With the arbitration estimates released on MLB Trade Rumors yesterday, we can get a little clearer picture of where payrolls are going to sit for teams moving into 2022. As you probably know, I keep myself a little spreadsheet that dates back to 2014. I’m kicking myself some because I deleted the tabs from 2009 to 2013 a couple years ago for some reason. But the MLBTR estimates are generally absurdly accurate, so it’s a good opportunity to go in and both update the Royals numbers and then search for players who teams might not be willing to pay.
Let’s start with the Royals number. I have them at about $50 million for six guaranteed contracts for 2022.
Then we can look at the arbitration numbers that are estimated from MLBTR.
Those two groups make up 15 players and are combined at $78.5 million, give or take a buck or two. That leaves 25 more players on the 40-man, all on pre-arbitration deals. Since we don’t know what the 2022 minimum salary is, let’s give them all $600k for round numbers and that puts the 40-man roster for next season as currently constructed at about $93.5 million.
Obviously there will be some non-tenders, both from the pre-arb players and the arbitration eligible. I think we see an end to both Jakob Junis and Ryan O’Hearn, and I think maybe Hanser Alberto, but I’m not quite ready to go there with him. So with the exclusion of the two who I think are gone, that drops the $78.5 million to around $75.2 million. So that’s our starting point.
Now, based on some conversations I haven’t had this year but did have last year, I believe the front office would be willing to go to as high as roughly $110 million on their payroll for 2022. That leaves a bit under $35 million to fill 27 spots on the 40-man roster. I think it’s safe to assume that there will be at least 19 of the current additional 25 that I have on my spreadsheet as part of the 40-man, so add in their $11.4 million estimated and we’re sitting at $86.6 million. Obviously, some of those pre-arb players could move in a trade, so that part is flexible.
Free agency is absolutely an avenue the Royals could look to spend some money without parting with any of their prospect capital. The problem, as I’ve noted before, is that while there is a lot of talent on the market, the vast majority play shortstop (and will cost, in technical terms, a crapload). You may remember that the Royals are in pretty good shape at shortstop and probably at second and third as a result of their glut of shortstops. They could also get into it with first basemen, but they have a pretty good first base prospect just about ready. And then another one behind him. So yeah, that’s not a great fit.
They could try to make a splash in the outfield and go get Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber or Chris Taylor or Michael Conforto, but that would require some roster maneuvering. It’s not that they can’t make those moves, but I’m not sure that they will or even really should. Though if they can buy low on a guy like Conforto and hope he can bounce back to the .265/.369/.495 guy he was from 2016-2020, woo boy, that’d be fun.
And as for starting pitching, there’s a lot out there is every year, but the best of the best are all either likely out of the Royals price range or maybe a bit too risky to take innings away from young starters who could use the work. Yes, I’d love to see Max Scherzer in a Royals uniform, but how realistic is that? I just don’t have much interest in giving $9 million or whatever it would cost to pitch Alex Cobb on Opening Day. Now, if Marcus Stroman wanted to play in front of what looks like a world class defensive infield, you’d have my attention, but it seems like his market is a little too much anyway.
So that brings us to the trade market. And while there are a lot of possibilities out there, I want to focus on arbitration-eligible players based on the MLBTR list that I talked about so long ago that you probably have to scroll twice to see. To find matches there, you need to find a team that may not be willing to pay a high price for a player or a team that may not be willing to pay a high price for any player.
Athletics - Chris Bassitt ($8.8MM) , Sean Manaea ($10.2MM) or Frankie Montas ($5.2MM)
I’ve written so much about trading for A’s starters that I’m repeating myself, but any of these three would be at the top of a 2022 Royals rotation. Bassitt and Manaea are both free agents after the 2022 season, so the deal might not be that expensive for the Royals to pick either up while Montas has two years of control left. Bassitt is a bit older while Manaea and Montas will be heading into their age-30 and age-29 seasons respectively. The A’s are bereft of pitching talent in their system, so this does seem to be a match. Would the Royals trade Jackson Kowar for any of these? Is Kowar’s trade value high enough to actually bring back a good pitcher after the way his season went? I’d say yes, but it’s not as obvious as it once was. I think there’s a deal to be had here, and it makes a whole lot of sense.
Brewers - Josh Hader ($10MM)
The rumor last year is that the Brewers were willing to move Hader, and I don’t know if that’s still the case, but if it is, the Royals should be in on it. Don’t worry about him giving up the series-losing homer yesterday. He still has two years of team control left and is one of the most dominant closers in baseball while they have other dominant relievers who can help keep them competitive late in games even without him. Where the Royals come in handy is that the Brewers system is pretty bare, coming in at 25th on MLB Pipeline and 22nd on Baseball America. They also don’t have a ton of pitching in their system, so a young Royals starter could be the ticket here. But any of the bats outside of Witt, MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto could be a part of a deal too because the Brewers just need dudes in their system. Is this a longshot? Yes. If they made the trade, would they give up more than I think they should for a reliever? Also yes. But there could be a match.
