Probably won't see this next year. (Photo: Minda Haas/Flickr)

The Royals announced they will shut down starter Jeff Francis after his next start on Thursday. Francis, who is making $2 million this year, will finish the season with somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 innings. That represents the most work for Francis since he topped 215 innings back in 2007.

At the same time, the club also let it be known that Everett Teaford will make two more starts before he’s finished for the season. His final start will be on September 25 at Chicago, three days before the end of the season.

Back to Francis… At $2 million the left-hander provided the Royals with the following line (current through Tuesday):

30 starts, 177 IP, 4.88 ERA, 1.429 WHIP, 4.5 SO/9, 1.9 BB/9, 4.27 xFIP

The lack of walks is a delight. The lack of strikeouts is a problem. But that’s the way Francis has always pitched. Since his injury, he’s sped up the evolution to control pitcher.

Remember back to those days when the mantra for Royals pitchers was “pitch to contact?” Let’s just say Tony Muser and Brent Strom would have loved Jeff Francis. Over 80% of all plate appearances ended with the ball in play. Additionally, 10% of all plate appearances, batters went for extra bases. Although there’s no shame in his 1.0 HR/9.

His xFIP may indicate there’s a level of bad luck on his side, but the truth is, Francis just isn’t the kind of pitcher who can go out and make success for himself on a regular basis. He’s more likely to get lit up than to dominate in one start. Although, to be fair, he’s really more likely to pitch a solid game. Maybe a quality start, maybe not. (He had 15 quality starts this year for the Royals, a rate of 50%.) It seems difficult to imagine over the course of a full season of starts that Francis could give his team enough for them to win over half their games. But he gives you a chance, and for a team like the Royals, that’s what it’s about.

Francis wasn’t here to be a front line starter, or even a number two or three guy. He was here to eat innings. That’s kind of a gutsy move to make for a player with a pretty serious shoulder history. Even though the Royals could only win nine of his 30 starts, Francis did pretty much what the Royals asked… He took the ball every fifth day and usually went until the sixth inning. On this team, with this rotation, that’s something.

According to FanGraphs, that’s worth $11 million dollars on the open market. Not a bad piece of business from Dayton Moore. But those numbers just seem arbitrary. Even though they are assigned to a player based on WAR, they aren’t real. Francis would never get that kind of money on the free agent market. But the numbers do give us a measure of some kind of worth to the Royals rotation. Subtract Francis and the team’s record may not be much different, but the strain placed on an overworked bullpen certainly would have increased. Francis the innings eater was just what the Royals needed this year.

So as Francis prepares for another spin in free agency, there will doubtless be talk from both team and player about a mutual respect they have for each other, and how it would be really nice if he could return for another year. With free agent pickings looking slim this winter, and with no immediate help coming from The System, it’s not a horrible thought that Francis could be back in Royal blue next spring.

We just need to realize we’ve probably seen him at or near his post injury peak. If the Royals could bring him back for another year at under $3 million, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

The Royals will be in a similar position with last night’s starter, Bruce Chen. Against the helpless Twins lineup, Chen was, dare I say, dominant.

8 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 SO

He threw 119 pitches and 82 of them were strikes.

His Game Score was 85, which made his effort last night the best Royals start of year. And it’s the highest Game Score since October 1 of last year when Chen posted an 88 against the Rays. He finishes strong.

Chen has been a different pitcher ever since he started varying his arm slot, dropping it lower when he throws a sinker. He’s not dropping his arm as low as he did last year, but I’m not sure that makes a lot of difference. Here were his release points from three starts in September, 2010:

Compare that to his release point in his last three starts:

Like I said, not as low this year, but that’s more about finding his comfort zone in his delivery and release than anything. The results have been fairly consistent from last season.

Chen is another pitcher whom the Royals will have to make a decision on this winter. He’s been a good starter for the Royals, but I don’t get the hype from those who wish to anoint him the best starter on this staff. For my money, Paulino has been better. So has the second half version of Hochevar. That’s not a slight against Chen, just how I see the starters stack up according to performance. But that’s OK… If Chen is the best starter on your club, your staff needs some serious help. Not that Chen can’t help a rotation… We know he can. It’s just he’s better suited to the back of the rotation. Not the front.

I’d prefer to have Chen back in the fold next year, but at a price tag under $4 million. And if by some stroke of luck, the rotation entering 2012 is good enough that there is only a single opening… I’d opt for Chen ahead of Francis.