For the first time in a very, very long time, the Kansas City Royals have some legitimate depth at the major league level in their starting rotation. Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino are both recovering from Tommy John surgery from last summer, and the Royals should not feel the need to rush either pitcher back to the big league ball club until they are fully ready.
Because of trades, the Royals’ rotation is much stronger than it was a year ago when Duffy and Paulino went down with their injuries. Guthrie, Santana, Shields, and Wade Davis were all acquired via a trade (although Guthrie had to be resigned during the off season). Luis Mendoza, who was a journeyman pitcher who started the 2012 season in the minors, has developed in to a very serviceable 5th starter.
Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen, who sat atop the Kansas City rotation a year ago, are now relegated to the bullpen, where both have been relatively effective. In a pinch, either could probably be called on to spot start (although they would need to be stretched out a bit, inning wise, first). In AAA Omaha, Will Smith could also spot start if necessary. His minor league numbers have not translated into major league success yet, through a small sample size of 17 career starts with Kansas City.
Prospect Yordano Ventura is also coming along at a good pace and could be called on in an emergency to start in the big leagues, although the Royals probably want this to be the last option as they probably don’t want Ventura rushed if it can be avoided.
The point is that the Royals actually have a number of options if something were to happen to any members of their present rotation. Neither Duffy nor Paulino need to be rushed through their rehab. Eventually, their official Disabled List allowed rehab time will run out, but both should be left in the minors if their strength and control isn’t where it should be at that time.
Danny Duffy obviously isn’t ready. Duffy, prior to his injury, was still a developing young talent who still needs a lot of work. In 26 career starts, Duffy amassed an unimpressive ERA of 5.28 and a horrific 1.609 WHIP. He struggles with his control most of time. His Walks per 9 Innings Ratio (BB/9) in 2011 was 4.4 and it ballooned to a unacceptable 5.9 in 6 2012 starts (this number should be no higher than 3.0).
Duffy does show signs of improving stuff – his Strikeouts per 9 Innings (K/9) was 7.4 in 2011 but had improved to 9.1 in the small sample size that was 2012. He has shown he can miss bats. Control is his issue. Not only does he issue a lot of free passes, he has shown a propensity to surrender home runs. In 2011, he gave up 15 round trippers in just 105.1 innings. Before his injury in 2012, he allowed just 2 in 27.2 innings of work, which was a marked improvement. Poor location within the strike zone will lead to more home runs.
Control and arm strength are two areas that will need to improve while Duffy is recovering from the surgery. Duffy cannot afford to be any more wild with his location because his velocity will probably not recover right away. Time will be needed to regain that velocity and wildness, in and out of the strike zone, will be more costly at the major league level.
Duffy performed about as well as could be expected in 3 starts at AA. In 10.2 innings, he gave up 5 runs on 12 hits and 4 walks. He did strike out 15 youngsters. Two AAA starts have not been so successful. He has only lasted 5.1 total innings in those 2 starts, getting pounded for 9 runs on 11 hits, 5 walks, and only 5 strikeouts. He is still a long way from being ready to start for a major league team on the fringes of playoff contention.
Felipe Paulino was pretty much a failure early in his career with an ERA near 6.00 and a WHIP over 1.60 in Houston and Colorado. The Royals picked him up for nothing and he has turned his career around in Kansas City. As a starter for the Royals (plus 1 relief appearance), Paulino has accumulated a respectable 3.55 ERA, 1.337 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9, and a 8.8 K/9. Most of these numbers would put him at a slightly above average starter in this day and age.
His biggest flaw is his ability to stay healthy. He has 232 days on the DL over the past 3 years. Paulino and the Royals must find a way to keep Paulino on the mound and healthy if they want to reap the benefits of his improved skills. He made one start on his rehab on Tuesday, June 11. He went 5 strong shut out innings at AA Northwest Arkansas, giving up 2 hits, 2 walks, and 6 strikeouts.
As of now, Paulino’s second rehab start was pushed back due to back stiffness and soreness. This particular setback is not arm related and is not considered serious, just the normal aches and pains of getting back into playing shape. Still, that injury cloud hangs over Paulino until he proves he can stay healthy. Like Duffy, the Royals should feel no pressure to rush him back until he is totally ready, and even then, there will be no promises he will return to the skill level at which he was performing before the elbow injury, at least not right away. Recovering from Tommy John surgery is not guaranteed, although it is much more promising now than in the past.
Fans should not expect any miracle recoveries from Duffy and Paulino this season. It is doubtful they will contribute in a major fashion in 2013, and certainly not until August at the earliest. For one thing, the Royals do not have a pressing need right now, and for another, few pitchers return to previous effectiveness immediately upon their returns for TJ surgery.
It is yet to be seen if either Duffy or Paulino will be able to contribute to the Royals in 2013. The Royals may actually not even need them this season, which is hard to even imagine. The Royals have the time and the depth to make sure the two recovering pitchers finish their rehabs completely and get to the point where they can once again be effective major league starters. For once, the Royals have the luxury to make sure things are done right.
Later in the week, we will take a look at where Duffy and Paulino might fit in if they return this season.