One of the more fascinating questions for Kansas City Royals fans going into 2021 may be this: what will the Royals do with Danny Duffy in 2021?
The big issue for the Royals is that Duffy wasn’t terrible in 2020. In a weird, shortened season, Duffy produced one of his better seasons, and with one year remaining on his contract, it seems like the Royals would be better off riding it out with Duffy in the rotation for at least one more season, especially considering the lost Minor League season a year ago (which makes it riskier to call up Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, or Asa Lacy). However, it seems to be more complicated than Royals fans would like to believe, and thus, Duffy continues to be one of the more fascinating stories as the Royals enter the off-season.
Let’s take a look at what could happen to Duffy this off-season, and the odds of those possibilities as well.
Option 1: The Royals trade Danny Duffy
In this day and age, where starting pitching is a premium, Duffy remains a valuable asset in the Royals organization. Duffy did go 4-4 with a 4.95 ERA in 11 starts and 56.1 IP. Thus, it seems that, at the surface, Duffy has at least one more year in him to be at least a “league average” starting pitcher at the Major League level. Even though he has regressed from that 2016-2017 self the produced a contract extension (he accumulated a 6.5 WAR over those two seasons), Duffy has posted WAR values of 1.2, 1.3, and 0.6, the last three seasons, respectively. While those numbers aren’t “eye-popping” by any means, they are good enough for an average MLB starting pitcher.
And hence, a “good enough” pitcher may be enough for another MLB team. At this time, the Los Angeles Angels, San Diego Padres and even the New York Yankees could be enticing locations for Duffy. Duffy is a So-Cal guy, and I imagine he would relish the opportunity to be back home and pitching for a team in the area such as the Angels or Padres. Furthermore, both teams have playoff aspirations (though only the Padres have delivered), and Duffy would fill an immediate need to help stabilize their rotations, which were inconsistent this season (though that was mostly due to injuries down the stretch for San Diego).
As for the Yankees, though he will see more pressure in the regular and postseason, especially from a fan base that has little patience for mediocrity. However, it would not be a long-term locale, and he would be on a playoff contender, which could motivate him to perform, especially if he wants to earn a contract from another club in 2022. Hence, pitching in the pinstripes could help Duffy perhaps channel his best self, which could benefit not just Duffy and his future as a MLB starting pitcher, but the Yankees and their desire to get over the hump in the playoffs.
Prediction: 10-15% possibility. Duffy has some trade value, and it’s possible that he could command a decent amount on the trade market if available. His value is especially amplified considering he’s on the last year of his deal. However, Duffy is not an “elite” starter by any measure, and that could suppress his trade value this off-season, which is why I keep this possibility under the 20 percent range.
Option 2: Make Duffy a reliever
If the Royals cannot trade Duffy this off-season, moving him to the bullpen seems to be the most popular thought. Duffy struggled when he faced the opposing lineup the second and third time through the order in 2020. Case in point: he posted a 3.24 xFIP when facing a lineup the first time around, while a 6.27 and 6.29 xFIP when facing an order a second and third time around, respectively.
Safe to say, once hitters got used to him, Duffy continued to struggle. And thus, it’s not surprising that in 2020, Duffy was a Royals pitcher who had his troubles getting past the fifth and sixth innings of the games he pitched. For a Royals team trying to figure out who can benefit this club in the future, Duffy struggles to fit the bill.
Thus, it seems like Duffy would be better set for the bullpen. His 7.50 K/BB ratio and 10.95 K/9 rate through the first time of the order shows how dominant Duffy can be out of the bullpen if given the opportunity. Honestly, it’s possible to think that Duffy could perhaps be a “Will Smith-esque” reliever out of the bullpen in 2021. He may not be good enough to be the primary closer (though with Josh Staumont and Jesse Hahn available that might not be needed), but good enough to be the second-best or third-best reliever out of the Royals bullpen. Furthermore, with new rule changes (facing at least three batters), Duffy is a lefty who can get right-handed hitters out, which makes him more valuable than most left-handed relievers currently on the Royals 40-man roster.
