Losing stinks. It especially stinks when you are a financially-constrained small market team and can’t exactly go out and buy better players.
But there is one competitive advantage losing teams have over contenders - opportunities. While teams like the Yankees and Red Sox must treat every game like it could be the difference between success and failure this year, teams like the Royals can use this season as an open audition. KANSAS CITY’S GOT TALENT!
But the truth is, Kansas City doesn’t have a lot of talent, certainly not a lot of young talent. Jake Junis and Jorge Soler have been bright spots, and there some encouraging signs in the low minors, but that’s not enough for a rebuild. The Royals need to get in the asset collection business, going to yard sales to look for the next Stradivarius.
Early sabermetric analysts introduced the concept of “freely available talent”, players teams could acquire for pretty much nothing. The Royals have already used this concept to find a few bargains - Brad Keller and Burch Smith were acquired in the Rule 5 draft, and Scott Barlow was a shrewd minor league free agent signing.
They also used the waiver wire to find outfielder Abraham Almonte, who got off to a pretty good start, but has slumped to hit .207/270/.379 overall in 19 games. While the Almonte experiment may not be working out, I love the idea of finding guys on the waiver wire. If he pans out - great, you’ve added some talent to the organization and it only cost you the price of the waiver fee and some at-bats to find out. If he doesn’t pan out - that’s fine, just pay for his Greyhound ticket and wish him well. You don’t feel as compelled to give him 3-4 months to figure it out like you might with a player signed to a Major League contract (see Wood, Travis).
That is not to say that waiver wire players are great, they were usually waived for a reason. Most of the time, they were the 41st-best player on a 40-man roster. But considering how thin the Royals’ talent level is, the 41st-best player might be better than a handful of players on the Royals’ 40-man roster. And a change of scenery can be a career launching pad for some players - J.D. Martinez was released by the Astros, changed his swing, and became one of the most feared sluggers in baseball with the Tigers. Sometimes it just takes an opportunity - see Jose Martinez once the Royals dealt him to St. Louis. Among the players who were on waivers early in their career are Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Justin Turner, Brad Hand, Dan Straily, and Collin McHugh.
What kind of talent can the Royals expect on the waiver wire? Here are just a few of the players that have been designated for assignment just in the last month:
Lane Adams - Old friend alert! Adams began his career as a 13th round pick by the Royals in 2009 and has bounced around a bit the last three years. In 146 MLB plate appearance he has performed well, hitting .264/.338/.450 and he’s a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen base tries. He’s 28, so the big upside isn’t there, but he might be more useful as a stop gap in center than, say, Abraham Almonte. Adams cleared waivers and signed a minor league deal with the Cubs.
Luke Bard - Bard was a Rule 5 pick drafted by the Angels, but returned to the Twins in late April after clearing waivers. The 27-year old posted a 5.40 ERA with the Angels, but struck out 13 in 11 innings. The fastball-slider pitcher has always posted big strikeout numbers in the minors, whiffing 99 in 65 innings last year as a reliever in AA and AAA.
A.J. Cole - Cole was a top 100 prospect as recently as 2015, but it has always been “stuff” over “results” for him. He has a 5.22 ERA in 112 Major League innings, but has struck out 8.2 hitters-per-nine-innings. He has been a flyball pitcher, so perhaps a move to a park like Kauffman could help his career, or a move to the bullpen could allow him to ramp up his 93 mph fastball. Cole was ultimately acquired by the Yankees for cash considerations.
Brian Ellington - Ellington can hit triple digits on the radar gun, but was released by the Marlins in early April, and has had some bicep injuries. In 102 2⁄3 career Major League innings as a reliever, he has a 4.65 ERA, but struck out nearly a hitter-per-inning. The 27-year old right-hander ended up clearing waivers and signing with the Diamondbacks on a minor league deal.
Luke Jackson - Jackson was a former first-round pick with the Rangers who has had a pretty mixed track record in the minors. He has been up and down the last four years, but stuck a bit in 2017 with the Braves, posting a 4.62 ERA and 4.24 FIP in 50 2/3 innings. He has a lively fastball, sitting at 95-96, but has had command issues so he could be more suited for the bullpen. The 26-year old cleared waivers and was sent to the minors and has been up a few times for the Braves this year.
Akeel Morris - Morris can miss a lot of bats, although many times it seems he doesn’t know where the ball is going. In 403 minor league innings, primarily as a reliever, Morris struck out 11.8 hitters-per-nine innings, but walked 4.8. He has a fastball in the low-90s, so he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he has relied on a changeup quite a bit that has gotten some results in the minors. The 25-year old now sits in the Angels bullpen after being acquired for cash considerations after the Braves designated him for assignment.
Justin Nicolino - Nicolino was also once a Top 100 prospect, although way back in 2013 when he was one of the prospects dealt to the Marlins in the blockbuster fire sale deal that sent Jose Reyes and Mark Buerhle to the Blue Jays. He has a 4.65 ERA in 201 1⁄3 Major League innings, although he has performed much better as a reliever, albeit in a very small sample size of 17 innings. He is a groundball pitcher who can’t strike anyone out, but perhaps some refinement can help the 26-year old who cleared waivers and was assigned to the minors by the Reds.
Troy Scribner - Scribner was a starting pitcher at AAA for the Angels last year, and while his 4.35 ERA was underwhelming, it came in the hitter-heavy Pacific Coast League, and he struck out 103 in 103 1⁄3 innings. The 26-year old right-hander began his career in the Astros organization, and has generally put up pretty good numbers despite a fastball in the upper-80s. He ended up clearing waivers and signing a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks.
Again, all of these players have warts that will have to be addressed. But there are young(ish) players out there that may be able to be improvements on the current roster, and if nothing else, can help provide better depth than is currently in the organization.
Picking up one of these players would require opening up a 40-man roster spot. That shouldn’t be a huge challenge at this point. Blaine Boyer is an obvious candidate for the chopping block. The days in the organization for 32-year old outfielder Paulo Orlando may be numbered, especially with him hitting .130 in Omaha. Waiver pickup Abraham Almonte’s audition maybe about over. I’m honestly not sure what Ryan Goins gives you that Ramon Torres could not.
None of these players are likely to be the savior of the rebuild. But who knows, you could strike gold. Using the waiver wire can at least help the Royals get younger, and a younger team has much more potential than at team throwing out players on the field well past their prime.