Royals Announced Their Intentions, So Who Fits in Free Agency?
The Royals have plenty of holes, but they seem to have a few areas they're targeting.
At the yearly press conference that the Royals hold after the season, I was generally pleased with what JJ Picollo and Matt Quatraro discussed. There were a few things that I didn’t love, and I’ll get to those, but I appreciated that they didn’t try to tell us they expected 106 losses or that they feel like they’re on the cusp of contention. I appreciated that they set actual markers for the offseason and for next season. Not that we need them to tell us a free agent target or a win total goal or anything, but when they do, that sets up something that if they don’t mean, there’s something tangible to take them to task for in the future.
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If you want to view the whole press conference from last week, you can do so here:
Okay, now that you’ve watched/listened, you can
A few things stuck out to me from what Picollo specifically said. I’ll start with the one that fuels everything they do between now and the start of the season and that’s the win total. He threw out a range somewhat casually of 80 to 85 wins, mentioning that’s not likely to be a win total they contend with but would represent improvement. On the surface, that seems kind of crazy, and I think I’d be pretty surprised if they approach 80 wins, but it’s also not quite as nuts as it might seem.
The Royals had the second-highest bullpen ERA in baseball in 2023. That, friends, is bad. If you look at something like FIP, they weren’t quite as bad, but still fifth-worst. They actually did fine in one-run games with a 21-20 record, so maybe fixing the bullpen won’t impact as much, but the point that I’m going to make is that the bullpen is probably the easiest thing to turn over and fix year to year, so if they are able to do that (and I’m getting to it), maybe you make up a handful of the wins right there. They lost 20 games they were either tied or leading in the eighth inning or later. I looked at the team closest to 80 wins in 2023, the Giants, and they lost 12.
Their bullpen was pretty much exactly middle-of-the-pack in ERA (and actually one of the best in FIP but results matter). Obviously, losses in the late innings aren’t entirely a result of the bullpen, so it’s not solely on a bad bullpen, but it’s easy to see that going from bad to average is a pretty good way to cut off a good chunk of those losses. I don’t know that we can automatically give the Royals eight more wins with an average bullpen, but their pythagorean record was 64-98, which is exactly eight wins better, so that’s sort of interesting there.
If you head into the offseason thinking this is really a 64-win team on true talent, then getting to 80 wins doesn’t take as much of a leap. And I will mention that there were plenty of people who I remember citing pythagorean record when the Royals were outperforming it, so I’d say if you were one of those, then I find it difficult to take anyone seriously who ignores it now. The reality, as almost always, is likely somewhere in between. But regardless, I find it interesting that he put a win total out there. Getting to 75 isn’t 80. Getting to 79 isn’t 80. He’s set a goal, and whether you believe it’s a realistic one or not, he is now going to be judged on that number.
So that was a long way to get to how they get there. Let’s move on to the actual player discussion.
In the press conference, he mentioned that there are three members of the rotation in place for 2024 - Cole Ragans, Brady Singer and Jordan Lyles. Obviously the latter of those three was frustrating for people to hear. And I think that’s totally fair! At this time in 2021, Mike Minor was also a part of the 2022 rotation and ended up getting traded for a middle reliever. That is not to say that this is the same situation. It might be, it might not be, but as Soren Petro and I discussed last week, they already have two rotation spots they’re telling you they need to fill, so to add a third makes it more difficult. Get the two open spots filled and then they can look for a plan to replace Lyles in some way.
There are certainly internal options. Angel Zerpa had a strong finish in September with a 2.29 ERA with 19 strikeouts and just two walks in 19.2 innings. He didn’t start a single game, but did give some bulk innings and now he’s pitching in the Arizona Fall League to make up for some lost time. He had sort of pitched himself out of the future rotation and then maybe pitched himself back in.
They have Daniel Lynch IV, who had a chance to prove he could be a part of the future but couldn’t stay healthy. They have Kris Bubic, who looked great in a very small sample, but missed the rest of the year. They also have Alec Marsh, who flashed potential. Anthony Veneziano had a couple of outings late out of the bullpen. Jonathan Bowlan too. I think there are some younger guys who might get looks even though they’re not likely to get real consideration early in the year like Mason Barnett and Chandler Champlain.
But the likelihood is that the Royals are going to go outside the organization, which makes a whole lot of sense. They simply need more depth. I’m a fan of the opener idea, but as a strategical play, not out of necessity like the Royals had to do so often early in the season. So who makes sense?
