Royals mulling options for Opening Day starter

February 16th, 2020

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Sure, it’s probably way early to be discussing an Opening Day starter for the Royals.

But with the club having its first four pitchers in the rotation -- right-hander , left-hander , right-hander and left-hander -- a lock, it seems like just a formality for new manager Mike Matheny to announce that Keller will get the Opening Day nod on March 26 in Chicago against the White Sox.

Keller, after all, is the ace of the staff. And he started last year’s opener, getting the win over the White Sox by throwing seven shutout innings.

But not so fast, Matheny cautions. It’s a decision that hasn’t been made.

“When we announce that Opening Day starter, it will be a huge deal,” Matheny said on Saturday morning. “I think that’s really making a statement of leadership. And how that flows also involves that first start at home [April 2 vs. the Mariners]. That first home start is a big deal, too, and I know it’s a big deal to [general manager] Dayton [Moore]. Big day for our fans.

“We’ll have some intention behind all those decisions.”

It’s not that Matheny has any doubt about Keller’s ability. Keller, 24, was a Rule 5 Draft pick two years ago who emerged as the team’s ace in 2019, starting 28 games and posting a respectable 4.19 ERA.

Matheny understands there is a huge upside to Keller’s game.

“I just think we have to be real careful,” Matheny said. “I was even concerned about [putting too much on Keller’s plate] last year. Now, obviously he has all the characteristics to be that guy. I just don’t want to put too much on anyone too soon. But you would have to absolutely have him in the conversation to be that guy on the first day.

“But I’ve told these guys from the start that we’re going to give them a lot. But in return, give us a little grace [period] and freedom maybe to work outside the normal lanes. If for some reason we felt it made more sense to do it differently, we’ll give you a ‘why.’ If for some reason we felt there was a matchup in Chicago that made more sense, we’ll have a ‘why.’

“I just don’t want to prescript it too much right now.”

Again, Matheny’s words should not be construed that he has any doubts about Keller’s ability.

“Brad did great all last season,” Matheny said. “He’s proved beyond any doubt that he could be that guy on Opening Day. There would be no hesitation. I just want to keep that conversation going through camp.

“And I want those guys to keep competing and saying to themselves, ‘This is my staff.’ I want Danny Duffy to say ‘This is my staff.’ And you move on like that.”

Duffy certainly would be an option on Opening Day as well. And Matheny and his staff may conclude that having a veteran such as Duffy take the Opening Day start on the road will take some pressure off Keller, who then perhaps could start the home opener.

That scenario certainly is in play.

What further advances that possibility is that Moore has said repeatedly this offseason that he expects Duffy to have a career year in 2020. Matheny is on board with that optimism as well.

“We know there is something special about his stuff,” Matheny said of Duffy. “You guys have seen that. He has that capability to dominate. And we know what kind of leader he is.”

Matheny did suggest that whatever direction he goes with the Opening Day starter, he likely will try to go right-left-right-left or vice versa with his rotation.

“I’ve never been a big fan of having two righties with similar height, similar release points, going back to back,” he said, “because when you talk about guys going third time through the order, you’re going to talk about the sixth time through the order by the time you get to that second game if you go righty-righty.

“If you have the same type of movement in your pitches, you have to be careful. Not that our righties are exactly alike, but they are similar. So that’s something we probably would try to avoid.”