Mention the future of the Kansas City Royals and the words "bright" and "strong" come to mind. Remember that's what travelers on the Titanic believed as well.
Everyone is all smiles aboard the U.S.S. Royals, and there's good reason to be. Their farm system is the most celebrated in all of baseball, and that was before they signed the highest upside draftee in last week's MLB Draft in Bubba Starling. Some of the top prospects are hitting the majors earlier than expected, and the results have been solid for Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy and Mike Moustakas. But acquiring the right talent is only part of the puzzle. The way those prospects are utilized is the other half of the equation.
It's that last part that's bad news for Kansas City. As of game time Thursday, the Royals rank second in the American League in innings pitched with 624. For perspective, the Twins are dead last with 583. The important stat inside of this, however, is found in total innings logged by KC's starting pitchers: 389. That's dead last in the league. That's worth reiterating. The Royals are pitching a lot. The Royals starters are not -- to the tune of 62.3 percent of total innings pitched, the worst in the AL.
Young starters like Vin Mazzaro and Sean O'Sullivan haven't maintained any command at the major league level to earn a strong spot and both were usually pulled early. Kyle Davies only lasted 41 innings in 9 starts. Danny Duffy is only lasting five innings each time around, and Nathan Adcock was the same. Jeff Francis is a steady veteran, so there's some life left there. But perhaps it's Luke Hochevar who still stands as the most compelling option the Royals have in the rotation to continue to burn enough innings to give the pen a break. Even with a near 5.00 ERA, an outing like his last one against the A's bring hope for solid long-term returns. Then again, that shows just how bleak things are for KC's starting pitching in the first place.
It's not enough to get the young players to the majors; you also must handle them in the right way. And burning out arms in the bullpen isn't going to help anyone in the future. Thus far, the amount of pitching Aaron Crow, Tim Collins and others have had to take on might be fine, but what's the case in August when the Royals will clearly be sellers heading into the second half and might even be missing players like Jeff Francis or Bruce Chen? It's at that point that young hurlers like Duffy might be taxed even more heavily through pitch counts or bullpen arms become even more overused.
This might sound a bit dramatic, but championships are won on the strength of a pitching staff. The San Francisco Giants just won a World Series pennant several months ago with a patchwork starting line-up that included castaways from other line-ups like Pat Burrell and Miguel Tejada among others. The reason? Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez and Brian Wilson. Even in the AL, Tampa Bay perennially finished last even with promising hitters like Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton in the line-up. It wasn't until 2008 when their pitching staff turned the corner and Matt Garza arrived that they suddenly won 90-plus games.
Building a team takes time, of course, but the proper planning should have been executed before this season to have an anchor for the rotation to eat up innings. While Francis was a means toward that end, it definitely was not enough and that was predictable before the season started. Another two pitchers should have been acquired when plenty of cheap help was available on the market (a la Chris Capuano, Brad Penny, Dustin Mosely). Instead, Ned Yost is left to make the most of a bad situation and hope that arms aren't injured or, worse yet, ruined in the process.