“Cactus Royals” Preview: Starting Pitcher Rankings

Now that I have done previews for all the Royals position players, I will move onto the pitchers, beginning with all the starting pitchers who are currently at Royals camp in Surprise. One thing that is different with the pitchers posts is that I actually rank all the starting pitchers at camp in regard to projected impact at the big league level in 2021. Thus, I ranked them essentially into four tiers:

  1. “The dependables”: These will be starting pitchers who not only will for sure be at the MLB level, but should have a strong impact on the Royals rotation in one way or the other.
  2. “On the cusp”: These are starting pitchers who probably won’t start out the year at the MLB level, but could eventually emerge as options in the Royals rotation with strong starts to the Minor League season.
  3. “More likely in 2022”: The pitchers in this tier could make their way to Kansas City in 2021 if they do well and there’s an opportunity due to injury or a collapse. However, it’s more likely that these pitchers will be in the Minor Leagues for the entirety of the year.
  4. “Non-impact guys”: These are starting pitchers who are in camp, but it seems highly unlikely that they will make much of a contribution to the Royals rotation at any point in the near future (though they could be possible bullpen options).

So let’s take a look at the Royals starting pitcher tiers as well as the rankings in these tiers. I do understand that these pitcher rankings may be a bit polarizing, but I do think this how the Royals starting pitchers will be in regard to importance and impact going into 2021.

The complete spreadsheet can be found at this link here. Projections come from PECOTA (DRA) or ZiPS (FIP).

The Dependables

  • 1. Mike Minor (Projections: 4.57 DRA; 4.29 FIP)
  • 2. Brady Singer (Projections: 4.79 DRA; 4.64 FIP)
  • 3. Brad Keller (Projections: 4.94 DRA; 4.61 FIP)
  • 4. Kris Bubic (Projections: 4.95 DRA; 4.47 FIP)
  • 5. Daniel Lynch (Projections: N/A DRA; 5.17 FIP)
  • 6. Danny Duffy (Projections: 5.18 DRA; 4.72 FIP)

Minor tops my Royals starting pitcher rankings for 2021 as we enter Spring Training. Yes, Minor struggled last year, as he posted a 5.56 ERA in 12 appearances and 56.2 IP between the Rangers and Athletics, according to Fangraphs. Despite that, the Royals offered Minor a two-year, $18 million contract with a club option for a third year, expecting him to offer a veteran presence to the rotation along with Duffy. That being said, while Minor’s mentoring will be valuable, will he be worth the money in regard to production on the bump?

My guess is yes and then some.

Projections favor Minor the most out of any Royals starting pitcher going into 2021, and it’s justified. Over the past two seasons, no Royals starting pitcher has produced a higher WAR (5.1) than Minor. Even Keller, who has been the Royals’ best starting pitcher the past two years, still produced a lower WAR (3.5) than Minor, which goes to show how productive the left-hander has been recently, even with a rough year last season.

One important thing that could work in Minor’s favor is that he still proved to be apt when it came to generating strikes, as his CSW (called strike and swinging strike rate) was 31.2 percent last year, the second best mark of projected Royals starting pitchers, and 5.4 percent higher than Keller. Minor in 2020 was killed by a low strand rate (62.9 percent) and high HR/FB rate (15.7 percent) last season, and it’s possible that a larger sample (162 rather than 60) and a more pitcher-friendly environment (Kauffman vs. Globe Life Park…well at least for half the season) will help Minor bounce back in 2021 and perhaps be the pitcher he was in 2019 (4.1 WAR) and 2018 (2.5 WAR).

Picking between Keller and Singer was tough for the No. 2 spot, but I decided to go with Singer over Keller, even though Keller has the better track record. Yes, Keller has succeeded with questionable metrics, and David Lesky of Inside the Crown made some great points that Keller is a unicorn that perhaps deserves an extension despite his questionable metrics (I thought his Trevor Cahill comparison was spot on, as Keller’s early career does remind me of Cahill’s first few seasons in Oakland). However, Singer was impressive last year, and he also did post the highest CSW of any Royals starting pitcher last year, and that was despite his struggles with two-strikes, as chronicled by Mikey Ajeto of Pitcher List. I think Keller will continue to be good, but I’m not sure if he’s a 2.47 ERA pitcher again or even a sub-4.00 ERA pitcher. On the other hand, I could see Singer surpassing his projections, especially over a full season as he gets more comfortable against big league hitters. Honestly, I was tempted to put Singer No. 1, but it was hard to put him over Minor considering the latter’s history and CSW ability.

