If I gave you 30 guesses to tell me what team's pitching staff leads the majors in strikeouts, how many would it take until you came to the Kansas City Royals? That's right, through the first week and the first seven games, the Royals have struck out 71 opposing batters (although there are a few games in progress as I am writing this). We assumed the bullpen would be solid with the likes of Tim Collins, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland but it has been the starting rotation that has really stood out. The starters are averaging 6 innings per game and 3.75 ERA. In five of seven games, they allowed one run or fewer and have walked only six batters. The offense is young and full of talent but the rotation will decide whether the Royals are contenders or pretenders.
The addition of James Shields seemed to have been overshadowed by the fact that Royals parted ways with top prospect, Wil Myers, to acquire him. He gives them the closest thing they've had to a number one starter since Greinke and I actually like Shields more than I like Greinke. Shields has thrown more than 200 innings each of the last six seasons and he surpassed the 200 Ks mark in both 2011 and 2012. He's added about 2.5 mph to his fastball since he came into the league to go along with his ridiculous changeup and he has excellent control (career K/9 of 2.09). With a seemingly improved arsenal, his ability to limit walks, a workhorse body and a good young crop of position players (both offensively and defensively); Shields looks to be in line for another stellar season and I believe he will be worth the price.
The rest of the rotation seems to be where doubt and skepticism creep into the situation. Ervin Santana is coming off one of the worst seasons in recent memory posting a 5.16 ERA and a 4.48 xFIP. His K/9 decreased while his BB/9 went up and his slider lost its effectiveness. He was plagued by the long ball and was unable to strand runners at the rates he has in the past. Having said that, Santana had a decent spring and has shown some encouraging signs in his first two starts of 2013. While he did give up three home runs in his first outing, Santana has only walked two hitters in 14 innings. Though it's a small sample, Santana is inducing more swings and misses with his slider as it's changing plains in addition to its sweeping motion. If Santana can limit the homeruns, he could be a surprise this year and post numbers closer to 2010 season (3.92 ERA and 178 Ks in 228 innings).
Jeremy Guthrie is one of my favorite pitchers in baseball and I was sad to see the Orioles trade him before the 2012 season. It's not that I think Guthrie is one of the best pitchers in the game but he's a great guy and can be an important piece to a winning team. Guthrie has never shown flashy stuff or posted an ERA below 3.60 but he averages over 200 innings pitched over a full year and most of those are quality innings. Last season was a tale of two halves for Guthrie as he posted a 6.35 ERA with Colorado before becoming one of the best pitchers in the league during the second half of the year. Of course his exit from Coors Field was a welcome one but Guthrie also benefitted from working with Kansas City pitching coach, Dave Eiland. Guthrie is a very pedestrian fantasy pitcher with little upside but in deep leagues and/or leagues in which you need a fill in, you can do worse.
Lost in the "Dayton Moore is an idiot!" reactions that ensued after "The Trade" was the other piece that the Royals received for the Wil Myers package, Wade Davis. Davis is the type of acquisition that gets overlooked and has the potential to swing the trade to heavily favor the Royals. After making 29 starts in both 2010 and 2011, the Rays moved Davis to the bullpen in 2012 and he shined. He had mild success as a starter at age 24 and 25 pitching in the AL East so the Royals are giving him a chance to once again take the mound every fifth day. His velocity jumped almost 2 mph in 2012 and the Royals are hoping he can retain some of that increase similar to Phil Hughes after he returned to the rotation in 2010. He didn't have a great start in his first appearance as a Royal, giving up nine hits (including two homeruns) and four runs in only four innings, but he didn't walk a batter and he was throwing his changeup well. If he can continue to do that, he will have a three pitch arsenal (with his fastball and curveball) that should help him reach the number two starter potential he was touted as having in the minors. Davis may struggle some but I think he has the most upside of anyone in the rotation in terms of return on investment.
Luis Mendoza won the fifth starter spot out of camp (though it was more a case of Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen losing the competition than Mendoza actually winning it) and performed well in his first start, at least in terms of fantasy baseball. He went six innings and allowed two hits but walked three batters in the process. Walks have been the Achilles heel for Mendoza who is the owner of a 3.32 BB/9 rate. For a player who doesn't strikeout many batters, it is important to keep runners off the base paths. He generates a good number of ground balls and doesn't give up many homeruns so he is usually able to avoid huge blowups but it's reasonable to expect and ERA in the low to mid 4.00's with around 6.00 K/9 and a few wins. Mendoza is nothing more than and AL only option with the possibility for a few extreme matchup plays as a spot starter.
The Royals have a few other options in their bullpen that can fill in if they are in need of a starter in Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen. Neither name gets fantasy owners excited and both are better suited for the bullpen but it gives the Royals a little depth if they need it. They also have Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino recovering from 2012 Tommy Johns surgeries. Both have a chance to pitch late this season and I like the upside for both. Paulino has intriguing strikeout potential and Duffy was a member of the super-system of a few years ago that was touted as one of the best farm systems in years. Keep an eye on both later in the season as some options that may be able to help down the stretch or options to stash cheap in keeper formats.
The Royals will be an interesting team to watch this year as we should finally start to see some of their young players take another step forward from last year. If the pitching staff can continue to pitch quality innings and turn the ball over to the bullpen with leads, I think the Royals have as good of a chance as any in the AL Central to finish behind the Tigers and possibly win a wild card spot. The rotation is the key to the big league club but don't look for them to bolster your fantasy team. Shields is a stud and there are things to like about Santana and Davis, but Guthrie is a better "real life" pitcher and Mendoza doesn't deserve much attention. Plus, sometimes it's a lot more fun to watch a team when you don't have anything invested and you're just along for the ride.