The Royals were able to win a championship despite having the fourth-worst ERA in the league for starting pitchers. With both Johnny Cueto and Chris Young eligible for free agency, the Royals will have to build around Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, Kris Medlen, and Danny Duffy for their 2016 rotation. With record attendance, the Royals should have some money to dedicate towards pursuing a free agent starting pitcher should they choose. Who would make a good fit? A complete list of free agents is available here.
Best of the best
With the Royals looking to bring back either Alex Gordon or Ben Zobrist, they likely don't have the resources to additionally pursue a top-shelf starting pitcher. Zack Greinke and David Price headline the list of free agents, but Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmerman, and Mike Leake should all expect lucrative deals as well.
Pitchers requiring draft compensation
On Buster Olney's podcast, Royals beat writer Andy McCullough indicated the Royals might not bring back Gordon OR Zobrist, instead using the money to pursue a mid-tier starting pitcher that had been offered a Qualifying Offer. These pitchers would require the Royals to forfeit the 27th overall pick, but the Royals would gain a sandwich pick should Alex Gordon leave Kansas City.
Wei Yin Chen
The Baltimore left-hander was specifically cited by McCullough as a pitcher the Royals could pursue and Kevin Ruprecht recently profiled the Taiwan-born pitcher. Chen is a fly-ball pitcher who has a 3.44 ERA (although 4.04 FIP) over the last two seasons who could profile well in Kauffman Stadium. He is the kind of "pitch to contact" pitcher the Royals would love, and at age 30, he's not terribly old for a free agent. Chen should probably expect a four-year contract worth around $50-60 million.
Gallardo pitched for Ned Yost in his rookie season in Milwaukee and the Royals were reportedly interested in his services over the summer. The 29-year old right-hander has been durable, making 30 starts or more in each of the last seven seasons. He posted a 3.42 ERA last year, but has had a declining strikeout rate in each of the last four seasons. Gallardo is a ground ball pitcher but has trouble throwing strike at times with a walk rate last year of 3.3 per-nine innings. Gallardo hails from the Dallas area, so he could re-sign with the Rangers, but he should be looking for a four-year deal worth $12-15 million per year.
Lackey has drawn considerable interest, but reportedly wants to stay in the National League. He looked washed up in 2012, but since then has put together three consecutive 2+ fWAR seasons, including a 3.6 fWAR seasons this year. The 37-year old has held steady with his strikeout rates, and posted a career-best 2.77 ERA last year with the Cardinals. Lackey will likely get plenty of two-year offers and perhaps even a three-year offer, and is looking at $15-16 million per season.
McCullough also cited the 34-year old Japanese right-hander as a pitcher the Royals may target. Iwakuma has been fantastic since coming over stateside with a 3.17 ERA in four seasons with the Mariners with 13.9 rWAR over that time. Iwakuma hardly walks anyone at all and induces ground balls at a rate over 50%. The Tigers have targeted him, and the Mariners are interested in retaining him, although they would like to go no more than two years. Iwakuma will likely get a short-term deal around $12-15 million per year.
Kennedy has posted an ERA over 4.00 in three of the last four seasons in the National League, but posted a career high 9.30 strikeouts-per-nine innings. He was hurt by an abnormally high home run rate of 1.66, with 19 of his 31 home runs allowed coming at Petco Field. The Royals were reportedly interested in Kennedy last winter. He is a former 20-game winner who was a 3.5 fWAR (1.4 rWAR) pitcher as recently as 2014. He will turn 31 in December, making him one of the younger free agents available, and his disappointing 2015 season (4.28 ERA, 4.51 FIP) should make him more affordable. Kennedy should receive a 2-3 year contract worth about $12-14 million per year.
Other Mid-Tier Free Agents
Kazmir was traded mid-season, so he will not require any draft compensation from the team that signs him. Kazmir finished poorly, with a 4.17 ERA (5.19 FIP) in 13 starts with Houston after they acquired him from Oakland. However over the past three seasons combined he has a 3.54 ERA with 8.1 strikeouts-per-nine innings since coming back from pitching in the independent leagues. Kazmir will be 32 by Opening Day, so he's probably looking at a three-year deal worth about about $12-15 million per year.
