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Crown Jewels: Royals System Improvements, Evaluating Options and Some Non-Tenders
The offseason is in full swing for all of baseball, but everyone, including the Royals, has remained quiet.
I wrote a few weeks ago that I’d heard the Royals were ready to jump the market. We’re about two weeks into the offseason and even though they haven’t done anything of note, they still can. Other than the Tigers trading for Mark Canha (which the Royals were supposedly in on) and the A’s trading for Abraham Toro, it’s been dead. Maybe some of that is the GM meetings ending early, but I don’t think so. I don’t get the sense in talking with people around the game that it’s going to be that kind of offseason, but the longer it goes, the more you think maybe it will be.
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Still, it would be nice to get, oh I don’t know, one big league free agent signing before Thanksgiving because you know things slow down for a few days then. I’m not sure they can get any slower. Actually, they can. Last night was an interesting trade between the White Sox and Braves. The White Sox traded Aaron Bummer, who had a bad year on the surface with a 6.79 ERA but a 3.53 xERA and 3.58 FIP, for a bunch of guys who the Braves were likely to non-tender today, including Nicky Lopez. It seems lopsided, but the Braves traded a handful of players who would have been free agents later today for a guy who can help their bullpen. Classic Braves.
The question I ask myself is if the slow pace is good for the Royals or bad. If literally nothing is happening, can they insert themselves into the story and get someone who was hoping to sign early but with a bit of a bidding war? I think that probably fits with relievers more than anything given how many of them there are out there. I know that JJ Picollo said last week that they don’t see themselves signing a true closer type, maybe someone who is a bit iffy would jump at an offer that may or may not be an overpay, but also who cares? In that way, I do think it’s good for the Royals. But also when there’s a frenzy, which can happen if things take too long to happen, it can put the Royals at a disadvantage. So I’ll continue to advocate for not caring if they set the market high on small-ish anyway contracts and get something done sooner than later. And hey, there’s a roster deadline today. Read about what I wrote earlier this week here:
Pitching Development News
I have to admit that I thought the new coaching staff at the big league level would be able to make more of an immediate impact than they did. The Royals bet on the talent being there and the instruction being subpar under the previous coaching staff and they lost that bet. They were certainly half right, but the talent simply wasn’t there at the big league level and it led to a brutal season on the mound. There were breakthroughs, sure, but largely the pitchers the Royals front office thought just needed a new voice didn’t do enough to prove that they shouldn’t shoulder a good chunk of the blame.
But with the new coaching staff came new philosophies. Many of the names were the same in the minor league in terms of development staff, but things were different. Anne Rogers wrote about it back in June. I’m sure I wrote about her writing about it. One name that emerged from that article was Justin Friedman, who I had never heard of, but he is the assistant director of pitching development/strategist for the Royals. He’s 25 and has made a big difference. After reading the article, I asked a few people about him who didn’t know, but said they’d get back to me and then when they did, all the reports were glowing.
The results were mixed in 2023, but there was a lot of good. We saw strikeouts come back to the system after there were very few of them in previous years. Guys like David Sandlin, Mason Barnett, Noah Cameron, Alec Marsh, Anthony Veneziano and others saw their way to climbing the ladder. John McMillon became a relief monster who we saw briefly in the big leagues. While the system isn’t lauded just yet, people I speak with have said it’s head and shoulders different than it was just a year ago at this time. There’s actual hope from people who don’t have a dog in the fight.
And that leads me to a recent article from Baseball America, which looked at minor league system Statcast rankings. Here is their methodology:
For each organization, team-level metrics such as xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) were calculated by aggregating the metrics of each pitcher in the organization, weighted by the number of pitches thrown in 2023 by each pitcher. The xwOBA stat measures how hitters are expected to perform statistically against these pitches based on their batted ball data
The overall Stuff+ number is a blended metric of each organization’s STF+ (based on our internal model), per pitch Run Value, xwOBA, and pitch quality metrics such as in-zone whiff% and chase %. The resultant number was then scaled on a wRC+ scale where 100 is average and a standard deviation is 10 points. In other words, an organization with an overall Stuff+ number of 90 is one standard deviation worse than a league-average organization.
Players between the ages of 17 to 26 years old were included in this study. Any pitcher older than that was eliminated to minimize the impact of older pitchers on rehabilitation stints or older veterans who make up a great deal of the Triple-A pitching staffs. We are trying to view the developing pitching talent in each organization, not the team’s ability to stock quality MiLB free agents into Triple-A bullpens.