All of these pitchers make the Royals demonstrably better, but for various reasons, it'll be tough to get them to come to Kansas City.
Sonny Gray - Gray had the best year of his career by ERA+, suppressed home runs at a rate unmatched by anyone in baseball and threw 184 innings after throwing 255 in the previous two years combined. There are a few factors working against the Royals if they wanted to even pursue him. He’ll be 34, coming off a playoff run with the Twins and likely to want to continue winning rather than heading a young rotation on a below average or worse team. That said, the number of years he’d require would allow a team like the Royals to go a little crazy on AAV. It’s not happening, but maybe the market doesn’t develop.
Jordan Montgomery - If Montgomery was a free agent prior to the 2023 season, I think he’d have been a perfect target for a team like the Royals needing solid innings. Maybe even if he became a free agent before the trade deadline, he would have been a great fit. But then he went to the Rangers and posted a 2.79 ERA in 11 starts in the middle of a pennant race and his value jumped. He did struggle in his last start, so maybe there’s some drop off, but I think he went from a reasonable, but likely overpay to a little out of range. I wouldn’t be too surprised if he gets a five or six-year deal and I don’t think I’d give him that.
Aaron Nola - Here’s probably the most interesting pitcher on the market, in my opinion. He has finished in the top-seven in Cy Young voting three times, made 32+ starts in every full season since 2018, gets strikeouts and doesn’t walk batters. But his strikeout rate fell from excellent to simply above average and he posted a 4.46 ERA this year. It’s his second year out of the last three with a below average ERA. In both years, his xERA was much better, as was his FIP, but you wonder what the results will do for him. He’ll be 31 and struggled in the NLCS and World Series last year, but I still think he gets a big, honkin’ deal. Do the Royals make a splash and overpay and hope he doesn’t fall off a cliff? I doubt it, but man I think it’d be a good move.
Eduardo Rodriguez - I actually don’t even know if Rodriguez is going to opt out of his contract with the Tigers because he vetoed a deal to the Dodgers due to his family’s comfort. So maybe he doesn’t hit the market, but he’s a solid starter who would be an upgrade to basically any rotation. There have been some injury issues and some personal issues that have impacted his total innings with the Tigers, but if he opts out, he’ll find himself in line for a nice deal.
Marcus Stroman - This is the one guy who might pick his team based on infield defense, so if he leaves the Cubs, the Royals were ninth in baseball in outs above average (OAA) at second base, second at third base and second at shortstop. For a pitcher who relies so much on grounders, having that infield defense behind him is a must, so that could help the Royals lure him if they wanted to. I just think he’ll get more than they’d feel comfortable paying him and probably more than they should pay him.
Attainable, But Not Flashy
Kyle Gibson - I have a feeling the Royals are going to bring in someone like Gibson who is good for some innings, but has a better track record than the last guy who is good for some innings. He’ll be 36 next year, had a 4.73 ERA this year but threw 192 innings. There is some understandable trepidation about signing a guy who threw innings for the Orioles in the previous season, and I can’t say I would argue with it. A one-year deal here would be fine, I guess, and I’d take him over Lyles, but I’d rather they swing a little bigger.
Lucas Giolito - Giolito is sort of the inverse of Montgomery. Even with a tough 2022 season, if he was a free agent after last year, I would guess he’d still have gotten a deal richer than the Royals would or should have given him. And at the deadline this year, it would have been even bigger. Then he absolutely tanked with the Angels first and then the Guardians. What he does do is take the mound and he strikes hitters out. It’s a risk signing someone who looked so bad for two months, but the Royals have to take some risks that they can figure out how to get him back to the guy from 2019 to 2021 and the first four months of 2023. My biggest question here is what he wants to do. Would he take a four years and $48 million deal or something and guarantee a good amount or want a one-year deal to hit the market against next year? I don’t know, but I’d probably give him either.
Jack Flaherty - What do you make of Flaherty? He put up an incredible season in 2019 as a 23-year-old in his second full season. He struggled in 2020, but I think it’s easy to just toss that aside. He had some injuries in 2021, including a shoulder injury that hampered him in 2022 also. But he was healthy in 2023 and had some combination of good starts and bad starts before getting dealt to the Orioles at the deadline where he struggled enough to be sent to the bullpen. I don’t know. He’ll be 28 and could be a Gil Meche-ish signing, I suppose. The talent is clearly there, but his velocity fluctuates from game to game and health seems to be an ongoing question. Would he sign for three or four years? Maybe! Would he sign a pillow contract? Maybe!
