KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 13: Starting pitcher Luke Hochevar #44 of the Kansas City Royals warms up prior to the start of the Royals home opener against the Cleveland Indians on April 13, 2012 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
For Kansas City to become a true team to be reckoned with, starting pitching must the top priority for the Royals in the off season.
That is what separates the Kansas City Royals from taking the next step from a promising young team to a true up and coming squad that is ready to compete. In many ways the Royals are much like the Tampa Bay Rays were five years ago, except the Rays have been able to develop and move their young pitchers to the major league level with success.
In the post Zack Greinke era, we have seen Danny Duffy come up and have modest success this far while Mike Montgomery's minor league career seems more like he is just treading water at times. Though he is just 22, it seems like Montgomery has to be a pitcher in his mid 20's as long as Royals fans have been hearing about him and yearning for him to reach Kansas City.
Aaron Crow was a top 10 selection that has moved on to the bullpen, and Luke Hochevar, the first number one overall draft pick in Royals history, has shown flashes of being a quality starter at times, but is often held back because of a blow-up inning. For his career, hitters are batting .253/.320/.409 against Hochevar in innings one through three, those numbers move to .281/.343/.462 in innings four through six. In the sixth inning in particular, batters have a .515 OPS against Hochevar.
Looking at a comparison, Max Scherzer, who was also drafted in the first round of the same 2006 draft, has almost identical numbers in the first three innings as Hochevar. The first time through the lineup, batters hit .247/.318/.408 against Scherzer, but in the fourth through sixth innings, batters hit .275/.342/.438.
They are similar numbers, and really they are similar pitchers statistically but it means that Hochevar is leaving the ball in areas where more players are getting extra base hits in comparison to Scherzer. The numbers get even further apart as we get into innings seven through nine.
Some have pointed the finger at current Boston Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure during his time in Kansas City, and some have questioned the Kansas City organizational stance against long toss programs. I am not in the position or have any inside knowledge to know where to directly point fingers, but I will say blunders have been made over time. The Royals did make a positive step forward by many accounts this winter when they hired former Detroit Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp as a roving minor league pitching coordinator. Remember this guy has the experience of helping mold Justin Verlander into what he has become today.
For the Royals to take the next step, they need a true frontline arm. Think about teams who have risen from mediocre or worse baseball in the last decade, and they all have one or more starting pitchers who has the ability to dominate more often than not.
In 2006, Tampa Bay, Miami, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Arizona, Texas, and Washington all finished below .500 for the season. At the current moment, all are pretty solid or even great teams. Now there is more than pitching involved in their resurgences, but all have quality front line starters. Tampa Bay has an abundance of arms lead by David Price and James Shields. The Miami Marlins have Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. The Brewers have Greinke and Yovani Gallardo. The Giants and Rangers have a stable of pitchers, while the Diamondbacks have Trevor Cahill and Ian Kennedy. The Nationals feature the downright filthy Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. All have two or more pitchers who are, or have been borderline star pitchers in the league. The Royals meanwhile have the modest Hochevar, a raw Danny Duffy, and a host of spare parts.
Kansas City can run out a roster of equivalent number four and five pitchers to the mound, and still have a shot to finish around .500, but until the squad has the pitchers they can truly send out every fifth day and say our starting pitcher is a better pitcher than yours, the Royals will not be able to get over the hill and onto the next obstacle.
Looking at the roster next season, for the Royals to compete for anything beyond a .500 record, they need to make moves for quality starting pitching additions. There is hope, as free agency after this season features roughly a dozen starting pitchers on the market who are arguably better than anything Kansas City has at the current moment.
The time is now, and it's time for the organization to act. The gears are in place, but without the oil to put them in motion, the Royals are not going to reach the peaks we all have aspirations for.
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