Since starting the season with seven straight wins, the Kansas City Royals have gone 14-13.  Thus far, that has been good enough to get into and stay in first place.  A few weeks back, I noted that the Royals could put themselves into position to win 90 games by simply going 7-6 over each of eleven thirteen game stretches between the seven game win streak to start the season and the evening of Sunday, September 20th.  That would put them at 84-66 with twelve games to play.

Well, the Royals have gone 7-6 in the first two thirteen game spans.  Last night’s loss was the first game of a new thirteen game span.  Why thirteen games?  No reason, just happened to be the random point of the season when I thought of it.  You can slice and dice however you wish, but the premise is that the Royals can play just a little better than .500 ball for the rest of the year and likely be in decent to very good shape of making the playoffs.

That seemed like a doable task when I first wrote it, but that was before Danny Duffy managed to accumulate all of four innings of work in two combined starts, before Jason Vargas went on the disabled list and before Yordano Ventura ate 13 innings over two starts that included allowing 9 runs and burying his team early both times. I ranted on Tuesday (and it was just a rant, not analysis, not noteworthy) about the starting rotation and things got worse.

A few weeks back, I took in a game with a couple of friends and we were talking about how deep the Royals’ bullpen was.  My thought was it was a fertile stockpile with which to make a trade and my friends asked a very logical question:  ‘Well, where would you improve?’  At the time, second base was (and remains) squarely in my sights.  Dollars be damned, if the Royals could upgrade second, they should.  They won’t, I don’t think, because Omar Infante is under contract for two seasons after this, but it seemed like the place to look.  Now, three weeks later, with the rotation offering us two good Chris Young starts, one by Jeremy Guthrie and a whole bunch of yuck, it seems obvious the Royals should be seriously considering a rotation upgrade.

The minors offer very little in the way of help.  Joe Blanton has an opt-out tomorrow and, well, is still Joe Blanton.  Christian Binford is in Omaha and does not really have the ‘look’ of anything more than a back of the rotation starter at best in the majors.  John Lamb? That would be a nice surprise, but it is difficult to see him going six and two-thirds effectively in the majors any more regularly than the current rotation.  Kyle Zimmer?  Yeah, prove to me he even exists.  Sean Mannea?  Injured.  Almonte? Not ready, not close.  Brandon Finnegan? He’s on the reliever merry-go-round.  You get the idea.

Without question, it is early.  I am not advocating trading for Johnny Cueto tonight…well, if you want to Mr. Moore, go ahead, but it’s too early to go into full panic buyer’s mode.  That said, the time is coming when the Royals will either have to get better starting pitching or seriously make a move.  The best bullpens in the world don’t do much other than get worn out if their starting pitcher consistently puts them in a 4-0 hole. The best offense in the world (and the Royals are good, but not the best in the world) cannot consistently battle back from an early deficit.  It wears you out, just because it cannot be statistically quantified does not mean it doesn’t happen.

So, let’s get back to the deep bullpen. I don’t believe trading a reliever for a starter, no matter how good the reliever might be, straight up happens in baseball: not if you are looking for a real upgrade in a starter.  The Royals also don’t have THAT prospect to center a trade around.  There is no Wil Myers in the system or Yordano Ventura (rumored to be the asking price for Howie Kendrick at one point) or Zack Greinke (rumored to have been asked for in exchange for David Wright before Zack made his major league debut). I am not even sure there is a Jake Odorizzi to offer.

There are those who love and covet prospects, I’ve lost that attachment to most or at least to the current group in a good, not great, Royals’ system. If Hunter Dozier and Raul Mondesi (currently hurt) greases the wheels of a trade for a starter, I am not sure I lose sleep over it.  That said, to get the conversation even started, Dayton Moore would have to part with one of the vaunted Herrera-Davis-Holland triad of doom.  All three are good and all three are not getting any cheaper.  How much less effective would Madson/Hochevar-Davis-Holland or Madson/Hochevar-Herrera-Davis be than the current group?  Would you trade Greg Holland and Hunter Dozier for two and a half months of Johnny Cueto?  Would you throw in Bubba Starling or Brett Eibner to make it happen?

The Royals will take a spin through the starting rotation three more times before the end of May.  A couple of lights out Ventura starts, twenty innings from Danny Duffy and news that Jason Vargas really isn’t going to need Tommy John surgery and maybe these thoughts go away.  That, obviously, is the best case scenario.

What if the above doesn’t happen and the Royals limp to the end of May with an overtaxed bullpen and little improvement in the rotation?  Then it will be time to pick your target, swallow hard and start thinking about trading players you would rather not.