Michael Lorenzen - I didn’t know where to put Lorenzen, who was really good for Detroit and then threw a no-hitter for the Phillies. Then he gave up 26 runs on 37 hits over 26 innings in his next five starts. He seems like a decent bet to sign another one-year deal like he did with the Tigers. His slider is a pitch that he sort of tabled in 2022 and brought back in 2023 with some good numbers on, so maybe there’s a way to use that more to get more whiffs. I guess as someone who is likely a trade piece at the deadline, he’d be fine.
Frankie Montas - It’s hard to believe Montas is only heading into his age-31 season. He was very good in half a season in 2019, pretty bad in 2020 and very good again in 2021 and 2022 before being traded to the Yankees and then going down with an injury. He missed almost the whole season, throwing one game, the penultimate game of the season. The velocity was way down, but it was also 26 pitches. The upside is so high that I think he’d be one of my top priorities in a weird way.
Luis Severino - Severino isn’t all that different from Montas except we saw a terrible season from him rather than no season. He throws hard, but his changeup and slider dropped dramatically in 2023. He missed the end of the season with a strained oblique and ended with a 6.65 ERA, but he made 19 starts with a 3.19 ERA and 2.94 xERA in 2022. So he isn’t far removed from being a legitimate guy at the top. Assuming health, I’d absolutely take a flyer.
My Top Targets: Giolito, Montas, Montgomery, Stroman, Nola (a guy can dream)
I already wrote about the issues in the bullpen and nobody doesn’t know about them anyway. What do we know about the 2024 unit? Well, basically nothing. We know that James McArthur had a bonkers September that saw him put up one of the best months in team history. I’m a huge McArthur fan, but he also gave up three runs in an inning in his last big inning before the September callup. That gave him a 15.43 big league ERA. I think he’s a legitimate bullpen weapon, but I also want to caution against seeing him as some sort of savior even with the great September.
Otherwise, there is literally nothing the Royals can count on. Carlos Hernandez looked great at times and looked DFA-worthy after the deadline. Jackson Kowar had a flash for a minute, but then regressed. Taylor Clarke had a great stretch and then one of the worst stretches I remember from a reliever. Dylan Coleman simply couldn’t throw strikes. Tucker Davidson is not an answer. Collin Snider is not an answer. Steven Cruz could be good, but also had some very serious control issues. John McMillon looked like a legitimate dude, but then went on the IL with a right forearm strain and we’ve heard nothing since. Bowlan and Veneziano are options, but have no track record.
But looking to free agency, there are a lot of good options. And if you want to help your team win more games quickly, you can spend a relatively small amount and boost a bullpen very quickly. That small amount can add up, but in 2023, only 11 relievers even made eight figures and only 22 made $8 million or more. There are a lot of contracts to be found in the two years and $15-$18 million range, which, as I said, can add up fast, but won’t hamper much. I broke down the options in three ways from their 2023 stats - better than average in both strikeout and walk rates, better than average in strikeout rate and better than average in walk rate.
Above Average Strikeout and Walk Rates
Joe Jimenez - The Braves acquired Jimenez before the season and he continued what started in 2022 with the Tigers when he just stopped walking guys. He did give up some home runs, but he might find himself in line for a three or four-year deal with the kind of work he’s done the last two years. He’ll only be 29 in 2024, so I think he’s worth a bit of a risk to help a bullpen that was so bad in 2023.
Phil Maton - He’s always gotten strikeouts, but only in the last couple of seasons have the results matched. He threw his curve more than any other pitch this year and the results were great. While I’m not sure if that’s sustainable, he had a 32.5 percent whiff rate on what should be a middling fastball as well. There are some red flags here, but he should be in line to help some team’s bullpen.
Emilio Pagan - I’d guess there are a lot of 2022 Twins fans snickering about him on this list, but he had a really nice year in 2023. He threw his cutter more and his splitter less and it worked. He’s a reliever, so there’s volatility and he’s had more bad years than good, but that’s why he’s likely not going to require a huge financial outlay. Plus he has experience with Matt Quatraro as one of his good years was in Tampa.
Robert Stephenson - For two straight years, Stephenson had struggles of some sort early, got traded and then ended his year on a very high note. This year, he struck out 60 and walked eight batters in 38.1 innings with the Rays. He does have a big fastball, but he relies on a cutter and a slider. While the Royals have sliders all over the place, they don’t have a lot of cutters, so he’d interestingly be a different look.