Cubs - Ian Happ ($6.5MM)
Where would Happ fit on the Royals? I think in a corner outfield spot. He fared pretty well defensively in left and not quite as well in right, but in a tiny sample. I just really like the offensive profile for him. He has pop, works walks and is pretty versatile as well. No, he isn’t great defensively at second, but he can handle the spot. He’s been okay in center field as well. He is under team control for two more years and, stop me if you’ve heard this before, the Cubs need pitching in their system. I don’t imagine this would take any of the big, big guns for the Royals, so they could jump to their second tier. Not a great fit, but if they make a move, Happ could slide in to either replace Whit Merrifield or Andrew Benintendi pretty easily.
Mariners - Diego Castillo ($2.6MM)
I wouldn’t normally say that a team would trade the guy they acquired to close games after missing the playoffs by just two games, but it’s Jerry DiPoto and, come on, the guy loves to wheel and deal. Castillo is a very good and very underrated reliever, so it’s a stretch to say he’s available, but the Mariners could use some offense to add to their core, and the Royals have some young bats in their second tier and maybe could entice them with the talent of someone like Adalberto Mondesi. On one hand, moving Mondesi for a reliever would be a bit of a slap in the face, but on the other hand, Mondesi still hasn’t put it together and only has two years left before free agency. I’d be annoyed by a straight up deal, but maybe get back an additional arm in the deal and it makes some sense to fill the Mariners need at third and the Royals need in the bullpen.
Marlins - Sandy Alcantara ($4.5MM)
The Marlins both can’t really hit and don’t have a lot in their system on the way either. But they can pitch. And Alcantara is arguably the best of the bunch. So this would hurt. A lot. It would likely require moving Melendez, is my guess, along with a little bit more. But if the Royals want a young starter who has proven he can pitch well enough to front a rotation, Alcantara would be that guy. I don’t know if I’d make that move or not. I think I might, but looking at pitchers with some arbitration numbers that start off big, Alcantara is likely to get into big-time double digits quickly and is under team control for three more seasons. Does JJ Picollo have the stomach to make this trade? That’s the question. Also if he should, which I don’t know either. But Alcantara getting expensive with their other pitching depth feels like he could be had for a big price right now.
Padres - Dinelson Lamet ($4.6MM) and Joe Musgrove ($8.9MM)
This is just me mindlessly speculating, but the Padres have a pretty big bill due next season on a team that just went 79-83 and fired their manager. They theoretically have Mike Clevinger coming back, along with Blake Snell and Yu Darvish still in the rotation and young pitchers like Ryan Weathers, Mackenzie Gore, Chris Paddack and others. They might want to offload a guy or two expected to get a raise. Musgrove was very good in his first season in San Diego, and I could see them not wanting to move him since he’s a hometown guy and was the only one to really thrive this year. But still, that price tag isn’t small and he’s a free agent after 2022. With Lamet, you’re buying a lottery ticket who might turn out to be a $500 million ticket with the stuff he has. But he can’t stay healthy. You also get two years of team control on him. I’d opt for Musgrove, but either of these two could be had and I would think some young and cheap position players would do the trick to help out the Padres bloated payroll.
Rays - Tyler Glasnow ($5.8MM)
This gets a little tricky. Glasnow had Tommy John Surgery in early August, which means he’s likely not going to pitch much, if at all, in 2022. But he’s under team control through 2023. I imagine the Rays will do something to give him a two-year deal for like $10 million and pay him $2 million in 2022 and the rest in 2023, but they operate on a stricter budget than just about anyone, so maybe they offer him up to a team willing to pay for him to rehab to get the benefits in 2023. The problem with the Rays is they don’t need much of anything because they do everything so freaking well. I don’t know how a deal gets done, but the fact that a talent like Glasnow could be out there intrigues me enough to include him here.
Reds - Luis Castillo ($7.6MM) and Tyler Mahle ($5.6MM)
Rumors were that the Reds were looking to shed payroll following the 2020 season. That may change if Nick Castellanos does indeed opt out or they’re able to find a taker for Sonny Gray (who would also be on this list if it wasn’t just arbitration players. But for now, they have just a touch under $90 million committed to six players with a handful of arbitration raises coming. Their system is pretty good, but without a real shortstop, this could be a spot where Mondesi comes in handy if they want to move him. It would take more than just him, but I would think his speed and power potential would be very appealing to the Reds. Maybe not a hugely likely deal here, but possible at least. Castillo and Mahle both are under team control through 2023.
There could be some others who have slipped through the cracks, and it’s obviously mostly pitching I’ve listed because I think that’s going to be the target. I almost included Cody Bellinger to this list, but I just can’t see the Royals taking on one of the biggest single-season salaries in franchise history for a player coming off a season like he had. So there are other possibilities they could go after if they make moves to allow it, but these are just a handful of potential arbitration casualties from other teams who the Royals could use some additional payroll space to benefit from.