Can new additions help starting staff take step forward?

February 2nd, 2024

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers’ Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

KANSAS CITY -- We’re nearing the end of our around-the-horn series ahead of Spring Training, and this next group will look fairly different in 2024.

It was the biggest focus of the Royals’ offseason: the pitching. As a whole, this unit ranked near the bottom of baseball in ERA (28th, 5.17) and strikeout percentage (26th, 20.7%), as well as in the bottom third in walk rate (21st, 9%) in 2023.

So today we’ll dive into the rotation, which had a 5.12 ERA (27th) last year and will be seeking much improvement.

Previously: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF

Projected starters: Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha, Cole Ragans, Brady Singer, Jordan Lyles

Lugo and Wacha headlined the Royals’ offseason additions and will spearhead the rotation this season. Both bring unique skill sets to Kansas City, but fit the profile that the Royals looked for this winter: Experienced, proven starters who throw strikes and minimize walks.

During their time with the Padres last year, Lugo had a 6% walk rate and Wacha a 7.8% walk rate. Both have questions surrounding them; Lugo is 34 years old (although he's only thrown 641 career innings because he's primarily been a reliever) and Wacha has missed time with injuries over the past several seasons. But they are two reliable arms and will offer the improvement the Royals need.

Lyles returns for the final year of his two-year contract. His team-leading 177 2/3 innings were valuable last year, but his 6.28 ERA and -1.3 bWAR simply did not help. There’s been talk about his offseason program focusing on finding more velocity, so time will tell if and how that helps him this season.

Having those three in the rotation takes pressure off Singer and Ragans, the young starters of the group. Singer will be looking to return to his 2022 form after posting a 5.52 ERA in '23, while Ragans will look to build on his breakout year, posting a 2.64 ERA in 12 starts upon joining the Royals via trade. Ragans' ability to further develop his slider will be key for the 26-year-old.

Depth options: Daniel Lynch IV, Alec Marsh, Angel Zerpa, Anthony Veneziano, Jonathan Bowlan

Here’s what’s different about these backup options compared to years’ past: It’s good depth. Lynch has 252 innings of big league experience and could very well pitch his way into the rotation with a good and healthy spring. Zerpa has pitched in the big leagues in three different seasons. Marsh got a taste of the bigs last year and has potential to be a Major League starter. With that depth, the competition is much tougher for a spot on the pitching staff this spring.

Any of these players can also be moved to the bullpen for a multi-inning role. With excellent springs, Marsh, Veneziano or Bowlan could pitch their way into a bullpen role or be at the top of the rotation in Triple-A Omaha.

Kris Bubic is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and will be eyeing a return by the middle of the season. Where he fits will be determined based on what the staff looks like then and if there’s a need in the rotation.

Question to answer: How far can Lugo and Wacha take the Royals?

Neither Lugo nor Wacha is seen as a bona fide No. 1 starter, but their arrival to Kansas City is significant for a small-market team that just lost 106 games in 2023. There are still plenty of questions surrounding the two and it remains to be seen just how much they’ll help the Royals take the next step forward. There’s been a lot of talk about their stuff, their experience and their leadership -- now that talk has to translate to the field.

The focus might be on the new additions, but improvements from the young starters can really help the Royals in 2024, whether that be Singer returning to his ‘22 form or Ragans continuing to grow after a dominant second half last year.

The other question heading into the spring is who might be able to force their way into the rotation. The starting five seems set heading into Spring Training, but you never know what’s going to happen over the course of those six weeks. Does everyone stay healthy? Who outperforms expectations and forces their way into the conversation throughout the spring? There will still be a lot of intrigue surrounding the rotation once we get to Arizona.

Who else is in the Pipeline?

The Royals invited Chandler Champlain (No. 11) and Mason Barnett (No. 12), two of their older top pitching prospects, to Spring Training this year -- not to compete for a big league roster spot, but to get the experience. The right-handers had stellar 2023 seasons, earning promotions to Double-A by season's end, and will likely make it to Triple-A by the end of this year.

Barnett, selected in the third round of the 2022 MLB Draft out of Auburn, was the Royals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year after posting a 3.30 ERA and 28.3% strikeout rate across 23 starts in High-A and Double-A. Champlain, acquired in the Andrew Benintendi trade in ‘22, posted a 3.33 ERA across 25 starts in High-A and Double-A, with a 22.8% strikeout rate and a 7.8% walk rate.

Other top starting prospects to know: RHP Ben Kudrna (No. 3), LHP Frank Mozzicato (No. 4), RHP Blake Wolters (No. 9), RHP Luinder Avila (No. 29).