Bubic takes the No. 4 spot, as he probably will see some gains, but it’s a bit unpredictable in terms of how much he will improve in 2021. ZiPS seems to like him more than PECOTA (vice versa for Singer). However, Bubic seemed to display some command issues last year, and his 47.7 percent first pitch strike percentage was nearly 13 points lower than Singer’s. Bubic did finish the year strong, but I feel less confident about his command and control than I do about Singer’s and Keller’s.

To round out this tier, I put Lynch at No. 5 and Duffy at 6, which may seem a bit bold considering Lynch has not pitched at the MLB level just yet. However, the velocity seems to be real from Lynch, and he has been turning not just the front office and coaching staff’s heads early this spring, but has even garnered the attention of starting catcher Salvador Perez:

Furthermore, here’s a look at Lynch throwing live this Spring, and even though it is far away, it still looks like an impressive session nonetheless.

While Lynch may pale in experience in comparison to Duffy, I am not sure how much left in the tank Duffy has as a starter. I think Duffy is motivated this year, especially with him getting the chance to wear Yordano Ventura’s old number (No. 30), and him being in the last year of his current contract. That being said, I just don’t know if he’ll remain as an option in the rotation for much longer, especially with Lynch and Jackson Kowar looming. Furthermore, Duffy had some of the worst projections of the Royals projected starters for 2021, and that also made me think that further regression may be in store, especially over a full 162 game season.

It may just be a matter of time before Duffy moves to the bullpen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is something that happens by July or after the All-Star break. Thus, I think Lynch, who may be up sooner rather than later, will have a bigger impact on the rotation in 2021.

On the cusp

  • 7. Jackson Kowar (Projections: 5.32 DRA; 5.01 FIP)
  • 8. Ervin Santana (Projections: N/A DRA; 5.14 FIP)
  • 9. Carlos Hernandez (Projections: 5.69 DRA; 5.29 FIP)
  • 10. Ronald Bolanos (Projections: 5.61 DRA; 5.14 FIP)
  • 11. Asa Lacy (No Projections)
  • 12. Angel Zerpa (Projections: N/A DRA; 6.76 FIP)

Kowar leads the second tier at No. 7 overall, though he may be the most likely of this bunch to have an impact on the Royals rotation in 2021. Marcus Meade of Royals Farm Report wrote a great piece on Kowar, which can be found on Twitter below:

To summarize, Kowar’s fastball could make or break his outlook in 2021 and maybe beyond. He throws gas, with a fastball that sits in the 94-96 MPH range. However, as mentioned in the article, there are release point issues with his fastball, and thus, hitters have been able to pick it up easily and thus, hit it with authority. This explains his struggles in last year’s Summer exhibitions and Cactus League games, and it will be interesting to see if he has made any adjustments with his release point or mechanics this off-season in order to improve that fastball. Hence, that is why Kowar is at No. 7 and leads off the “On the Cusp” category: he has serious potential, but also a lot of question marks as well in comparison to the other Royals top starting pitcher prospects.

Santana comes in at No. 8 as he could be a low-cost option who could provide some insurance for the rotation (or possibly bullpen). Santana will be a one-year option at best, and while his velocity seems to look good this Spring, it may be difficult at 39-years-old to keep this up for an entire 162 game season. That being said, at his age and contract status, he could move up quickly to the rotation, much like Matt Harvey a year ago. Hopefully, Santana will end up better for the Royals than Harvey.

Hernandez and Bolanos come in at No. 9 or No. 10, respectively, and it was a tough call between the two. I like Bolanos a lot, and think he could improve in 2021 with some more seasoning in Triple-A Omaha. However, I was impressed with how Hernandez came in last year and did okay despite having not pitched above Low-A Lexington prior to last year. Hernandez also had a better CSW last year (26.7 percent) than Bolanos (19.2 percent), and that prompted me to give the slight edge to Hernandez, who I think has a slightly better chance to be a starter than Bolanos, with the latter probably more likely to have a quicker route to Kansas City through the bullpen.

