Solidifying the Pitching Staff
Some interesting arms are free agents who likely won't break the bank.
When you look at the Royals roster heading into 2022, at least how it stands right now, the one thing that stands is out is that they have a lot of pitching options. It doesn’t mean they’re all actually good options, but there are enough options to fill two big league pitching staffs. The problem is that they find themselves with way more question marks than exclamation points, so it’s probably not the worst idea to add a little stability.
As it stands right now (I’ll probably say that a lot this off-season with the potential for moves), these are the potential candidates the Royals have for the rotation, in alphabetical order:
I don’t think all of them are particularly likely to be candidates deep into spring or anything, but that’s not the point. The point is the sheer number of arms. Just starting at the top, a guy like Bolaños shined in three big league outings before getting hurt. Maybe he’s ready to take that step. Cox is someone I left off my top prospects because of the velocity dip, but if that comes back, that could prove to have been silly. Heasley and Zerpa both had solid September showings. I think Junis gets non-tendered, but until he does he’s a candidate. Lacy is probably not truly a candidate, but if he continues to pitch well in the AFL, you never know. Next year is his age-23 season.
But the problem, as I mentioned above is there’s zero certainty with any of them. I don’t think it would be a huge surprise if Lynch or Hernandez or even Singer figured something out and became a top-of-the-rotation starter, but also, how can you expect that? I’ve written A LOT about how I think the Royals are going to attack the trade market for starting pitching. Honestly, that’s what fits the budget of the team best as starters already under contract tend to be a little less expensive than having to win a bidding war.
That said, while I think they do make a trade (and I’m still banking on Frankie Montas here), there are quite a few free agent options. Where I think they find themselves at an advantage to past seasons and some other teams is that they don’t have to find a middling pitcher. They have plenty of those. What they need is quality. So here are some options:
Alex Cobb - I know I just said they don’t need a middling pitcher, but Cobb was actually good for the Angels this year. Durability is a bit of an issue, but again, all the options mean the Royals don’t have to find 33 starts as a free agent and his lack of innings might suppress his market some. He’s struggled a bit more with control in the last couple years than ever before, but he keeps the ball in the yard and that’s a positive.
Anthony DeSclafani - He’s a bit of a Saberhagen, alternating good and bad years, but he has a good mix of pitches and a nasty slider. My guess is he wants to stay in San Francisco, where they tweaked his pitch usage a bit and seem to be doing a great job of getting the most out of guys, but while he is coming off a very good year, he’s also a bit older and doesn’t have a track record, so his price might be reasonable.
Kevin Gausman - I think Gausman is probably a bit of a pipe dream because he followed up his 2020 with an even better 2021. He was downright dominant for most of the season, though he did have a much more pedestrian 4.42 ERA after the break. It’s hard to judge, though, after the shortened 2020. I don’t think the Royals have much of a shot at him, but they definitely need to at least ask.
Jon Gray - All indications have been that Gray wants to stay in Colorado, but then reports came out that he’s turned down extensions from them, so who knows? He also alternates some good years with some bad, but getting a pitcher out of Colorado never feels like a bad idea. Outside of 2020, he’s always gotten a good amount of grounders, so with the Royals infield defense looking like it’ll be airtight, KC would be a great landing spot for him. Plus the Royals drafted him back in 2010, so it’d be sort of a very vague homecoming.
Michael Pineda - Guys who throw strikes are a breath of fresh air for Royals fans after what we’ve watched the last few seasons and Pineda does throw strikes. He doesn’t have the velocity he used to, but he’s still an effective pitcher and a two-year deal wouldn’t be the worst thing for someone with a 4.8 percent walk rate over the last two seasons.
Robbie Ray - Why am I including him? He’s probably going to win the Cy Young and if he doesn’t will likely finish top three, so the Royals seem to have very little chance, but man would that be fun to see him at the top of their rotation. I should just delete this, but I’m going to leave it because a guy can dream.
Max Scherzer - Hey speaking of dreams, maybe Scherzer wants to come back to Missouri and pitch for the Royals. The issue is that he was a monster again in 2021 and I can’t imagine he wants to go to a team that maybe could possibly potentially find a way to win in 2022 given that it’ll be his age-37 season. The plus side is that he likely wouldn’t require a long-term deal given his age. Still, I’d bet on him staying with the Dodgers or going to the other side of the state before he comes to KC.
Marcus Stroman - Hey speaking of dreams, Stroman would like fantastic in front of the Royals defense. Of course, I’ve seen some talk of five years and $125 million for him, which I just don’t see the Royals doling out. But a good pitcher, who keeps the ball in the yard, doesn’t walk guys and can field his position would be exactly what this team needs to head up their rotation. Again, ending here with three dreams, but I can’t control the alphabet.
Given the options, if the Royals aren’t going to swim with the big fish, I still prefer the trade route. I think the options are better there. But if they do go with a free agent and can’t land any of the last three on the list above, I think I’d prefer Gray out of all of them. He has good stuff and I think getting him out of Colorado would be huge for him.
