Top 5 Free Agent Picks for the Royals

Over the last several years, the Royals have seemed to try every possible option to win games.  They’ve held on to their best players and acquired top-end talent through high draft picks; they’ve also traded away their best players and taken weird, quirky talents in the draft.  They’ve been limited in free agent signings but also tried to open a window with small, multi-year deals for Mike Minor and Carlos Santana, plus a trade for Andrew Benintendi.  They’ve changed, modified and overhauled their major and minor league staffing, and at this point a good chunk of their front office.  But there is one thing they haven’t tried:

Spending meaningful amounts of money.

Personally, I give them credit for what seemed to be a legitimate, good-hearted effort to compete in 2021.  But it wasn’t enough then and it’s not what we need now.  If the Royals want a fast turnaround, their first step should be to sign real players for real money—not fringe MLB talent for pennies on the dollar.  Players that a legitimate, competitive team would want on their roster.

…That being said, this is a tough free agent class that is disappointingly limited on quality players, both positional and pitcher…al.  It’s not the best year to go on a shopping spree—but that doesn’t mean the Royals should sit pat and wait another year.  No, with a 106-loss season being the newest installment in a 7-year drought of winning seasons, something must be done to bring this team back to contention.  The Royals being just one of eight MLB teams with a sub-$100M payroll as ownership expects public funding for a new stadium no one asked for is downright unacceptable in this scenario.

It’s time to open the checkbook and show that effort is being made.  Look, I’ll keep my expectations reasonable—we’re not signing Ohtani.  Sorry.  As a matter of fact, I’m gonna rule out the JP players coming overseas this winter—pitchers Yamamoto, Imanaga and Matsui—just because the Royals don’t seem like desired landing spots for any of them.  I think they could afford Imanaga and Matsui and I would be all for it, but I don’t see them wanting to play for us, unfortunately.

Anyway, here is my free agent wish list for Sherman Claus this winter.  Keep in mind these aren’t the only free agents I would want to target; instead, this is more of a categorized list.  Each player will represent something the organization needs, and these are my top picks for each.

Aaron Nola, SP — 7 years, $175 million

Nola is like the good version of Eric Hosmer but as a pitcher and with the years flipped around.  As the youth might say, Hos was “extremely based” in odd years and “washed af” in even years.  Nola ranges from Cy Young contender in even years to inoffensively mid in odd years—but even that isn’t giving him enough credit when FanGraphs notes him as a 4 WAR pitcher in those “mid” years.  He’s kind of an analytic wonderboy: the ERA isn’t pretty, but the underlying numbers are.

His ERA in 2023 was 4.46 and 4.63 in 2021; but his FIP, a better indication of how a pitcher is actually pitching, results be damned, was 4.03 this year and 3.37 in 2021, suggesting significant underperformance and genuine bad luck.  What I think did him in this year was just an unlucky home run spike.  He surrendered a career high 32 longballs this year when his actually good seasons barely reach half that amount.  And if the Phillies’ park wasn’t doing him enough injustice, there’s also the entire rest of the team that has little to no understanding of how “defense” works.

I’ve said this for years (not that anyone has kept up with what I’ve said in my vague spaces of the internet): put Aaron Nola in Kauffman with the kind of defense we generate and this guy is winning a Cy Young.  He does reasonably well at keeping the ball in the park (even with this year’s HR spike he wasn’t getting hit obnoxiously hard or anything), and he does even more important things extremely well: he doesn’t give up a lot of walks, he gets a lot of strikeouts, and he pitches a lot of innings.  Among all starters with 150+ innings pitched in 2023, he ranks 15th in strikeout-to-walk ratio—and this was a down year for him.  He was 1st in 2022.  From 2018 to now, only one man has thrown more innings than Aaron Nola; that’s Gerrit Cole.  Nola, Cole, along with Jose Berrios and teammate Zack Wheeler, are the only four pitchers to have qualifying seasons (one inning pitched for every game played by the team) every year for the past six seasons.  He does what a starter is supposed to do: he pitches the majority of the game, and he’s pretty damn good at it.

Which leads us to his signability…  I’ll have to concede something: I have no idea what Nola’s value is on the market.  His career numbers are pretty incredible and, in my opinion, the best of any other starter on the market.  He’s also had issues with inconsistency, is already past age 30, and this is a market with few other options, meaning more competition from buyers.  I was hoping his downer year would make a 5-year deal around $100M-$120M within the realm of possibility, especially with an opt-out after year 2 in case he has another banger odd year season.  Basically, the Ian Kennedy contract adjusted for inflation.  Then he shoved in the postseason, posting a 2.35 ERA in four starts.  Now I’m wondering if even a 6-year deal will be all it takes.

