Bob Lutz

If the Royals can pitch, they can contend

Royals newcomer Jason Hammel had a shaky final spring training start on Saturday, allowing five runs in two innings against the Rangers.
Royals newcomer Jason Hammel had a shaky final spring training start on Saturday, allowing five runs in two innings against the Rangers. AP

When Yordano Ventura died in a January car accident in the Dominican Republic, the sadness of a life snuffed out too early was overwhelming.

It was made more sad, even, because of the talent and potential Ventura had as a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals. There was a feeling, perhaps even an expectation, that 2017 would be a breakout season for the volatile Ventura, who had struggled to corral all of that enormous talent.

Ventura is gone, unbelievably, but the Royals had to go on. And give credit to general manager Dayton Moore, who has put together a starting pitching staff that just might be good enough to give Kansas City a chance to unseat Cleveland as American League Central champion.

It’s a long shot, though.

Cleveland went to the World Series last season, lost in seven games to the Chicago Cubs, and is probably even a better team in 2017. Realistically, then, the Royals could be in a dogfight for a wild-card spot, best-case scenario.

But can the pitching hold up?

Left-hander Danny Duffy and right-hander Ian Kennedy are givens. They are the guys at the top of Kansas City’s rotation and both should be able to give a lot of quality innings among the 200 or so they’ll be expected to pitch.

Duffy was 12-3 last season and there was a long stretch during which he was one of the best pitchers in the game. From June 1 through Aug. 21, covering 16 starts, Duffy was 11-1 with a 2.50 ERA over 108 innings.

Kennedy is a workhorse who was much better than his 11-11 record in 2016 indicates. He struck out 184 in 195 2/3 innings.

Ventura was slotted somewhere in that 1-2-3 starter mix.

Instead, right-hander Jason Hammel, who won 15 games for the Chicago Cubs, is that guy. You know the thanks Hammel got for his 2016 season? The Cubs left him off the postseason roster.

Yes, Chicago had Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks to take the four starting spots. So Hammel was the odd man out. That will not be the case in Kansas City, where the Royals hope he’ll be the normal man in and will once again approach 200 innings with an ERA in the 3s.

Jason Vargas, whom the Royals hope is completely healthy after missing most of two seasons with Tommy John surgery, is being asked to be that crafty left-hander in the rotation while 29-year-old Nate Karns, who has intrigued several organizations with his power arm, has landed in KC to get a crack as the No. 5 starter.

Karns has a big arm and has been with Washington, Tampa Bay and Seattle over the previous four seasons with a 4.41 ERA. Perhaps he’ll blossom with the Royals. That’s always the hope for a guy like Karns, who has averaged more than a strikeout per inning.

So while Duffy and Kennedy look like they can be taken to the bank, there is more apprehension about what the Royals will get from Hammel and especially from Vargas and Karns.

How good can Kansas City’s rotation be? How good can this pitching staff be?

In 2013, 2014 and 2015 — when the Royals were improving to the point of getting over .500, getting to the World Series and winning a world championship — they ranked first, fourth and second in the American League in runs allowed. Last season, KC ranked seventh.

The Royals ranked second, first and second in saves, but dropped to 12th in 2016.

They ranked fourth, third and second in home runs allowed, but were 10th last season.

And they were first, fourth and third in ERA before finishing ninth in the AL a season ago.

Pitching is a pretty big deal. And the better the starters are, the more effective the bullpen will be.

It’s a bullpen now in which Kelvin Herrera, once the “seventh-inning guy,” has moved into the closer role previously occupied by Wade Davis, now with the Cubs.

Filling in the spots in front of Herrera will be a key, with Matt Strahm, Joakin Soria, Travis Wood most likely to get the most meaningful assignments.

The Royals had ERAs of 3.45, 3.51 and 3.73 from 2013-15. Last season the ERA jumped to 4.21.

That’s a big reason why the record fell from 95-67 to 81-81.

Kansas City still has the offensive pieces to make a run, potentially the Royals’ last run with pending free agents Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain still wearing blue.

For that to happen, though, the pitching must be better. Duffy has to be the ace and Kennedy has to be just a tick behind. Hammel is a professional pitcher, proven to be reliable. Vargas and Karns are wild cards.

Is this staff good enough to allow the Royals to push Cleveland? That’s probably asking too much. But KC should be able to contend for a wild card playoff spot — if the pitching holds up.