Dayton Moore has long said that pitching is the currency of baseball, but the Royals are dealing with pocket change right now. Royals starters had a 5.30 ERA last year, sixth-worst in the American League. While there may be help on the way with a crop of starting pitching prospects from the 2018 draft, most, if not all of those arms won’t be ready for the big leagues at the outset of the season.
With Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Jakob Junis, and Mike Montgomery likely to begin the year in the rotation, the Royals still have a fifth spot up for grabs. Jorge Lopez or Glenn Sparkman could get a shot, or the Royals could see what 2018 first-round pick Brady Singer could do.
But Moore recently indicated he would prefer to see Sparkman and Lopez in the bullpen, and the club could turn to the free agent market to fill out the rotation if Singer isn’t ready.
“I’m not completely comfortable with our starting pitching depth, It’s as much about supply and demand. We do feel and recognize we have a lot of talented young pitching on the horizon and we don’t want to get in the way of their advancement. But at the same time we’re trying to make an advance decision that a lot of those guys will start the season in the Minor Leagues. And that creates a depth issues at the Major League level.”
With spring training beginning just weeks away, most free agent starting pitchers have already signed. Let’s take a look at who’s left.
Chad Bettis required hip surgery in August, but has been throwing this winter. The 30-year old right-hander was a 2 fWAR pitcher in both 2015 and 2016, but had his career derailed by a bout with testicular cancer, returning in 2017. Although his career 5.12 ERA is unimpressive, it is a bit skewed by Coors Field - he has a career 4.42 ERA away from the higher altitude of Colorado. Bettis did see his velocity increase a bit last year, and he had the eighth-highest groundball rate in baseball for anyone with at least 50 innings pitched. Bettis isn’t a great bet to make 30 starts, but the former Texas Tech Red Raider could fill in the rotation to start the year before sliding into the bullpen when he is pushed by Royals prospects.
Andrew Cashner posted a 3.83 ERA in 17 starts for the Orioles last year before they flipped him to Boston for a pair of prospects. He wilted in Boston with a 6.20 ERA, leading to a demotion to the bullpen, but he’s been a pretty adequate back-of-the-rotation starter, putting up at least 1 + fWAR in five of the last seven seasons. The 33-year old right-hander is a fastball/change up pitcher who relies on ground balls and doesn’t miss many bats. At best, the Royals can flip him at the trade deadline for some lower-level prospects, and at worst they can release him mid-summer without being out too much money.
Jhoulys Chacin won 15 games for the Brewers in 2018 as a 2.4 fWAR pitcher, but regressed badly last season and was released in August. He ended with a 6.01 ERA in 103 1⁄3 innings split between Milwaukee and Boston with a whopping 25 home runs allowed. Chacin did have a strikeout spike last year, yet he had one of the lowest swinging strike rates in baseball. When he has been on, he has had one of the best sliders in baseball, and at age 32, the right-hander may have a few more starts left in the tank.
Matt Harvey signing in Kansas City would be quite the turnaround after he pitched against them in the 2015 World Series, but if Lucas Duda can sign here, why not? Harvey has been a mess since blowing the lead against the Royals in the Fall Classic, posting a 5.65 ERA in the last four seasons combined. He was released by the Angels last summer and the A’s wouldn’t even call him up in September after they signed him to pitch in the minors. But he is still just 30-years old, and at his peak he was a 6.9 WAR pitcher. His velocity is down and his peripherals were ugly last year, but if he can somehow recapture any of the magic from early in his career, the Royals could have a valuable asset.
Jeremy Hellickson had a resurgence in 2018 with the Nationals, but regressed last year with a 6.23 ERA in just 39 innings, missing most of the season with a strained shoulder. It seems like the Iowa native has been around forever, but the right-hander is still just 32 years old. His walk rate took a big spike last year, although in a pretty limited sample size, and his velocity was under 90 mph. At this point, Hellickson’s upside is to be “just a guy” who can take the ball every fifth day and not fall off the mound.
Derek Holland, like Hellickson, had a decent 2018 only to regress badly in 2019. The lefty posted a 6.08 ERA, pitching mostly out of the bullpen last year for the Giants and Cubs. He strikeout rate has surged the last two seasons. He still throws a 92 mph fastball with a sinker that induces a 40 percent ground ball rate. Holland is a goofball who could be a good clubhouse guy, if you like “Fart Bottle Roulette.”
Collin McHugh was one of the first examples of a team having success by looking for a pitcher’s spin rate, when the Astros plucked him off the waiver wire in 2014. He was a 3.5 fWAR pitcher in 2015, but has primarily pitched out of the bullpen the last two seasons with Houston. After a 1.99 ERA in 2018, he significantly declined last year with a 4.70 and 4.43 FIP with a spike in his walk rate, and battled elbow discomfort throughout the year. McHugh may have more attractive offers to pitch out of the bullpen, but if he wants to start, the Royals could offer him that opportunity.
JC Ramirez was a solid 1.0 fWAR pitcher in 2017 with the Angels, posting a 4.15 ERA in 147 1⁄3 innings, but Tommy John surgery in 2018 was a major setback. He struggled last year in his return, pitching mostly in the minor leagues, but another year removed from his UCL injury could yield better results. Despite being 31-years old, the right-hander still has two years of club control, which could make him more attractive to a team like the Royals.
Danny Salazar is the kind of lottery ticket the Royals should be looking for, but he doesn’t fit the mold of a reliable starter that will give the club depth. The 30-year old right-hander has made just one start in the last two seasons due to shoulder injuries. Salazar was an All-Star as recently as 2016 and has struck out 10.5 hitters-per-nine innings in 591 1⁄3 Major League innings in his career. If he is at all healthy, he could give the Royals a frontline starting pitcher, but there are many reasons to doubt he can stay on the mound.
Jason Vargas is an old friend who the Royals may decide to bring back for one more tour, as long as we’re bringing back everyone from the championship era. The lefty will be 37 in February, and is coming off a season with a 4.51 ERA in 149 2/3 innings with the Mets and Phillies. His velocity was down to 85 mph last year, so if he wants to get hitters out it will have to be with his change up, sinker, some duct tape, and prayer.
Taijuan Walker is on the right side of 30 (just 27 years old) which should make him more attractive than most of the candidates on this list. He missed most of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, leading to his release by the Diamondbacks. The right-hander was a 2.5 fWAR pitcher in 2017, just before the surgery, with a 3.49 ERA and 8.35 strikeouts-per-nine innings. If Walker’s velocity can bounce back to the 93-94 mph range he was throwing before, he could be a high upside signing that could be attractive at the trade deadline.
Others: The Royals signed Clay Buchholz to a minor league deal once before, they could try again, but the 35-year old had a 6.56 ERA in 12 starts last year. Aaron Sanchez is easily the most talented pitcher left on the market, but he will likely miss the first half of the season and will likely want to pitch for a contender. The Royals could bring back Trevor Cahill, who is only 32 years old, or Royals fans could just stab themselves in the eye with a sharp pencil.