most of his career, but in his last healthy season, 2013, Hochevar was filthy in the bullpen.

The right-hander was 14th out of 135 qualified relievers in strikeout rate fanning 31.3% of the batters he faced in 2013. He was also stingy serving up ball four walking only 6.5% of the batters who stepped in against him. Hochevar can largely thank a streamlined repertoire for his dominant season. The University of Tennessee product used a power pitcher’s mix to overwhelm hitters throwing just 16 changeups out of over 1,000 pitches thrown in 2013, per Brooks Baseball. His increased velocity came as the result of working in shorter bursts and pushed his fouseam fastball’s and sinker’s whiff percentages above 10% (10.29% and 13.04%, respectively). His cutter was already a big bat-misser but reached beastly status generating a 19.19% whiff rate. Finally, his repertoire was rounded out with a curveball that generated a career best 15.93% whiff rate. Hochevar wouldn’t be the first pitcher ever to figure it out in the bullpen, and problems that might result from his lack of a good changeup to neutralize left-handed batters could be mitigated by his throwing two breaking balls with different break. It’s a small sample, but the 138 left-handed batters he faced in 2013 managed just a .266 wOBA. Hochevar should already be drafted in large mixed-leagues or AL-only formats to improve ratios and pump up strikeout totals as a reliever, but there might be upside beyond that.

You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.

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Great title, solid read