But, you know what?  I don’t care.  Spend the money anyway.  I would rather overpay for Nola right now and risk suffering some awful age 35-37 years than sit through another 100-loss season, pondering and getting excited at the possibility of another off-season finally bringing me something to invest in.  The Royals need to do SOMETHING and I strongly believe in Nola.  I’m also of the opinion that overpaying for starting pitching is not that big of an issue.  If he sucks down the line, guess what?  There are 13 pitchers needed on the roster.  A $30M AAV contract isn’t going to block a promising, young prospect like how a $6M AAV magically prevented the Royals from having a proper third baseman for at least two months.  Moreover, one bad SP and contract doesn’t sink a team.  Yes, Ian Kennedy was probably the worst contract ever signed by the Royals, but that’s not why they were bad post-2016; they were bad because they didn’t have anything better to use in his stead.  Kind of like how I, somewhat shamefully, defend the existence of Jordan Lyles—it’s not his fault we don’t have five pitchers better than him.  In five years, the Royals should be a good team no matter what, with or without Nola’s help.  If we’re suffering through this contract AND the team’s bad, then many things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.

If Nola costs what I said at the top, so be it.  Give it to him, Sherman.  Put your money where your mouth is and show the world—not just KC—that the Royals are to be taken seriously.  If you want money for a stadium, my demands are to make Aaron Nola the Royals’ starting pitcher on March 28.  There are other good SP’s that could be “aces” for the Royals like Flaherty, Montgomery; personally I’m a Stroman believer as well, and just because I’m not going to list them doesn’t mean I don’t think the Royals shouldn’t sign them.  It’s just that I prefer Nola over all of them.

Luis Severino, SP — 1 year, $8 million

I would like the Royals to sign multiple starting pitchers one way or another.  Like, two actually worthwhile SP’s and maybe a reclamation project or two.  Here’s a project: Luis Severino, the fallen ace of the Yankees.  It’s easy to forget that in that magical 2017 season where Judge just kind of showed up and hit a bunch of home runs, Sevy was the one carrying that pitching staff.  He was signed to a 5-year extension after another great season in 2018, and injuries devastated him immediately.  He pitched a total of 18 innings in the first three years of that contract, but it looked like things were steering towards a happy end when he pitched 102 innings in 2022 to a 3.18 ERA.  Instead, his walk year was defined by a 6.65 ERA in 89 innings.  His walk rate was at a career high, his strikeout rate a career low, and most importantly, he gave up home runs more frequently than any other pitcher with more than 60 innings logged this year.

So why in the name of Madara Uchiha would I want to sign this bum?  Well… he still throws 97.  That’s maybe the weirdest thing about him.  His stuff didn’t, like, vanish or anything.  His pitches still look good and they grade out pretty decently, too.  It’s not like he’s throwing unmovable bowling balls over the plate—even though he’s getting hit like he is.  I’m not saying nothing’s wrong with him.  Obviously there’s some kind of issue with how he’s delivering his pitches, how he’s using them, where he’s putting them, etc.  It could be any of these things, it could be all of these things.  I’m not sure, I’m just some weird anime guy on the internet.  But what I am saying is that he’s probably not as broken as you think.

It’s a well-known thing that the Yankees just kind of suck to play for nowadays.  The joke (it’s a real thing but reality is often a joke) is that the Royals would be the Yankees AAA team.  Every ball player would dream of playing in The Bronx.  Now it’s like everyone wants to escape from The Bronx.  Joey Gallo, Sonny Gray, Aaron Hicks, Aroldis Chapman… players improve with a change of scenery all the time, but it seems to happen to the Yankees a bit more often than usual.  Get Sevy on a prove it deal and see if you can’t get him going again—hey, he could probably convert to a reliever with that velocity if nothing else.

Adam Duvall, OF — 1 year, $7 million (+ 2025 team option of 1 year $7 million)

This is the only position player on this list for two reasons: one, the Royals don’t need an infielder.  Like, at all.  Even if Garcia is traded (he should be), I’m comfortable sticking with Vinnie, Massey, Bobby and Loftin around the bases.  And the thing about our outfield is that I don’t know if we truly need another guy out there.  It certainly needs to be better—I’m not questioning that at all.  But I really don’t want to give up on any of Waters, Isbel or MJ, and I think Velazquez is for real.  AND there’s Dairon Blanco, who I think is a little better than what people give him credit for.  I haven’t even mentioned Nick Pratto and the expected debut of Tyler Gentry.  There’s just so much going on here that I don’t think the Royals can commit to anything.

So here’s where Duvall comes in.  He’s going to be 35 next season and he’s only played about half the season for each of the last two years.  Not the most reliable offering, right?  But when he does play, he’s good.  His defense has been roundly solid for his whole career—he won a Gold Glove in 2021—and he’s been an above-average hitter for each of the last five seasons.  Granted, he’s only had two full seasons in that time and one of them was the pandemic year, but in his 1562 plate appearances he’s slashed .234 / .291 / .494; good for an OPS+ of 106.  The slugging is what’s most important, as he’s homered in more than 6% of his at bats since 2019.

