The KC Royals Battered Rotation - Tigers Are Lurking
It can be fairly said that perhaps the most important four men for baseball bettors to be evaluating right now are the four individuals who comprise the core of the Kansas City Royals starting pitching. The Royals are attractively priced right now at 8-1 to win the American League pennant. That's a good number for a team with plethora of talent that's not only young, but established as winners on the postseason stage. And the American League is filled with flawed teams at the top. But do the Royals have the pitching to make it?
Let's begin by acknowledging that while Kansas City's starting pitching has been problematic, it's not the main reason they trail the Cleveland Indians by four games in the AL Central. The offense has been surprisingly anemic, ranking just 13th in the 15-team American League in runs scored. But it seems reasonable to think that a lineup with Lorenzo Cain will hit much better than he has to date and that Alex Gordon will provide a big lift when he returns from the disabled list soon.
So for the sake of this discussion, let's assume the Royals can be counted on to at least produce a league-average offense by the time all is said and done and the bullpen remains the lights-out unit that has dominated the American League playoffs for two straight Octobers. Can their starting pitchers keep leads until the seventh inning? Let's look at the current arms for the Royals, both their current performance and their historical track record...
*Edinson Volquez (16 starts, 5.15 ERA): Volquez has been a big disappointment so far this season after posting ERAs in the 3s each of the last two years. Even allowing that those years were on the high end of his career arc, the Royals could surely expect at least something akin to his career ERA of 4.35, couldn't they?
Well, maybe not. Since Volquez blazed on the scene in 2008 with the Cincinnati Reds by winning 17 games with a 3.21 ERA, he's had some wild ups and downs. In 2011 and 2013 for example, he finished with ERA on the wrong side of 5.70. So he's certainly got the talent to pitch better, but he's been worse and is very unpredictable.
*Ian Kennedy (14 starts, 4.19 ERA): Kennedy was KC's big offseason pickup for the rotation and they had analytics data that suggested a big year for him. Maybe that will happen, but the odds are that this is as good as it gets. Kennedy's terrific 2011 season where he won 21 games with 3.21 ERA is...well, it was in 2011. This season is much more typical of what he's been since.
*Yordano Ventura (14 starts, 4.54 ERA): This is the worst ERA of his short three-year major league career. Based on that it's easy to say he'll get better. But this continues a path of Ventura getting progressively worse, going from 3.21 to 4.08 and now 4.54. The fact his own clubhouse didn't really back him up after a highly publicized brawl with Manny Machado in Baltimore suggests the Royals are losing patience.
*Chris Young (10 starts, 5.61 ERA): There's the most hope for improvement here, since Young's ERA the last three seasons (after he came back from a couple injury-riddled years) is almost two runs lower. But Young is also 37-years-old. What if this is the bottoming out point?
Perhaps the biggest problem Kansas City has is that the market for starting pitching at the trade deadline is filled with mostly mediocre names, at least so far. The Royals, being a small-market team with a lot of goodwill built up among the fan base, are not likely to overpay for some average help.
That leaves futures players in a conundrum. The quality of the Royals' bullpen and their clutch mojo is beyond dispute. Their offense is likely to come around. The price is reasonable if the expectation is simply getting to the World Series rather than winning it again. But do they have enough starting pitching? Your assessment of the four names above will determine how you view this team, and given their prominence, the entire American League landscape.
The Detroit Tigers have been lurking all season long, always in the picture in the AL Central, but never at the center of the picture. In a division where everyone has problems - Cleveland lacks offensive depth, Kansas City has starting pitching problems and Chicago is heavily reliant on Chris Sale and Jose Quintana - finding a team like the Tigers as a 4-1 shot just to win the AL Central is a good number. But there's only value in a number that wins, so here are the questions baseball bettors need to ask themselves right now about Detroit...
*How will J.D. Martinez play when he returns from the disabled list? Martinez was having a terrific season with a .358 on-base percentage and .520 slugging percentage. An elbow fracture has him out until the end of July. Assuming that he returns on schedule (in of itself a risky game of assumptions), will the elbow be healthy enough for him to keep driving the ball for power?
*What are the chances Cameron Maybin keeps getting on base at his current .413 OBP clip? We'll save you a lot of analysis on this one. How about no chance? This is nearly a hundred points higher than Maybin's previous career high and at 29-years-old there's no reason to think he's suddenly putting it all together. The strong first half will ensure this is Maybin's career year, but a significant down stretch has to be factored into any second half expectations.
*Can Nick Castellano keep hitting for this kind of power? The third baseman is slugging .511 and it might be easy to give the same answer here as we did for Maybin. But let's not be too hasty. Castellano is only 24-years-old and this is his third year in the majors. His slugging jumped from .394 to .419 last year and you can make a case this is a logical point in his career for a big breakout season. We're open to that possibility. We're also concerned that throughout Castellano's minor league career his power was up and down.
*Moving over to the pitching staff, can Michael Fulmer continue pitching like he has? This is a huge question because the staff ranks 13th in the American League in ERA in spite of the pitching-friendly dimensions of Comerica Park. Fulmer's 2.40 ERA in 11 starts for his rookie year is the big bright spot. Here's the bad news - Fulmer spent six years in the minor leagues and in only one of those seasons did he ever pitch this well. Will major league hitters start catching up to him?
*Will Anibal Sanchez pitch better? Sanchez was awful, with a 5.97 ERA and he got banished to the bullpen. He's getting a chance to come back this weekend, and it's easy to look at his track record and assume he'll bounce back. Sanchez has never been this bad. But there's two problems - one is that he was never as bad a 4.99 ERA until he did exactly that last year. Maybe he's just coming to a premature end to his career at age 32. The other is whether he'll get the necessary time to figure it out. Reports out of Detroit are that he may not get more than two starts to re-establish himself.
Detroit has its share of reliable players. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are as spectacular as ever offensively. Jordan Zimmerman is steady, albeit unspectacular in the rotation. And on the flip side the bullpen has been a mess for the better part of five years with no reason to think it will suddenly turn around. The questions above are the ones that will define Detroit's season and whether or not that 4-1 price to win the AL Central is a good one.
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