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The Royals Royals hope pitcher Jeremy Guthrie can match last year’s production

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Monday, March 24, 2014, at 11:07 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014, at 12:19 a.m.

— The switch flipped for Jeremy Guthrie in the summer of 2005 as he whiled away the hours struggling for Cleveland’s Class AAA affiliate. He was a floundering former first-round pick, and he needed a lifeline. His only goal, he said, became to pitch the fastest game on the team.

“At this point, I (stink) so bad, I don’t even care,” he said earlier this spring. “I just want my team to look forward to the days that I pitch, because it’s going to be a quick game. And that became my focus for the next year and a half. It ended up working.”

His route to the Royals was still circuitous. The Indians designated Guthrie for assignment after the 2007 season. He latched on with Baltimore and eventually became staff ace on those miserable clubs. A trade to Colorado in 2012 almost sank him, but he appeared revitalized after joining the Royals later that year.

He is now in the second season of a three-year contract worth $24 million. As 2014 approaches, Guthrie is the team’s fourth starter, a quiet but critical piece to this club’s puzzle. The team would be delighted if he replicated his output from last season. The question is: Can he?

Guthrie wrapped up his Cactus League slate with a five-inning outing Monday against the Rockies. Colorado tagged him for four runs, six hits and a walk. He will leave Arizona with a 7.04 ERA in four starts.

“He threw the ball good,” manager Ned Yost said.

“He felt good. I thought he located his pitches well.”

At first glance, his performance in 2013 was encouraging. His 4.04 ERA was his best since 2010. Guthrie completed a career-best 211 2/3 innings.

“My focus is innings,” Guthrie said earlier this spring, “because usually if you accomplish the innings goal, my No. 1 goal is accomplished, which is to stay healthy.”

Yet beneath the surface were several troubling signs. No pitcher in baseball allowed more hits (236). Guthrie saw his strikeout rate dip to a career-worst 4.7 per nine innings. His 1.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the worst among pitchers who threw at least 200 innings.

The fielding-independent ERA (FIP) statistic calculates the factors a pitcher specifically controls in the game: walks, strikeouts and home runs.

Guthrie finished the year with a 4.79 FIP, also the second-highest among pitchers with 150 innings. The gap between his ERA and his FIP suggests a measure of good luck, the sort of occurrence that can’t be counted upon year to year.

The combination is troubling for rival evaluators, who note his inconsistency and difficulty missing bats.

But the Royals remain confident about Guthrie’s ability. They lump him in with Jason Vargas and Bruce Chen, the heart of the team’s rotation. The team trusts him. And Guthrie expressed optimism about the coming season, despite the dicey results.

“I feel like I’ve gotten the arm strength up,” Guthrie said. “And I feel like I’ve been able to execute some pitches. So hopefully I’ll be able to do more of those consistently, and start off the season well.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com

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