Chris Stratton - If you’re looking for someone flashy, look elsewhere, but Stratton seems to be solid every single year. He doesn’t walk a ton of guys, he strikes out enough and he keeps the ball in the yard. His fastball was incredibly effective in 2023 and he used it more because of that, but he also saw his changeup play up a little more this year without extra use, so maybe there’s another level that a better pitch mix could unlock.
Matt Moore - The Rangers put Moore in the bullpen full time in 2022 for the first time and he was a dominant force. Then in 2023, his strikeout rate stayed basically the same but his walk rate dropped significantly. He had a bizarre year, playing for three teams, but he was good all the way through. He did a lot of the heavy lifting with his dominant changeup, but his fastball is no slouch. I’d be all over him.
Will Smith - The Royals got Smith started on the right track to being a solid reliever around the game for more than a decade and now it’s time to bring him home. He didn’t have a great year with the Rangers, but he was good and has closing experience, which isn’t the worst thing. He threw roughly half sliders this year because it’s a bonkers good pitch. I can’t imagine he’d require more than two years and probably would only take one. He’s one of my top targets here.
Above Average Strikeout Rate
Jordan Hicks - Hicks is likely going to command quite a bit and, if we’re being honest, probably won’t be worth it. But he’s also when you throw 100 MPH and have a platform season like the one he did, you’re going to get paid. But on the off chance the market doesn’t develop, there are worse ways to give a guy too much money on a one-year deal.
Pierce Johnson - He’s going to strike guys out and likely walk more than you want, but he’s also going to strike guys out. How does he do it? He does actually throw hard, but his curve is his bread and butter. And it’s worth noting that he got even better over the last couple of months after being traded to the Braves. Johnson isn’t going to anchor a bullpen, but on a team that needs, oh I don’t know, six relievers, he can certainly fit.
Craig Kimbrel - One of the best of all time isn’t what he used to be, but he’s still very good. He’s also in the one or two-year deal stage of his career, which puts him on the map for anyone. If he prioritizes winning, the Royals are out on any short-term deal, but if he wants the most money, again, why not make a splash and have a great trade piece at the deadline? The no likely comes from Kimbrel’s side, but I’d at least reach out.
Reynaldo Lopez - The market for Lopez is going to be fascinating to me because he’s kind of polarizing. He’s been very good since becoming a full-time reliever, so maybe I’m underestimating him, but he also had a 12.2 percent walk rate in 2023. He throws 98 MPH, though, and has thrown strikes in the past. He could surprise and take down a four-year deal, but if the Royals could get him for two or maybe even three, I’d look into it.
Ryne Stanek - Bring the local guy home. He missed time this year and saw his performance dip some, but he’s a hard-thrower who gets a ton of swing and miss on two different pitches. Plus, he has familiarity with Quatraro and Paul Hoover and obviously went to high school in the area. That can work both ways, but I’d be all in on getting Stanek to the Royals.
Aroldis Chapman - We know what Chapman is and he had a really nice year both with the Royals and then with the Rangers after the trade at the end of June. I didn’t think there was enough upside in the player to deal with the off-field issues. I was apparently wrong from a baseball standpoint. I don’t necessarily love the idea of a guy who walked as many as he did, but I guess another Cole Ragans would be fine at the deadline (they likely would not hit that big again, but it’s fun to dream).
Above Average Walk Rate
Ryan Brasier - He’s a great story, returning to the big leagues in 2018 after his last appearance in 2013. And he was good until 2022. The peripherals were good, but the results were not. Then he struggled to start the year with Boston and the peripherals were not good. Then he went to the Dodgers and was outstanding. He throws hard, has a nasty slider and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more in his cutter. I don’t think he’d be terribly costly either.
Buck Farmer - An addition of Farmer doesn’t change the trajectory of a team, but for a team needing so many arms, he can help in middle relief. He’s been a solid reliever since 2018 with just one blip in 2021. He threw his slider about 34 percent of the time in 2023. I wonder a little if he could find another level by throwing it about 8-10 percent more. It would be nice if the organization had guys like him in the system, but he’s someone who can fill a middle relief role nicely.
Brent Suter - I’ve liked Suter for awhile. He just gets it done and somehow only gave up three home runs pitching in Colorado. He doesn’t get strikeouts, but his changeup is pure filth and he did incorporate a two-seam fastball last year that he hadn’t used much in previous years. I think that can help him moving forward. He’s another solid arm.