Lacy comes in at No. 11 and I know that looks questionable considering he’s the No. 2 prospect in the Royals system according to some experts. However, it seems like Dayton Moore is going to be conservative with Lacy this year, especially after no Minor League season, and a truncated college campaign:

Despite this news, I still do think Lacy could be on a fast track to the Majors in comparison to most rookies without Minor League experience. However, I think a lot of chips will have to fall in his favor (great campaign in the Minors combined with injuries or ineffectiveness at the MLB level) for him to make his MLB debut in 2021, and he most likely won’t compete for a rotation spot until 2022.

The last one in this tier at No. 12 is Zerpa, who I added because he’s on the 40-man roster. I am not sure if Zerpa will get a serious opportunity to make the active roster this year, but he’s on the 40-man roster, which give him an edge (at this moment) over some other pitchers on this list (since the Royals will not have to burn a roster spot to bring him up). That being said, the primary purpose for Moore adding Zerpa to the 40-man was to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, and it is likely that the Royals will focus on development with Zerpa in the Minor Leagues this year rather than try to rush him.

Most likely in ’22

  • 13. Jonathan Bowlan (Projections: 5.47 FIP)
  • 14. Austin Cox (Projections: 5.94 FIP)
  • 15. Jon Heasley (Projections: 6.05 FIP)
  • 16. Alec Marsh (Projections: 6.74 FIP)

These four pitchers offer some potential, but it’s likely that they will be more serious options to compete for rotation spots in 2022 rather than next year. Furthermore, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that one or more of these arms could be trade pieces as well, and could be dealt by the trade deadline should the Royals still be in the playoff hunt in the Central in 2021. (Also, wouldn’t be surprising to see one of these names included in the deal for Benintendi as one of the “Players to be Named Later”.)

Bowlan comes in at No. 13 and Cox is at No. 14, and it was definitely a tough choice between the two. Bowlan slightly edges out Cox as I like that Bolwan had sub-2 walk rates in the Minors in 2019, which shows his pinpoint control, which will be important as he makes the transition to Double-A in 2021. However, I know Cox is rated as a higher upside prospect than Bowlan by some, and his left-handed status gives him an edge as well.

Originally, I was not all that high on Heasley as I worried about his athleticism and how it would progress as he got older. However, Heasley has been making noise this Spring already, as evidenced by this Tweet below:

Heasley will most likely join Marsh in High-A Quad Cities this year, and those two could be an impressive duo at the top of the River Bandits rotation. Marsh had a great season in Rookie League Idaho Falls, and he was expected to move quickly in the Royals farm system last year prior to the cancellation of the Minor League season. If Heasely and Marsh do well in the Quad Cities, it would not be surprising to see one or both of them make their Double-A debut sometime in late July or August.

Non-Impact guys

  • 17. Scott Blewett (Projections: 5.89 DRA; 5.97 FIP)
  • 18. Eric Skoglund (Projections: N/A DRA; 5.16 FIP)

First off, I didn’t even know Skoglund was still in the Royals system. While I do hope that the former top Royals prospect can figure it out at the MLB level, I find it highly unlikely that it will happen. Thus, it is unlikely that Skoglund will have much of an impact this Spring, and honestly, it would not be surprising to see him in another organization by season’s end.

Blewett on the other hand is a tougher case. I am still not convinced he’ll have a whole lot of impact on the Royals rotation in 2021, especially considering his struggles in Triple-A Omaha in 2019. Blewett did make his MLB debut in 2020, and he didn’t embarrass himself, as he struck out four and only walked one in three innings of work. However, he did post a 6.00 ERA and hitters posted an exit velocity of 92.9 MPH on batted balls, which shows that they had some problems giving up hard hits, which also plagued him in the Minors in 2019. Blewett has showed flashes of being a decent pitcher, as he did have an impressive Arizona Fall League campaign in 2018, with solid outings such as this one below:

My guess is that Blewett could find a spot in the bullpen in the next year or two, which may be a better fit. However, he’ll probably start in the Storm Chasers rotation in 2021, and hopefully, for his and the Royals’ sake, he’ll have a much better campaign this time around than in 2019.

(Photo Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)

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