Prediction: 25-30 percent chance of moving to the bullpen. Duffy would be better suited in the bullpen, and his rough patches against batters the second and third time around through show that Duffy would be better off in relief work. However, so much depends on what the Royals do this off-season. The bullpen was a strength of the team last year, and I find it unlikely that they will mix things up in that area. Furthermore, if they don’t add any starting pitching via free agency, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Royals ride it out one more year with Duffy in the rotation.
Option 3: Keep Duffy as a starter
Duffy certainly wasn’t “lights out” by any means as a Royals starter in 2020. While he posted some of the best K/BB ratios of his career, Duffy struggled to keep the ball in the yard, as he posted a 1.60 HR/9 and a 0.70 GB/FB ratio, both the worst marks in his career. And thus, with”juiced ball” and other similar allegations, it seems like the Royals would be better off trying to find a possible starting pitcher who could do a better job keeping the ball on the ground and out of the yard.
The Royals do not have a budget to re-sign every free agent available on the market. Last winter, the Royals certainly had their fair share of options, but those options ended up spurning the Royals for other deals. The Royals are not expected to compete seriously in the next season, as a third-place finish the AL Central should be enough to spur celebration, especially over a full 162-game season. However, the Royals, at the end of the day, are questionable on starting pitching. At this time, it seems difficult to identify with any certainty that the Royals have a set 4 and 5 option in the rotation after Brad Keller, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic in 2021.
Hence, to Royals fans, it makes sense for the Royals to bring Duffy back for at least one more year as a starting pitcher and let him finish out his contract. He has the contract flexibility (only one more year to go), sports decent command and control (which should improve over time), and he has the experience as well as the chops to elevate his pitching as a starter, especially over the course of a full 162-game season. However, despite his high fly ball rates in 2020, Duffy continued to excel in a lot of areas (especially in regard to strikeout rate). And yet, despite all this questions and uncertainty of the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Duffy still managed to be a successful starting pitcher for the most part in 2020, which should give up to future Royals fans. Is he a 3-4 WAR pitcher like he was in 2016? Of course not. But he has all the tools to be at least a decent end-of-the-rotation option in the Royals rotation, or at least hold down the fort for half a season until Lynch or Kowar or Lacy is ready.
Yes, I am in the camp that Duffy should be a reliever in 2021, especially when looking at his advanced metrics. In fact, Duffy is regressing in terms of production, and it’s only a matter of time before things hit the fan, which could happen as soon as 2021 (especially over a 162 game season). It would make sense to transition a former starter, much like Jesse Hahn or Kyle Zimmer in 2020, to the bullpen to acquire long-term and lasting success. However, the Royals need insurance in the rotation for now. And unless Dayton Moore signs a free agent to shore up the end of the rotation, Duffy will have to do, even if he may be a 2.0 WAR pitcher, tops.
That being said, if the Royals could make considerable gains with Duffy on the Royals in the AL Central in 2021 (even for half as season serving as a placeholder for one of the young guns in the system), not only will Royals fans suddenly be enthralled, but it could give them hope that they are on that Braves and Rays track as initially hoped by optimistic Royals fans. The days of Duffy being a top-of-the rotation guy are “long gone” and as stated before, I am not sure if Duffy will (or even should) make it through the whole season in the rotation. However, the Royals will utilize Duffy in whatever fashion that helps the club the most, and at this time, that seems to be as a starting pitcher.
Prediction: The Royals should have a good shot at bringing Duffy back to the rotation for a fourth consecutive season. The Royals most likely will move slow with their new starting pitcher prospects, and start them in Double or Triple-A (the latter in Kowar’s case, probably the former in Lynch’s case; Lacy could be a High-A Wilmington candidate). Furthermore, the Royals would benefit from letting Duffy work from the end of the rotation rather than at the top of the rotation in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot, which he has had to do this year. At this point, unless the Royals bring in a free agent (though that still seems to be in play), it is a 40-50 percent chance that Duffy returns as a starting pitcher in Kansas City. If they do bring in a free agent starting pitcher, I think that that percentage gets cut in half, and his reliever percentage ticks up a bit as well.