It doesn’t matter if Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland gets an ugly tie or a blue bowling ball today for Christmas, he’s a happy guy.
His gifts have been coming since Halloween when the Royals started their flurry of offseason activity that resulted in a rebuilt starting rotation.
“It is,” Eiland said by phone, “a wonderful thing.”
To recap, the Royals traded for Angels starter Ervin Santana on Oct. 31, re-signed pitcher Jeremy Guthrie in November, then traded for Rays pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis earlier this month.
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While the city was abuzz over the deal with Tampa Bay and there was a lot of talk about Santana, Eiland was just as happy about the pitcher the Royals kept.
“Let’s not discount Jeremy Guthrie,” Eiland said. “He came over there and after his first two starts, he pitched as well as anyone in baseball. This is a guy who prior to last year when he was in Baltimore, he was a 200-inning guy. Very durable.
“Even on nights he doesn’t have his good stuff, he’s able to navigate through at least five innings, if not six innings. If nothing else give you innings to save the bullpen, but he’s a guy that always keeps you in the game, and you know what you’re going to get when you run him out there.
“This is a guy who pitched extremely well for us after we acquired him. He’s a guy who is very hungry and wants to succeed.”
Guthrie, who turns 34 in April, signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Royals last month. Overall, he was 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA after being acquired in an August trade with the Rockies.
His last dozen starts were sensational: 5-1 with a 2.34 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. Perhaps the best statistic of all during that stretch: the Royals were 10-2.
It was a remarkable turnaround for Guthrie, who had been 3-9 with a 6.35 ERA in Colorado. Eiland believed in Guthrie after facing him for years as an AL East opponent. While Guthrie was with the Orioles, Eiland worked for the Rays in 2011 after serving as the Yankees pitching coach for three seasons.
“There were adjustments that made a big difference and allowed him to command the ball down in the zone better,” Eiland said. “When he missed, he missed down. He was a guy I saw quite a bit of in those three years. You saw the stuff was there, there was some power stuff, there was some good breaking balls, but he was a guy who always pitched up in the zone a little bit. Once we got him, I had a really good read on him and I suggested a couple of minor adjustments in his delivery and he bought into it after those first two games and off he went.
“He can elevate on occasion when he wants to, to change eye level. But it also made his breaking ball better.”
Guthrie wasn’t the only member of the rebuilt rotation to finish 2012 with a flourish.
Santana’s overall numbers: 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA in 178 innings. But before struggling in his final game of the year (a loss to Rangers), Santana had a stretch of 10 games where he was 5-2 with a 3.08 ERA, holding opponents to a .179 average.
Shields was 15-10 with a 3.52 ERA last season. In his final 12 games he was 7-3 with a 1.99 ERA and two shutouts while holding opponents to a .166 batting average. Seven of those starts were against teams that made the playoffs.
While Davis was working out of the bullpen for the Rays last year, he had a 1.99 ERA after Aug. 1 in 20 games, including 12 against teams that made the playoffs.
Eiland knows Shields and Davis well having spent a year as a special assistant to Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman.
“(Shields is) a great competitor, a great leader,” Eiland said. “Brings a lot to the team on the field, but off the field in the clubhouse, in the dugout on the days he isn’t pitching, he’s one of those guys who makes everybody better. He has a way of making everyone else elevate their game and their level of play. He holds people accountable. He’s a good teammate and a leader.
“Wade Davis is a little more quiet, but very professional, a hard worker. He has a tremendous power arm, great stuff. He pitched a year in the bullpen last year, but he’s had success as a starter in the major leagues and hasn’t even reached his full potential yet. He’s still a young man at 27 years old. We’ve acquired two big physical starting pitchers that are durable and very reliable. It’s a very good thing, obviously.”
Eiland has spent much of the offseason chatting with the new guys and watching video of them. He’s also talked with Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, two holdovers from last year’s rotations.
They are expected to battle for the last spot in the rotation.
“The old saying you can never have enough pitching, especially starting pitching and that’s true,” Eiland said. “You’ve got to have depth. I don’t like to call it the No. 5 spot. I just say that one spot left. There is going to be competition for it, and competition usually brings out the best in people, especially professional athletes.
“Hopefully we have a very hard decision to make toward the end of spring training, because that means everyone is throwing the ball well.”
While Eiland has nothing against the holidays, he’s clearly champing at the bit to turn the calendar to February.
“Santana has pitched in the postseason as have Shields and Davis,” Eiland said. “We’re getting experience, we’re getting durability, we’re getting talent. You throw that in the mix with our bullpen, and our bullpen is already good. A good starting rotation makes a bullpen even better. Like I said, it’s something we’re all looking forward to getting this thing going.”