The Hot Stove is slowly heating up, with free agents picking new destinations. The Royals have already signed a few free agents, notably Billy Hamilton and Chris Owings, although they are not expected to be particularly active in the market this winter.
The Royals have not historically signed a lot of free agents. From the advent of free agency in 1976 until the signing of catcher Bob Boone in 1989, the Royals signed just one player through Major League free agency - utility infielder Jerry Terrell. But it was not from a lack of trying as Ewing Kauffman tried unsuccessfully to lure stars like Pete Rose, Carlton Fisk, and Joe Carter to Kansas City.
The Royals have been more successful signing free agents in the last three decades with some successes, and a few notable busts (looking at you, Mark Davis). But the Twitter account for MLB got me thinking, who is the best free agent signing in Royals history?
#NationalSigningDay got us thinking …— MLB (@MLB) December 20, 2018
Who is the best free agent your team has ever signed? pic.twitter.com/Hby89GCGKx
Here are some candidates for consideration:
Melky Cabrera, 2011
The switch-hitting outfielder had once been a hot prospect, but never really panned out with the Yankees, and didn’t fare much better in one year in Atlanta. The Royals took a low-risk gamble on him after he was non-tendered by the Braves, signing him to a one-year, $1.25 million deal. Cabrera was just 26 years old, still young enough to have upside, and he exploded with a career season. He hit .305/.339/.470 with 18 home runs and 20 steals, finishing with 201 hits. Despite having a year of club control left though, the Royals flipped him to the Giants after one year for Jonathan Sanchez. In terms of value-per-dollar, he remains the best signing by the Royals since Dayton Moore took over.
Gil Meche, 2007-2011
Dayton Moore took over as General Manager in the spring of 2006, and his hiring came with some caveats for ownership, namely, that they would spend money on the team. The Royals surprised many when they outbid the Cubs and Blue Jays for the services of 28-year old right-hander Gil Meche. The Royals landed him with a five-year, $55 million deal, tied for the largest deal in club history. Despite injury concerns, Meche would live up to the deal the first two seasons, putting up a 4 WAR season in 2007 and 2008. But he began to suffer back and shoulder issues and made just 23 starts in 2009 and 9 in 2010. Rather than undergo surgery and miss the last year of his deal, Meche forfeited the money and opted to retire in 2011.
Mark Grudzielanek, 2006-2008
The early 2000s Royals were a train wreck that couldn’t convince anyone but the most desperate of players to choose to play in Kansas City. Mark Grudzielanek was a solid veteran infielder for many years with the Expos, Dodgers, Cubs, and Cardinals, but at age 36 found a light market for his services. The Royals signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal and he proved he still had a lot left in the tank, hitting .297/.331/.409 with solid defense and 3.2 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. He played so well the club picked up his option and later extended him for a third season in Kansas City, and he finished with 8.3 WAR over that time.
David Cone, 1993-1994
In the late 80s and early 90s, Ewing Kauffman began to splurge on free agents in an attempt to bring one more championship in Kansas City. Some turned out to be busts like Mark and Storm Davis, some worked out well for a bit like Mike Boddicker, but the best and most popular move was bringing back Kansas City native David Cone home. The Royals had traded the Rockhurst High School grad early in his career and he had gone on to big success with the Mets. But upon free agency, Cone wanted to return to his Midwestern roots and bring a title to Mr. K.
The Royals made him the highest-paid pitcher in the game, inking him to a three-year, $18 million deal. His first season back in KC was considered a bit of a disappointment due to a losing record of 11-14, but he was a 7.2 WAR pitcher with a 3.33 ERA in 254 innings. The next year, no one could doubt his excellence as he won the Cy Young Award with a 6.9 WAR season. Unfortunately, with both Ewing and Muriel Kauffman having passed away, the Royals were forced to cut costs in an effort to sell the team. Cone was dealt to the Blue Jays for basically nothing, the second time the Royals traded him away in an ill-advised deal.
Others: Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez both signed two-year deals and became integral parts of the championship club in 2015. Jason Vargas was a “major announcement” when he signed, putting up 7.3 WAR in four seasons and pitching in the 2014 World Series. Jeff Francoeur was in the same boat as Melky Cabrera and put up a fine 2011 season before the Royals extended him. The Royals signed veterans Tim Belcher and Gary Gaetti to bargain deals, then got terrific value from them.
Best season by a free agent signed by the Royals
Who is your pick for best free agent signing in Royals history?