Dayton Moore once famously said that pitching is the currency of baseball, and brother, the Royals were digging in their cushions for loose change by the end of the 2017 season. Last year, Royals starting pitchers were third-worst in the American League in ERA, throwing the second-fewest innings. The lack of depth was exposed, with perhaps the clearest indication being in September when Onelki Garcia was called up to make a start, giving up four runs while recording just one out in a 17-0 drubbing to the Twins.
The Royals had to build up their starting pitching depth, but with the challenge of doing so with (a) pretty much no more financial resources; and (b) few tradeable assets, unless they are willing to go big on their rebuild by trading Danny Duffy or Whit Merrifield. Despite those constraints, they have added to their arsenal about the best way they could, with cheap, young pitchers.
While their upside may be limited, the odds seem good that a few of them could be serviceable Major League pitchers, which is a huge benefit for a small market club like the Royals. Dayton Moore has used every avenue available to find pitching:
The trade acquisitions
Jesse Hahn was perhaps a throw-in considering the main objective in trading Brandon Moss was saving $5 million in payroll. But he was a 2.7 WAR pitcher over his first 30 career games, according to Fangraphs. He has struggled the last two years, although he underperformed his FIP considerably last season. He has a groundball rate around 50%, which makes him a perfect fit for the new team philosophy of getting opposing hitters to pound the ball into the ground.
Jeff Sullivan points out that Hahn has improved his velocity, but became more hittable in recent years. I think his curveball shows the most promise - it has not fared well so far, but he has put up one of the highest spin rates in baseball and the pitch has been compared to Adam Wainright’s bender. He has been less than the sum of his parts, it seems, and perhaps he poses the first big challenge for new pitching coach Cal Eldred. If he can stay healthy - perhaps a big if considering he has made 50 starts over four seasons - he seems to have the upside of a solid #3 or perhaps even higher if it all comes together for him.
Heath Fillmyer also comes over from the Athletics with solid numbers in AA last year. Patrick Brennan at Royals Farm Report describes him as having a mid-90s fastball, but his strikeout numbers haven’t been great, which makes me think that ultimately a move to the bullpen will unleash more value out of him. But you can expect him to be in the rotation in Omaha, with a chance to move up to the big leagues.
Trevor Oaks was acquired from the Dodgers in the Scott Alexander deal, after posting a 3.64 ERA in 16 starts in AAA last year. He is described by Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs as a “pitch-to-contact back-end starter” but should be ready to step in right away and compete for a Major League rotation job. Oaks may not miss many bats, but he has posted groundball rates around 60% in the minors with a heavy sinker. The right-hander is a Tommy John survivor, and missed some time last year with an oblique injury, so his health is a bit of a concern.
The waiver claim
Sam Gaviglio was technically acquired during last season, claimed off waivers from the Mariners in September. He made two starts for the Royals and should be in the mix as well this year. He posted a 4.36 ERA in 74 1⁄3 innings between the Mariners and Royals, but with very poor peripherals and FIP, putting him below replacement level, according to Fangraphs. The 27-year old right-hander has never had good strikeout numbers, but he has induced minor league batters to hit grounders 50% of the time.
The free agent
Wily Peralta seems likely ticketed for the bullpen, but he has 120 career Major League starts, so it is safe to say he is still an option for the rotation if needed. Peralta was a 1.8 WAR pitcher in 2014, but has been a bit of a mess since then, and was let go by the Brewers last summer. But the right-hander has good velocity, consistently throwing in the mid-90s. His lack of command and hittable fastball suggest he’s probably a reliever, but he could be a project for Eldred.
The minor league free agent
Scott Barlow just turned 25, which is quite young for a minor league free agent. Minor league free agents are typically just organizational filler - according to Carson Cistulli, only about 1% of them will produce 0.5 WAR or more the next season. However, using the KATOH projection system, Chris Mitchell at Fangraphs identified Barlow as the top minor league free agent available this winter. The right-hander stuck out 10 hitters-per-nine innings in 26 starts over AA and AAA last year, although he struggled with his command. Barlow has an average fastball and has been described as having a plus-slider. He had Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the 2012 season, but has been relatively healthy since.
The Rule 5 acquisitions
Brad Keller pitched in the Diamondbacks organization last year, with a 4.68 ERA in AA, but with a 3.58 FIP. KATOH projected him as the best pitcher available in the Rule 5 draft. He has a big frame, and with Patrick Brennan describing his delivery as deceptive and with good sinking action on his fastball, he could rack up ground balls. The 22-year old Keller seems very likely to pitch out of the bullpen this year, if he makes the Major League club, but long-term he could become a back-of-the-rotation starter.
Burch Smith was ranked as the top player available in the Rule 5 draft before the Mets selected him and traded him to the Royals. Smith throws in the mid-90s with a “knee-buckling” curve and wowed scouts in the Arizona Fall League last year. The 27-year old may end up in the bullpen due to health concerns - again, a pitcher with a Tommy John surgery past - but he made seven Major League starts for the Padres in 2013 and could still make it as a back-end starter.
Which new Royals pitcher do you have the most hope for?
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