A theory I’ve had about 2023 is that the Royals didn’t have enough veteran presence in the clubhouse, which contributed to the team getting to an early-season slump they could never dig themselves out of.   Royals GMs will sign a 32-year-old journeyman with 4 career WAR and call him a “veteran leader”, and look I understand Michael Massey cited Matt Duffy as a major influence when he started hitting better.  But you know who players actually gravitate towards?  True winners.  Yes, Salvy is a champion and everyone loves him; he’s also been forced to stick around many godawful teams.  Duvall was on multiple playoff Braves teams including their championship year.

The Royals need to sign players who are accustomed to playing competitive baseball, not be a refugee center for a bunch of what-if has-beens that are clinging to a Major League job for dear life.  Duvall got a $7M contract last year and put up 1.5 WAR in 92 games.  I doubt he’ll cost much more than that, if anything, and will realistically expect more than a single year.  Give him a decent one-year deal and you have, at worst, a power bench bat who can chill with the boys when he likely gets injured. In a best-case scenario he’ll ball out, make a difference in the early part of the season, then become an asset flip around the All-Star Break.

Brent Suter, RP — 3 years, $13 million

Suter isn’t exactly the sexiest reliever on the market—although he does have a wife and kids so someone out there disagrees—but he’s one I would readily drop a 2 or even 3-year, low AAV deal on.  Suter has a career 3.49 ERA and 3.91 FIP; he relies pretty much entirely on soft contact, but has allowed less than one hit per inning for the last five years.  He’s made a healthy number of appearances with a few multi-inning showings as well, being one of just seven relief pitchers to throw more than 200 innings over the past three combined seasons.

That might have some screaming for the hills over arm health, but Suter isn’t exactly a flamethrower.  He’s more of an Icebender, actually: Suter is the softest throwing pitcher in baseball right now, with an average fastball velocity of—this is not a typo—87.1 MPH.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he just barely loses to Tom Cosgrove as the pitcher with the lowest average exit velocity against him.  Likewise, he’s one of the least likely to be hard hit against or barreled up on.  There’s one other really important thing to tie this all together:

This man did this while pitching for the Rockies.

The only lefties the Royals seem to have right now are Ragans (a definite starter), Lynch (extremely questionable), Zerpa (extremely questionable), Cox (probably a good reliever but otherwise unproven) and Veneziano (definitely unproven).  Suter is a lefty who provides safe middle relief and would probably do so at a reasonably low price.  Beats having to deal with Amir Garrett, right?

Jordan Hicks, RP — 4 years, $36 million

While Suter is a potential low-cost middle relief option, Hicks is a potential high-cost closer if the Royals choose to be aggressive in the relief market.  To be clear, handing out a multi-year deal for more than a few million dollars is probably the last thing the Royals should concern themselves with right now; you build a bullpen after building a starting rotation and then a starting lineup, but let’s just say the Royals do ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING I am encouraging them to do this winter.  This would be the sprinkles on top. (I don’t like cherries in my ice cream)

Jordan Hicks is a simple man: he throws fire and strikes guys out.  While he’s been up and down through his career, 2023 was the clicking point that put him on the map (also thanks to a Cardinals downfall), exemplified by his 3.29 ERA in 65 appearances.  He struck out over 80 hitters, a rate above 11 per 9 innings, and only surrendered 4 longballs all season.  As a closer, he only accumulated 12 saves, but that’s because the Cardinals had a closer by committee, splitting the opportunities with two other guys, then the Blue Jays, who acquired him mid-season, already had a designated closer before him.

The Royals don’t have a closer right now.  Carlos Hernandez was expected to take on the role and then immediately demonstrated that he is not the guy.  John McMillon showcased brutal stuff in the minors but hardly had a chance to use them in Kansas City.  James McArthur emerged late in the season as a lethal bullpen weapon, but hasn’t pitched enough to be counted on right away.  Signing a free agent closer takes the pressure off the younger guys and puts them in less stressful positions they may do better in.  As they say, relievers are volatile and can’t always be trusted year-to-year, but Hicks only just turned 27 this past September.  It might not even take a $10M AAV to land him on a 3-4 year deal given his lack of experience… hopefully.

That concludes my free agents list.  These are my top picks for each of five categories I think the Royals need: an ace starting pitcher, a reclamation-type starting pitcher, a veteran position player, a reliable middle reliever, and a closer.  Of course, any signing comes with some amount of risk, but it’s even riskier than to not take any risks.  Your move, Sherman.

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