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2018 MLB preview: The Royals’ pitching staff has room to improve in 2018

If a few key pitchers get better, the Royals could have an above-average staff in 2018.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Health is crucial for any pitching staff at the MLB level. Injuries can kill a season before it even starts — sorry, Giants fans — and few teams have the depth to weather more than one significant injury per year. Teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers have been stockpiling depth more than ever for this very reason; it’s rare teams make it through the year with only six or seven starters, let alone the starting five in their Opening Day rotation.

But good health will be especially important for the 2018 Kansas City Royals. Their starting rotation has a chance to be a league average unit (or slightly better) in 2018. Lefty Danny Duffy is one of the best pitchers in the American League when healthy, while righty Jakob Junis is entering his second big league season. Strikeout artist Nate Karns is back as well, while veterans Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel just need to keep the ball in the park.

After that, though? It’s not pretty. This is to be expected given the Royals’ current situation, but will be problematic all the same if one or two starters go down for extended stretches. The bullpen won’t able to save the rotation like they used to either, as they have their own issues to sort out.

Even if they don’t get better, there is room for improvement for this Royals staff. As mentioned, Junis is a year older and wiser. Karns is coming off an injury-shortened season, while Duffy might find another gear. It might not be enough to get the Royals to the playoffs — their offense is kinda bad, y’all — but it certainly can’t hurt.

Pitching at a glance

2017 runs allowed: 791 | 2017 ERA/FIP: 4.63/4.43 | 2017 team fWAR: 12.3
2018 runs allowed projected (PECOTA): 855 | 2018 projected WAR (FanGraphs): 9.8
Note: numbers below are based on FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections.

LHP Danny Duffy

2017 numbers: 146 13 IP, 3.81 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 3.4 fWAR
2018 projections: 175 IP, 4.04 ERA, 4.12 FIP, 2.5 fWAR

Duffy finally realized his lofty potential in 2016, tossing 179 23 innings with a 25.7 percent strikeout rate and a 3.51 ERA. He took a step back in a few different areas in 2017, but none are more concerning than a 1.8 mile-per-hour drop in his fastball velocity. While Duffy, 29, is at the age where velocity starts to decline, it shouldn’t dip that much. This is even more concerning given Duffy’s injury history, including a bout of shoulder tightness that pulled him out of Saturday’s Cactus League start.

Injuries could be especially problematic now that the Royals are headed for a rebuild. Duffy is their biggest trade chip, and probably won’t be a Royal for much longer. He’s under contract for four more years, but that $65 million price tag could get ugly if he continues to have arm trouble. He will be productive in 2018 when healthy, but that caveat (“when healthy”) will always be at the forefront of any conversation about the Royals’ ace.

RHP Ian Kennedy

2017 numbers: 154 IP, 5.38 ERA, 5.61 FIP, -0.2 fWAR
2018 projections: 159 IP, 4.93 ERA, 5.04 FIP, 0.7 fWAR

I told you so. Kennedy had a solid first season in Kansas City back in 2016, holding opponents to a 3.68 ERA in 195 23 innings. He gave up a bunch of home runs, like usual, but generated enough fly balls to limit opponents to a .236 batting average and .308 on-base percentage. Though his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) went down in 2017, Kennedy gave up even more runs and home runs. His 4.67 FIP from 2016 was more predictive than the ERA, and his strikeout rate regressed for the second year in a row. As a result, Kennedy decided not to opt out of the final three years of his current contract, leaving the Royals on the hook for the remaining $49 million. He will still make 30 starts — he has done so for each of the past eight seasons — but it’s worth questioning how good those will be now that he’s four years removed from a sub-4.00 FIP.

RHP Jason Hammel

2017 numbers: 180 13 IP, 5.29 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 2.1 fWAR
2018 projections: 156 IP, 4.80 ERA, 4.74 FIP, 1.2 fWAR

The analysis goes the opposite way with Hammel. After two above-average years with the Chicago Cubs, Hammel’s debut season with the Royals resulted in a 5.29 ERA. However, his FIP was nearly a full run lower, and he walked just six percent of hitters he faced. His .318 BABIP was his highest since his days with the Colorado Rockies despite posting one of the highest fly ball rates of his career. He might benefit from throwing his slider even more, though it might be hard to use it 40 percent of the time for a full season as a starter. Even if he just maintains what he did last season, his ERA should come down.

RHP Jakob Junis

2017 numbers: 98 13 IP, 4.30 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 0.9 fWAR
2018 projections: 140 IP, 4.76 ERA, 4.76 FIP, 1.0 fWAR

Junis wasn’t rated on any top prospect lists during his ascent through the Royals’ minor league ranks, but his statistical profile suggests there might be something here. He was the No. 44 prospect on KATOH’s midseason top 100 list last summer, and he held his own in 98 13 MLB innings. He won’t strike out upwards of 30 percent of batters like he did in a sample of Triple-A innings last year, but his low walk rate should help keep hitters off the basepaths. He too could benefit from a little more slider usage, as opponents hit just .195 with a 15.6 percent whiff rate against it last season. He is coming off an excellent spring training — he allowed a 1.88 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 14 13 innings.

RHP Nate Karns

2017 numbers: 45 13 IP, 4.17 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 0.4 fWAR
2018 projections: 102 IP, 4.45 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 1.2 fWAR

If you’re looking for a breakout candidate on this Royals staff, Nate Karns might be your guy. The 30-year-old has struggled to stay healthy at times — he was limited to just 45 13 innings last year after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery in July — but has boasted strong strikeout rates throughout his career. Even last season Karns was pitching well (4.17 ERA) and striking out batters at a 27.1 percent clip before he succumbed to season-ending surgery. The success rate following that procedure isn’t great, but he looked excellent throughout the spring with 18 strikeouts in 13 23 innings. Even if he maintains what he did in 2017 over 120-140 innings, it would be a major upgrade over their shoddy depth options.

The depth

Health will be a big key for the Royals’ rotation, because there isn’t much quality behind this starting five. Clay Buchholz signed a minor league deal earlier in March, but hasn’t pitched in game action yet. Lefty Eric Skoglund dominated the Tigers in his major league debut last season, but finished the year with an ERA approaching 10.00. Righthander Trevor Oaks had a decent season at Triple-A Omaha last year, but doesn’t project as anything more than a back-of-the-rotation starter. Righty Scott Barlow had a strong season in Double-A with 124 strikeouts in 107 13 innings, but did so at age 24 and struggled in a handful of appearances in Triple-A.

The bullpen

Many expected the Royals’ bullpen to take a step back last year with Greg Holland and wade Davis no longer around. Few expected that drop-off would come from Kelvin Herrera, the remaining member of Kansas City’s vaunted “HDH” ‘pen a few years earlier. Herrera struggled in the closer’s role, walking nearly twice as many hitters as he had in 2016. His ERA also nearly doubled, and he blew five saves in 31 opportunities. He lost his job by the end of the year, but will get a second chance to lock down the ninth inning this year. Behind him will be righties Justin Grimm and Brandon Maurer, the latter of whom was acquired from San Diego at the trade deadline last year. Grimm, meanwhile, was released by the Cubs earlier this month after struggling in 2017. He is just one year removed from a 3.28 FIP season in 2016. Rule 5 picks Burch Smith and Brad Keller could both be in the mix, but the younger Keller might have the edge in a do-or-die situation thanks to his age and superior performance this spring.