Trevor May - I think 2023 was something of a challenge for May who took some time off for mental health, but ended up with a pretty good year by ERA and a pretty bad year with strikeouts and walks. His velocity was down, so that’s something to consider, but his slider was the weird pitch for me. He went from a 23.3 percent whiff rate in 2022 to a 4.8 percent whiff rate in 2023. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a slider drop like that year over year. The spin rate was basically the same as was movement. I’d bank on a bounceback from him on that front, which should help the peripherals rebound too.
Matt Wisler - This would likely be a minor league deal after he spent the whole year in the minors and wasn’t especially good, but Wisler has been a good pitcher in the recent past and I’d absolutely take a shot here. He’s predictable. He threw a slider 91.3 percent of the time in 2022, but it’s a good pitch. It’s a risk, but on a minor league deal, how risky can it be?
Wandy Peralta - He throws a changeup first and then his sinker, which is interesting. The changeup is a big swing-and-miss pitch, as is his slider, which maybe he’d throw a bit more moving forward. But while Peralta hasn’t been great with strikeouts or walks, he just keeps getting results. He had a 2.72 ERA with a 2.66 ERA in 2022. The xERA wasn’t good at 4.70 in 2023, but he did have a 2.83 ERA. The two years before 2022, he was solid too. He’ll be 32 and probably gets two years, but I’d absolutely talk to him.
My Top Targets: Pagan, Stanek, Farmer, Suter, Smith, Stephenson
Bats in free agency are few and far between, but as you heard directly from the general manager, this is an area they’re looking. I think they’re probably more likely to address the outfield via trades, but I’ll look at that over the next few weeks. Today is about free agency. I warned you that there isn’t much, but here are the options:
Adam Duvall - Looking at Duvall’s career, it feels like you just don’t know what you’re going to get from him. He’s had some big home run seasons with 30+ three different times. He was really solid for the Red Sox overall in 2023, but is very streaky. He’s a solid defender in the outfield, though, and can definitely lengthen a lineup. Plus, he has legitimate power that the Royals could use.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. - I don’t think I’d have advocated for Gurriel prior to this season, but he showed something pretty impressive in Arizona. He rediscovered the power stroke he lost in Toronto and was a monster defensively. I didn’t realize how solid he’d been the last couple of years in Toronto defensively, but he was excellent in left field this year. He doesn’t walk much, but he makes contact and it’s generally good contact. He’d be my top target here.
Teoscar Hernandez - I want to say that I don’t like this option, but he’s out there. He doesn’t walk, but he also strikes out a ton. He does have power and he had a 133 wRC+ from 2020 to 2022, so maybe it’s a bit of a buy-low upside deal. His defense rates better than I expected, so maybe I’m underselling him a bit, but I’d be hesitant to go after a guy who struggles with contact like he does.
Tommy Pham - I’ve heard from people that Pham is both a clubhouse cancer and a great glue guy, so who knows on that? But he had a nice year in 2023 after a rougher year in 2022 after a solid enough year in 2021 and a rough year in 2020 and a really good year in 2019. You get the idea. He has a grasp of the zone, has some power and makes good contact. He’s fine defensively. I get the sense he’s a guy who wants to win, so I don’t think he’s signing a deal with a team like the Royals unless he has to, which might not be great for a guy who has a mixed reputation.
Hunter Renfroe - With Renfroe, you get power and that’s roughly it. He walks at a near league average rate, so I guess that’s not fair. And he makes more contact than you’d expect. But his defense has taken a step back over the last few years and that generally doesn’t get better as a player ages. He does have a great arm, though.
Jorge Soler - You may not have noticed this, but Soler put up his lowest swinging strike rate of his career in 2023. His strikeout rate dropped to 24.3 percent, which is the second-lowest of his career and he had a .262 ISO, which he only topped in one full season and that was the year he hit 48 home runs for the Royals. I think we all know what kind of defense he plays, so he’s likely only an option if they trade Salvador Perez, but he’d be an interesting reunion candidate.
My Top Targets: Gurriel and Duvall
So there you have it. Based on the comments of Picollo last week and what they’re looking for, I picked out 36 free agents who fit in some way what I think the Royals should be doing. It’s a lot and there are probably 75 more guys who could be available via a trade, so the Royals certainly have their options. It’ll be a very interesting winter.