The catchers and pitchers (well, all of them with working visas, anyway) have reported to camp in Surprise, Arizona and it won’t be too terribly long now before we have actual baseball games to evaluate and battles for roster spots will move from winter time speculation to spring time results.

While the Royals’ starting rotation is generally considered as one of the weakest units on the team, it is one that is still relatively set heading into spring ball.  Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez are all locks to open the season in the rotation, while Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy are heavy favorites to be the fourth and fifth members of the group.

Ah, the fifth starter.  While it is often true that teams open the season with just four starters on their roster due to off-days early April, the Royals will have no such luxury this year.

Beginning with Opening Day in Anaheim versus the Angels on April 6th, Kansas City will play six straight games.   That means that a fifth starter will be needed on April 10th: day five of the season.   Assuming Luke Hochevar is the number one man, he will make his second start of 2012 on April 11th and the Royals will have an off-day on Thursday the 12th.   They then play six more games starting on Friday the 13th (Opening Day at the K).

Should the club choose to utilize off-days to get their top pitchers more starts – something I am not sure should or need to be done given this team lacks a true get-him-on-the-mound-as-much-as-possible guy at the front of the rotation – they could bring Hochevar back in the number five starter’s spot on April 16th.   Even then, however, the fifth starter would be needed the very next day.

Another off-day comes on Thursday, April 19th and provides the team an opportunity to bump the rotation again, bringing back Hochevar AND Chen (or whomever is the number two starter) on normal rest before having to go the fifth starter again.  Still, the respite is temporary as the schedule demans a fifth starter on April 24th.   After that, Kansas City embarks on a string of twenty games in twenty days and the five man rotation will be in full effect.

As we can see, this season’s schedule requires a fifth starter three times in the first 18 days.  Not only will the Royals be required to carry the fifth man from basically day one, but they will have little opportunity to use him in any role but as a starter.   Let’s say Danny Duffy is the fifth starter, he cannot pitch in relief in the first four games of the year, then starts game five and has to come back exactly one week later and then a week after that.   While there is extended rest between all of his starts, the period is not long enough for Ned Yost to comfortably insert Duffy into a game out of the pen in between.

Now, given that Duffy might have a bit of an inning’s limitation this year, having three starts by April 24th as compared to Hochevar’s five makes a lot of sense.    Duffy threw 147 innings between AAA and the Majors in 2011, so conventional baseball wisdom says he maxes out at 175 or so this year.     Chances are, Duffy doesn’t get much beyond that even without skipping starts, but having a couple less in April probably doesn’t hurt.

Of course, if you are talking innings limited guys, the Royals could give the five spot to Aaron Crow.   They could use the three early April starts as an extended look at what he might do as a starter, let Duffy get tuned up in Omaha and make a real decision about who they want to go with in late April.   Should he succeed as a starter, Crow will be under a real innings crunch, so any starts saved will be useful.

The third legitimate contender for this spot is the out of options Luis Mendoza.  It is hard to ignore what he did in the hit happy PCL last year, but equally hard to forget how truly, truly awful he was in the majors the year before.   Still, a good spring by Mendoza might intrigue the Royals enough (not to mention that both Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have expressed a fear of losing Luis without seeing what they’ve got) to go with him in the five spot. 

I am a huge advocate of Danny Duffy continuing his development in the major leagues.  I am not sure that the problems Danny encountered as a rookie can get solved by doing anything but pitching to major league hitters.   That said, a couple of tune-up starts in Omaha to start the year while the Royals figure out where they are going in early April would do little harm.  

It will be interesting to see how Kansas City handles the rotation battle this spring, but you now know one thing:  they will need a fifth starter immediately.    The luxury of saving the roster spot decision for later in April is not one the Royals enjoy this year.

xxx