As many options as there are for the rotation, there are just as many, if not more, for the bullpen. Part of that is that there are a few rotation candidates who could end up there. Part of it is that the Royals just have a lot of really quality arms. Here are the current bullpen candidates who weren’t listed above:
The asterisks are for the guys who I think are locks for next year’s bullpen, again barring any trades. From the starters above, I could see any of Bolañnos, Bubic, Keller, Kowar, Lacy, Minor, Singer or Zerpa in the bullpen as well at some point in 2022, so while the list above seems sort of short, it’s only because I’ve already mentioned a lot of the options. I’m guessing Zimmer and Zuber end up non-tendered for some roster room. And while I listed Klein above, I don’t think he’s a real candidate just yet, but similar to Lacy, he’ll get a look in spring training.
I’ve written before that I believe the Royals need a monster at the back end. That might be Coleman or it might be Staumont or even Klein at some point, but I wouldn’t be upset if they spent a little money on a guy to be the stalwart that would allow Barlow to move to a setup role where he probably truly belongs.
Here are the free agent relievers I could see the Royals going after:
Archie Bradley - The lack of strikeouts concern me as does the control dip we’ve seen in two of the last three seasons for him, but if he can get his curve back to where it was when he was dominating for the Diamondbacks, he could be a big weapon back there.
Danny Duffy - His future is uncertain, but I’m positive that if he wanted to come back and could pitch, the Royals would have Duffy back. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to contribute to the Dodgers and maybe he gives him a shot at him because of his lack of availability, but I could see a reunion here. I think Duffy would work great as an opener or a short reliever, but it’d be fun to see Duffy for two or three innings with an idea of a team stacking their lineup with righties only to face Singer after Duffy exits.
Kendall Graveman - He got his first taste of being a reliever full-time in 2021 and man was Graveman good. He was better for Seattle before the trade, but the power sinker paired with a nasty slider can make him a big-time late-inning weapon for awhile. It’s nice, too, because teams may not have to pay big money because the track record isn’t there.
Daniel Hudson - I believe I mentioned him in my prediction piece a few weeks ago. I’m not sure what happened to Hudson in San Diego, but that team was in freefall, so it’s tough to gauge on that. For Washington, he had 48 strikeouts to seven walks in 32.2 innings. He had a 50 percent whiff rate on his slider. A team gets better with Hudson in their bullpen.
Raisel Iglesias - I think Iglesias is along the lines of Ray, Scherzer and Stroman above, but he’d be the guy I’d spend on. Tons of strikeouts and very few walks are exactly what you want from a closer. He has the occasional home run problem, which isn’t ideal, but that’s what happens when you’re around the zone. Some of that would be taken care of by Kauffman Stadium probably. I’m guessing he gets a contract in the range of what Liam Hendriks got last year, so it’s probably a no go, but this is my dream.
Corey Knebel - Durability is definitely a question for Knebel, who was out for all of 2019 after a tough recovery from Tommy John. Still, he was very good in 25.2 innings for the Dodgers this year. He wasn’t quite the monster he was back a few years ago for the Brewers, but he would be a big-time addition.
Ryan Tepera - He accidentally got an MVP vote in 2020 that sort of turned him into a punchline through no fault of his own, but that doesn’t mean that Tepera isn’t a legitimately very good reliever. He’s become a strikeout guy over the last couple seasons. There’s a risk here because he was just a perennial non-tender candidate before 2020, but the stuff is pretty good and he’d make any bullpen deeper. I don’t think he’s that guy you want at the back end necessarily, so signing Tepera would mean you’re hoping for Coleman or Staumont to grab the closer’s role, but that’s also not the worst thing.
My dream here is Iglesias, but my realistic targets are definitely Hudson or Graveman to help fill out a bullpen. I think the Royals will do a nice job back there in 2022 even without any moves, but I would like to see one more guy pop up with a chance to work with the five locks I currently have.
While the World Series is front and center right now, the talks surrounding the collective bargaining agreement are going to get very loud very soon. I’ve seen one tweet mentioning that the Winter Meetings are being canceled, and while that might be true, that’s something I’ll believe when I see it. What we are seeing is rumors that the owners are ready to lock out the players on December 2. My uneducated opinion on that is it’s a negotiating tactic by the owners to leak that when more eyes are on baseball, which to me is just super slimy. That’s not to say there won’t be a lockout, but to see stories come out on the eve of the World Series that the game is going to come to a halt seems to me like something that has been leaked with the intention of turning the public against the MLBPA.
And it’s not the first time. Throughout all the negotiations during the spring and early summer of 2020 everything was released through the owners, which made the player’s association seem like the bad guys. I don’t understand why the MLBPA doesn’t go on the attack more often like the owners do, but they don’t and so they’re consistently behind the eight ball in public perception. I don’t know what’s going to happen obviously, but my guess is that they reach some deal in the 11th hour to extend negotiations and ultimately reach an agreement before there is any work stoppage. But in the interim, it’s going to be super quiet once awards season is finished.