James Anthony Happ is an Illinois native and Northwestern grad who has never thrown more than 180 innings in a season despite seven full seasons in the big leagues. His 3.61 ERA last year was his best in five seasons, and he finished strong with a 1.81 ERA in eleven starts with the Pirates after being traded by the Mariners. Happ's strikeout rate spiked strongly with Pittsburgh, but he's generally struck out over seven hitters per nine innings in his career. Happ's velocity has gone up a tick in recent years, and some credit his success in Pittsburgh with throwing more fastballs and hard stuff. Happ is 33 and with his track record he will be lucky to get a three-year deal, perhaps around $8-11 million per season.
Short-term contract possibilities
The right-hander began his career with much promise, but has been hurt and ineffective the last two seasons. He posted a 4.95 ERA last year in 22 games, bouncing around from the Marlins to the Dodgers to the Angels, but posted a 3.72 FIP and his flyball tendencies may play better at Kauffman Stadium. His velocity has declined since his days in San Diego, but at age 28 he is one of the youngest free agents available. Latos still has upside, but with his recent struggles should be affordable on a 1-2 year deal worth $8-12 million per year.
Former Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski was mocked for dealing Fister to the Nationals before the 2014 season. Fister won 16 games that year with a 2.41 ERA, but those numbers masked a poor FIP and a sharp drop in strikeout rate. In 2015 those trends caught up with him as Fister put up a 4.19 ERA in just 103 innings. Fister missed a month with forearm tightness and was demoted to the bullpen in August. Fister is a sinkerballer whose ground ball rates have been declining, so the 31-year old will likely sign a 1-2 year deal worth $8-12 million per year to re-establish his value.
Buerhle has flirted with retirement the last few seasons and reportedly was set to retire this year, but those talks were apparently premature. The St. Charles, Missouri native will be 37 by Opening Day and fell just one out shy of tossing 200 innings for the fifteenth consecutive season this year. Buerhle had the lowest walk rate in the league, but also the lowest strikeout rate. Buerhle was still a 2.1 fWAR pitcher last year, but has posted a FIP over 4.00 or higher in three of the last four seasons. If Buehrle signs, it will likely be a one year deal around $8-10 million.
Bartolo turns 43 in May, but has seemingly discovered the Fountain of Youth, winning 47 games the last three seasons combined. The right-hander had a 4.16 ERA for the Mets last year but was a 2.5 fWAR pitcher thanks to the lowest walk rate in baseball. Colon is probably looking at a one year deal worth around $6-9 million.
The Wichita native and former Wichita State Shocker revived his career last year with the Twins, putting up a 4.26 ERA in 162 innings. The right-hander had the lowest home run-rate in the league, but also had the second-lowest strikeout rate in the league. Pelfrey had an absurd home-road split, with a 2.61 ERA at Target Field and a 5.93 ERA on the road. He was god awful in 2014 and not very good in 2013, so his renaissance should be viewed skeptically. He will be lucky to get a two year deal and shouldn't expect more than $8 million per year.
The Rangers right-hander had a disastrous 2014 season, but was able to drop his walk rate significantly last year. Lewis ended up winning 17 games for a surprisingly good Rangers club, but his wins masked a 4.66 ERA and 4.17 FIP. He is a flyball pitcher who can be home run-prone, but those fly balls may turn into more outs in Kansas City. Lewis is 36 and coming off knee surgery so a 1-2 year deal worth around $6-8 million per year would be appropriate.
Young was fantastic for the Royals this year, although the team had to pace him to keep him strong for the second half. Young is 36 years old, but after a season in which he had a 3.06 ERA in 123 innings, he will have some demand. Already the Orioles have reportedly had interest, although Young's flyball tendencies would play poorly in Camden Yards. The Royals could have interest in bringing back Young on a one-year deal, even as a part-time starting pitcher until Kyle Zimmer or Miguel Almonte is ready to join the rotation later in the year.
Brandon Beachy made just two starts for the Dodgers after recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. He's still just 29, but has made only seven starts since the end of the 2012 season. Justin Masterson was an All-Star in 2013, but has been below replacement level every season since. The groundball pitcher could find more success with Alcides Escobar behind him, although his future may be as a reliever. Bud Norris had an ERA near seven last year and was let go by the Padres, but he has generally been a 1-2 WAR pitcher. Tim Lincecum is not the pitcher he was once, but is still just 31 years old and put up his first positive rWAR season in four years last year.
Others: Bronson Arroyo, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Dillon Gee, Jeremy Guthrie, Aaron Harang, Roberto Hernandez, Kyle Kendrick, Cliff Lee, Hector Noesi, Alfredo Simon, Eric Stults, Ryan Vogelsong, Randy Wolf, Jerome Williams