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The Royals are “looking for a low-cost starting pitcher”

Can they find a bargain in this market?

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Royals have had a pretty dormant off-season, absent of even much in the way of juicy unsubstantiated trade rumors. That changed this week, as Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe provided a few nuggets to pass along on what the Royals may be up to.

The Royals likely have one more go-around with free agents-to-be Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain. The Royals did acquire Jorge Soler from the Cubs for Wade Davis to protect the lineup in the future. Now they’re looking for a low-cost starting pitcher (they could wait out the Jason Hammel market), a reliever, and a utilityman. The Royals have some interest in bringing back Luke Hochevar, but are unsure when he’ll be able to return from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in August.

If Cafardo is right, that is some good news for Royals fans. The Wade Davis trade will be the only deal that moves a veteran member of the core. It also means that despite Dayton Moore’s public pronouncements that he likes the starting rotation depth, the team is still looking to add pitchers.

Currently the rotation would feature Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Yordano Ventura, and Jason Vargas. Other options would include Mike Minor, Matt Strahm, Chris Young, and Josh Staumount. The starting pitching free agent market has been notoriously weak, but there are a few options out there that could be upgrades at a reasonable price.

Jason Hammel

Hammel is the name Cafardo mentions, and he is easily the best remaining pitcher available. The 34-year old right-hander won 15 games with the Cubs last year with a 3.83 ERA and 4.48 FIP and 7.8 strikeouts-per-nine innings in 166 23 innings pitched. He was even better in 2015 with a lower FIP and over a strikeout-per-inning, but despite some decent seasons in Wrigley, teams are reportedly unwilling to give him more than a one-year deal.

Hammel is a flyball pitcher whose 38.1% flyball rate was 18th in baseball last year among qualified starters, according to Fangraphs. He experienced elbow tightness in September, causing him to miss his last start, and he did not pitch at all in the post-season. The Cubs turned down his $12 million option which may be an indication the elbow has some issues, but he should be worth a flyer, at least on a one-year deal worth around $8-12 million, and maybe even more if the Royals want to backload a contract.

Doug Fister

If you don’t like flyball pitchers in this home run environment, Doug Fister is on the opposite end of the spectrum as a groundball artist. His groundball rates have fallen since 2013, when he was fourth in all of baseball in inducing grounders. He was a 4.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) pitcher that year, according to Fangraphs, with a 3.67 ERA and a minuscule home run rate. Last year, he gave up 1.2 home runs per-nine-innings, the 27th-highest rate in baseball.

If Fister can rediscover his groundball magic and improve on his 45.3% rate last year, he could be a decent buy-low option. He posted a 4.64 ERA and 4.75 FIP last year for the Astros, but with just 5.7 strikeouts-per-nine innings and the highest walk rate of his career. Fister has trouble hitting 90 mph on the radar gun and has had elbow issues on the past, so a one-year deal around $8-9 million is probably what he should expect on this market.

Tyson Ross

Typically non-tendered players are fringy players, not former All-Stars like Tyson Ross. But the Padres are in cost-cutting mode, and it was hard to justify the $9 million plus he would get in arbitration after a season in which he made just one start and underwent thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. Ross was a 4.4 WAR pitcher in 2015, according to Fangraphs, with a 3.26 ERA and 2.98 FIP. He has struck out a hitter per inning the last few seasons, and is one of the best groundball pitchers in baseball, with one of the lowest home run rates.

Because of his October surgery, Ross is questionable for the start of the 2017 season. But the Royals may want to take a flyer on him, hoping he can contribute at some point in the season, providing the upside they need if they hope to contend one more season.

Jon Niese

Niese was a solid 2 WAR pitcher for the Mets for several seasons until 2015 when his strikeout rate dropped and his ERA spiked. They shipped him to Pittsburgh last year, and he was abysmal with a 4.91 ERA in 23 games before they sent him back to the Mets where he pitched in just six games before a torn meniscus in his knee ended his season. The 30-year old lefty has generally posted groundball rates over 50% in his career, but last year his home run rate had a huge spike, and he posted the fifth-highest home rate among pitchers with 100 innings pitched.

The home run rate may have been a bit fluky - his 22.1% home run-to-flyball ratio was tops in baseball. Niese may have not been a good fit for the Pirates philosophy of pitching fastballs inside, so perhaps a change of scenery will do him good. A one-year deal worth around $6-7 million would probably land him at this point.

Scott Feldman

Feldman was primarily a reliever last year for the Astros and Jays, but he did make five starts with a 3.65 ERA in those starts. Overall, he had a 3.97 ERA in 77 innings and was a 0.4 WAR pitcher, according to Fangraphs. In the three years prior to that, he made 77 starts with a solid 3.83 ERA although a 4.13 FIP. Feldman is another groundball pitcher, with grounder rates near 50%. He doesn’t strike out many hitters, but always seems to be a pretty decent back-of-the-rotation pitcher who can put up a 1 WAR season at a low price. He could probably be had for about $4-5 million on a one-year deal.

Others: Colby Lewis had a 3.71 ERA in 17 starts with Texas, but with a very low BABIP, and at age 37 he is not a good bet going forward. Jered Weaver somehow won 12 games last year, but with an ERA over 5.00 and his velocity is in the low 80s now. Henderson Alvarez posted a 2.65 ERA in 2014, but has had injuries since then and missed all of 2016 with a shoulder injury. Mat Latos was a 4.8 WAR pitcher in 2013, but has struggled in the past two years and has had a reputation of being a clubhouse problem. The Royals may be interested in bringing back Kris Medlen or Dillon Gee on cheap deals.