Royals Rundown: Despite tough Opening Day, Royals' hopes high for pitching staff in 2021

Todd Fertig
Special to The Capital-Journal
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Brad Keller throws during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Texas Rangers on Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

At times during the Opening Day game on Thursday, one had to wonder if anyone could pitch effectively for the Kansas City Royals.  

The dreadful start for Brad Keller, followed by more erraticism by his replacements, was hopefully an aberration. The Royals are banking on good starting pitching and excellent relief pitching to pair with an improved offense in 2021. 

“I feel great about it,” manager Mike Matheny said about the pitching staff as a whole prior to the first game. “I think every one of these guys had a really good spring and show us the things that we believe a championship pitching staff looks like.” 

Opening Day aside, Keller has been the team’s best starter for three seasons. He was lights out for much of 2020, and will be the quiet, unassuming leader of the staff.  

Backing Keller will be Danny Duffy, the 10-year Royal who tantalizes with the ability but never quite rises to the level of an ace. With a good offense relieving pressure on the starters, the hope is that Duffy can still be an effective starter. If not, he may find the bullpen suits him down the road. 

Wanting another reliable veteran on the staff, the Royals signed Mike Minor to a two-year contract. In 2017, the Royals helped the injured Minor resurrect his career. After a rough 2020, he will try to get on track again. He won 26 games over the course of 2018 and 2019. 

The Royals will start the year with just four starters, and the fourth might just prove to be the best. Brady Singer flashed ace-like potential as a rookie in 2020, and was electric in spring training.  

Due to the number of off days early in the season, the Royals sent all potential fifth starters to the minors, most notably Kris Bubic. The lefty started 10 games last year, winning a lot of respect despite marginal results.

But a rough spring revealed Bubic still has a lot to learn. He’s not a lock to get the promotion when a fifth starter is needed.  

The Royals are intrigued by the chance that Jakob Junis might re-establish himself as a starter. After starting 83 games with mixed results, the Royals felt he would be more effective in the bullpen.

But Junis added a cutter to his arsenal over the offseason. The four-year veteran was suddenly dominant in spring training and just might jump ahead of Bubic as the next-best option as a starter. 

The bullpen was Kansas City’s strength last year, and probably will be again. Greg Holland is the back end of a collection of flame-throwers who now have experience and confidence. Watch for Greg Hahn, Josh Staumont and Greg Barlow to shut down the latter innings.  

But fans will hold a soft spot in their hearts for former Royal Wade Davis, star of the 2015 champions, back to rehabilitate his injured arm and restart his career. Davis is coming off two rough seasons in Colorado, but he looked like his old self when he blew away the last two hitters on Opening Day. 

Rookie joins the starting lineup 

A late surprise was the insertion of rookie Kyle Isbel into the right field spot. The spot opened when Matheny decided to move Whit Merrifield out of the outfield and back to his more natural position, second base. The switch wouldn’t have happened had Isbel not torn apart spring training, giving Matheny an unexpected option in right field.  

“It’s been emotional. It’s been really fun,” Isbel said about trying to make his way onto the roster. “I had a goal to make the team. (That was) out of my hands, but I’m just giving my all every day. I feel like I’m ready.”  

The 24-year-old had the kind of Opening Day a rookie can only dream about. He went 3-5 at the plate, scored a run and drove in two more. 

“This is a guy the organization is very proud of,” Matheny said. “We got a lot of looks at him, and wherever we put him, he just fit. He made the most of the alternate site last year. He worked very hard. He kept trying to find out how he could improve, and he has.” 

Mondesi out

The Royals have waited nine-years for Adalberto Mondesi to live up to the potential that led them to sign him as a 16-year-old prospect. They will have to wait at least a couple more weeks, apparently.

Over his five-year big league career, Mondesi has flashed moments of superstardom. But as the Royals broke camp, they broke the news that the shortstop would start the season on the disabled list with a strained oblique.  

“I hurt for ‘Mondi,’ because I know how hard he’s worked. I know how good he’s looked,” Matheny said. “It’s just a shame. I know he’s more frustrated than anybody.”  

The decision to move Merrifield to second base pushed Nicky Lopez, the starter at that position the last two years, down to the minor leagues. But before he could settle in, Matheny called Lopez back up to fill in at short for the injured Mondesi. 

“It gives us an opportunity to bring Nicky back,” Matheny said. “Somebody else has got to step up and get it done. That’s just part of this game.” 

Roster moves

With the minor leagues delaying a month to start games, the Royals had to make some decisions about where to send players who didn’t make the big club. Most of the veterans were sent to Springdale, Ark., where they will hold an alternate training site somewhat like the one at Legends Field last summer. But this time, the collection of near-major leaguers will be allowed to play scrimmage games against other farm systems. 

Some players at Northwest Arkansas you can bet on seeing back in a Kansas City uniform soon include starter/reliever Ervin Santana, relievers Richard Lovelady, Jake Newberry and Tyler Zuber, first baseman Ryan O’Hearn and outfielders Nick Heath and Edward Olivares. 

The younger players from big league camp, most of them top prospects like Bobby Witt, Jr., Asa Lacy, Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch, remained in Arizona to get another dose of spring training with the rest of the younger minor leaguers.