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Royals Add Two Arms to Rotation Mix

The Royals, over the weekend, added both Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen to the rotation mix, which pretty much means that none of the young arms will start the season in the rotation barring injury. In Francis and Chen, the Royals have added two left-handed starters, which is something that Dayton Moore covets in his rotation. Neither is likely to contend for the Cy Young or even an All-Star team, but both are expected to be dependable arms who can take the ball every fifth day and fill in until the young arms are actually ready. The thing I like about this move at first glance is that it appears to mean that Sean O’Sullivan will open 2011 either in the bullpen or in the AAA rotation. I’ve said it in the past, but I just do not think that he’s capable of being a solid big league starter. I’d love to see him as a reliever, though, because he does throw hard and his stuff would definitely play up in short outings.

To begin, let’s talk about Jeff Francis because he was signed first, and I’ve never written about him before at length in this space. Francis was selected by the Rockies with the ninth overall pick of the 2002 draft, which is one that has big league regulars sprinkled all through the first round. Francis was taken three spots behind Zack Greinke. I think I’ve heard of him. Some players of note taken in the first round of the 2002 draft are B.J. Upton, Greinke, Prince Fielder, Francis, Jeremy Hermida, Joe Saunders, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, James Loney, Denard Span, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francouer, Joe Blanton, Matt Cain and Mark Teahen. To be included in that first round is pretty special. Francis moved quickly through the Rockies and made his Major League debut in 2004, but struggled in his short time in the big leagues that year and in 2005. He settled down and had two very good years in 2006 and 2007 going a combined 30-20 with a 4.19 ERA in 414.1 innings. Francis started Game One of the 2007 World Series for the Rockies against the Red Sox.

In 2008, Francis experienced some shoulder trouble and then had his left shoulder surgically repaired and missed the entire 2009 season. He came back in 2010 and was pretty good in his first eight starts before the wheels came off and he struggled with shoulder stiffness for the rest of the season. The Royals are counting him maintaining his strong strikeout to walk ratio of almost three to one. Francis joins Luke Hochevar and Vin Mazzaro as pitchers who should benefit from the good infield defense the Royals figure to flash on a regular basis as he is also a groundball pitcher. In my experience, shoulder problems spell trouble, but Francis was only signed for a base salary of $2 million, so if things go poorly, it isn’t much money for the team to eat if they have to release him.

His 5.00 ERA from a year ago is considerably higher than his expected ERA of around 3.90. If he can put up an ERA under 4.00 for the Royals he can be a very valuable player in multiple ways. At just 30 years old, he can very easily become a part of the future as the Royals will be in need of some veteran presence in their rotation. The more likely scenario, though, is that with all the lefties coming through the system, he’d be trade bait in late July if he is pitching well. Health is my main concern with Francis as I actually expect him to put up solid numbers if he’s able to take the mound on a regular basis.

The other new southpaw in the rotation isn’t new at all. The Royals were able to re-sign Bruce Chen to a one-year deal worth $2 million with incentives similar to those in the Francis deal. In Chen, the Royals re-signed their wins leader from 2010 and hope for a similar performance in 2011. I discussed Chen at some length a few months back here and came to the conclusion that his peripherals indicated that his performance wasn’t terribly out of whack with what we might expect from him moving forward. The biggest thing for Chen is managing the walks situation. If he can cut down his walks by just about 1/2 a walk per nine innings, a 4.25 ERA wouldn’t be too far out of reach. He surprisingly misses bats and does a nice job of pitching with runners on base. Plus, he seems to be a solid influence in the clubhouse.

The future for Chen with the Royals is similar to that of Francis in that he could be a part of the rotation for a couple of years, but while his left-handedness helped him get a deal and a rotation spot now, it will probably hurt him with the Royals in the near future. The difference with Chen is that he’s actually been pretty effective out of the bullpen for the Royals over the last two seasons, so he could slide pretty naturally there and provide a really nice complement to Tim Collins if the Royals need a different kind of lefty to come in and get an out or two.

Ultimately, these two signings don’t signify a shift of power in the American League Central or anything of that sort, but they certainly make me feel more confident for the 2011 season. I may be a little over the top about this, but I just do not like Sean O’Sullivan in the rotation. He might figure it out and I’d look like an idiot, but that definitely would not be the first time for that. For now, the Royals feature a rotation that is very balanced with three righties and two lefties. The thing I like about it is that with the exception of Chen, all of them have at least some upside that could make them top of the rotation starters. Kyle Davies is perpetually just one step away from harnessing his stuff and becoming a fantastic number two starter as is Luke Hochevar. Vin Mazarro has a chance to be a very good third or fourth starter and Francis has already been a very good starter once, so he just needs to get healthy to be that again. So yes, this rotation could be heinously awful, but with the additions of Francis and Chen, that seems a little bit less likely. It’d be nice if Dayton Moore would make a habit out of nice little moves like these.

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