So that’s how they did it. And here’s how the Royals ranked:
10th in Stuff+
15th in in-zone whiff rate
17th in chase rate
4th in xwOBA
Other than the expected weighted OBA, none of these rankings are eye-popping. And I’m not sure the exact spots of where they ranked last season, but I can tell you it was way worse. One of the biggest issues we’ve seen from the organization at all levels is an inability to get swing and miss and a lot of that stems from an inability to get hitters to chase. They’re not great at it, but 17th is middle of the pack. I want to see improvement in 2024, but that is totally fine given where they were in the past (this might directly contradict my next section and I’m okay with that).
I keep hearing they’re still adding more to the development team, so I’m really excited to see how they continue to improve in 2024. It will take another year for me to truly believe, but they made some really good strides in 2023 to make me think it’s possible they could have things figured out on the pitching front soon.
How to Evaluate Possibilities
One of the more interesting players to get designated for assignment on Tuesday to make room for Rule 5 eligible players was Cal Quantrill from the Guardians. Quantrill came over from the Padres in a deal in 2020, moved to the Cleveland rotation in 2021 and was excellent through the end of 2022. As a starter in 2021, he made 22 starts, threw 121 innings and posted a 3.12 ERA with very good control. In 2022, he threw 186.1 innings over 32 starts and had a 3.38 ERA. Then it all sort of collapsed in 2023 with a 5.24 ERA and 5.85 xERA.
How do you rate someone like that? I noted on Twitter that he’d be a perfectly fine addition to the Royals if they chose to go after him, but that I wouldn’t be overly excited about it. Yes, he had a really good season, on the surface, in 2022, but the peripherals worry me and I just have to say that I don’t really see much of a benefit other than having a warm body option for a rotation that needs lots of warm bodies. I will admit that I didn’t even think about how he had been really good in relief in 2020 and 2021 before the Guardians shifted him to the rotation, so that’s a fallback for him.
But I was met with a fair amount of response talking about how he’s better than what they have and how the Royals can’t be turning away opportunities to pick up guys like him and all of that. I wouldn’t say I was surprised by the response, but it did make me think that I sort of hate that mindset. The idea is to get better. Is Quantrill better than the current option? If the answer is yes, then acquiring him is a good move based on the idea that the only idea is to get better. And I should note that this isn’t about Quantrill as much as it’s about the idea of him. But my question here is if the idea is to get better or if the idea is to get good.
Should players be evaluated under the lens of if they’re better than players from a 56-win team? Or should they be evaluated under the lens of if they can lead a 56-win team to, say, 80 wins? I tend to lean toward the latter, especially at this time of year with almost every single available player still available. That’s why I’d much rather take a chance on someone like Erick Fedde than someone like Quantrill. It may turn out that Quantrill can get back to his 2022 ways, but, and now this is about Quantrill specifically, I don’t love the 7.9 percent swinging strike rate. I don’t love the 22.6 percent rate of called and swinging strikes. I don’t love the 39.2 percent hard hit rate.
I suppose in thinking this through a little more, I still would be totally fine with Quantrill, especially because there are ties to Brian Sweeney, who might feel like he can help him get back to overperforming. But I don’t think the criteria for a good signing is that they’re simply better than what is on the current roster because the current roster kind of stinks. That’s just something that rolls around in my head from time to time and I hope I articulated it well here.
Edit: Looks like the Rockies were the ones to take the plunge on Quantrill, so the Royals won’t be taking him on either way. The discussion points still stand.
Non-Tender Candidates Galore
I’ve already written about who I think the Royals should be thinking about moving on from today at the non-tender deadline. But I want to jump the gun and look at some players who they can sign. Similar to the Rule 5 draft, if a player is available because they were not tendered a 2024 contract by their team, they’re inherently probably not great. But there are some interesting values that can be found in this group for a pretty low price. Last season, we saw Cody Bellinger and Jeimer Candelario bounce back in a big way. Ryan Yarbrough was a non-tendered pitcher who was solid for the Royals and then brought back a better-than-expected return in a trade (he might be back out there this year too).
Here are a few players who I’ve seen mentioned more than a time or two who could get non-tendered who I’d love to see the Royals take a look at:
I’m not going to go into great detail on these guys because they aren’t free agents yet, but if they are, they all represent some level of upside at a likely pretty low price. Meadows has had injury issues and mental health issues, but he had a 115 OPS+ in 2021. Lewis was Rookie of the Year in 2020 before injuries derailed him. Laureano is a good defender who looked much better in Cleveland than he did in Oakland. Senzel has been a total bust as a top prospect and didn’t even hit in AAA this past year, but why not roll the dice if it’s cheap? Cimber and Yarbrough are more depth guys on a pitching staff, but both throw strikes and we know the organization likes Yarbrough.
We’ll see if there are any surprises and, again, these players are, by definition, not the best of the best. But sometimes there are some opportunities to find a nice player who just needs a new place to call home. I’ll write up more about this once we know who will be available to add to the market.