It isn’t just the numbers from the Royals’ retooled rotation that offer encouragement 10 games into the Cactus League schedule — though they’ve certainly been impressive (for whatever that’s worth).
There are also early signs of the camaraderie the Royals hoped to create, an atmosphere they believed veteran James Shields could import from Tampa Bay’s deep and talented staff.
Shields takes that role seriously; he’s made a point to watch the other starters perform in an effort to lend support and, if necessary, guidance.
“I’m a new guy,” he said, “and I wanted to take a look at their first outing and see how they are. I’m the type of guy who likes to talk to all of the starters. I’m all about feeding off each other.
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“There might be some things that maybe (pitching coach) Dave Eiland may not see but players may see. I’m a big talker between starts with the guys to try to get everyone on the same page.”
Ervin Santana, another of the big offseason acquisitions, is already talking of getting some personal instruction from his new teammate.
“(Shields) has a tremendous change-up,” Santana said. “I’m trying to work with him to get him to teach me that change-up. He can throw it any count. For the hitters, that’s a difficult pitch.”
The Royals are hoping the new mix will help unlock Luke Hochevar’s potential.
“There are a lot of factors that I think are going to help him,” manager Ned Yost said, “but having Santana, (Jeremy) Guthrie, Shields and (Wade) Davis takes all of the pressure off of him. That’s going to help him some.
“Having a good starting rotation helps everybody.”
Retaining Guthrie while adding Santana, Shields and Davis knocked Hochevar from a sure spot in the rotation into competition with Bruce Chen and Luis Mendoza for the final slot.
“What we did in the offseason,” Hochevar said, “was awesome. That’s what we needed to do – beef it up. And, boy, we sure as heck did that. With Shieldsy and Davis; getting Guthrie back was big; getting Santana…holy cow.
“It’ll be good. I’m really excited. You know it all starts with starting pitching.”
Shields, the ace of the staff, was 15-10 last year with a 3.52 ERA and has a career record of 87-73 with a 3.89 ERA. Santana got off to a rough start last season, going 4-10 with a 6.00 ERA in his first 19 starts. But in his last 11 starts, he was 5-3 and 3.76 and allowed just 49 hits in 69 innings over those starts. He finished at 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA in 30 starts.
Guthrie was 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 16 starts for the Royals last year after arriving from Colorado, where he was 3-9 with a 6.35 ERA in 19 games. Davis worked exclusively out of the Rays’ bullpen last year, going 3-0 in 701/3 innings with a 2.43 ERA.
Guthrie agreed to backload his three-year contract, signed in November, in order to provide the Royals with sufficient financial flexibility to pursue Shields (or another impact starter) after the club previously committed $12 million in acquiring Santana from the Angels.
“For sure, this was their plan,” Guthrie said. “To their credit, they were able to execute the moves that they wanted to make in the offseason.”
“I see five guys who have competed and have a good amount of experience under their belt,” Guthrie said, “and a couple of guys who have competed at a very high level – All-Stars and postseason starts.
“I think we have the ability to push each other and hopefully build momentum. I think that’s the biggest thing on championship teams. You see them get in a groove where start after start after start, they put out good outings.
“You have to have good pitchers in order to do that. From the start, we have that in place. Now, it’s our job to go out and do it.”
Early spring results are a notoriously unreliable; for all that, they are encouraging. The four locks (Shields, Santana, Guthrie and Davis) and three competitors (Hochevar, Chen and Mendoza) have yielded just five runs in 192/3 innings for a 2.29 ERA.
“We’ve got a lot of good starting pitching around here, man,” Shields said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of anticipation (each) of the five days. I’m excited about it.”