Dayton Moore knew he'd need to improve the Kansas City pitching staff if the Royals were to have any chance of fulfilling some lofty expectations this season.
The general manager's first significant move came in November, when he dealt outfielder Melky Cabrera to the San Francisco Giants for Jonathan Sanchez, gambling a left-hander oozing with talent had put a season marred by nagging injuries behind him.
Moore then went out an acquired veteran reliever Jonathan Broxton to bridge the gap to closer Joakim Soria, who will be trying to rebound from his own rollercoaster of a year.
Perhaps the most significant move Kansas City made, though, had nothing to do with players.
The Royals decided to hire Dave Eiland to replace pitching coach Bob McClure, and it will be the longtime Yankees coach's responsibility to begin revamping the Kansas City staff when pitchers and catchers report to the team's spring training complex Monday in Surprise, Ariz.
“He is an extremely talented pitching coach and a proven winner,” Moore said upon Eiland's hiring. “Our entire baseball operations staff has strong convictions about Dave's ability to make a positive difference with our pitching staff.”
The only regular starter last season with a winning record was Bruce Chen, who went 12-8, and the rotation went a combined 45-65 with a 4.82 ERA. The unsightly numbers included this seemingly implausible stat: Royals starters logged a mere 621 strikeouts in 943 innings.
So it's no secret to Eiland that things will have to improve.
“It has to,” he said this week. “It if doesn't, it falls into my lap.”
Even though youngsters such as Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will garner the headlines during training camp, it's the Royals' pitchers who could decide whether a team that hasn't made the post-season since winning the 1985 World Series can finally compete for an AL Central crown.
Chen is back after signing a free-agent deal in the off-season. He's basically assured a job in the rotation along with Sanchez and former top draft pick Luke Hochevar, who finally showed signs of life after plodding through a rough start to his big league career.
Hochevar was the opening day starter last season, and will likely get the assignment again when Kansas City opens April 6 against Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels.
Hochevar went 11-11 last season, the closest he's had to a winning season.
“Now is the time for him to take it to the next level,” Eiland said. “I think he's prepared to do that mentally and physically.”
The 34-year-old Chen has led the staff in victories the past two seasons, which was enough to land him a $9 million, two-year deal in free agency. But he's far from a sure thing — Chen went nearly four years without winning a big league game, and he'll turn 35 in June.
“Bruce was Bruce, and I mean that in a good way,” Eiland said after watching him throw during an optional mound session this week. “He's a veteran, a pro. He has a plan.”
Sanchez could become the linchpin of Eiland's entire rebuilding project.
He flashed talent when he threw a no hitter for San Francisco in 2009, but he was limited to 19 starts and four wins because of injuries last season. He's also a walk machine whose average of better than a strikeout per inning is tempered by the fact that he puts so many on base.
“It's exciting, you know?” Sanchez said of the change in scenery. “It's exciting to make the playoffs, and that's what we want, to be a young team that makes the playoffs.”
The biggest question in camp will be who lands the final two rotation spots.
Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy are considered the front-runners, but they'll have to out-perform Luis Mendoza, Aaron Crow, Mike Montgomery and a host of others.
Paulino was 4-6 with a 4.26 ERA after joining the Royals rotation mid-season, while Duffy went 4-8 with a 5.64 ERA as a rookie. Both have shown flashes of brilliances, but both also had trouble pitching late into games, which in turn taxed the bullpen.
Mendoza was a revelation in the minors, going 12-5 with Triple-A Omaha. He was 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA in two starts after a September call-up.
Crow was the Royals' lone All-Star selection as a rookie reliever, and although he seemed to regress in the second half last season, the former first-round pick will get a long look at the rotation. So will Montgomery, who spent all of last season in the minors.
Eiland said he spent “many, many hours” watching video of Royals pitchers in the off-season.
If he can figure out a way to coax the starters deep into games, it should take some of the load off a talented bullpen that seemed to wear down late in the season, and just maybe give Kansas City the support it needs to challenge for a division title.
“I saw a lot of good, impressive arms,” Eiland said. “It's about consistency, pitching to win and not pitching to survive.”
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