Despite a promising start, the 2021 season has not worked out the way the Royals would have liked. The Royals will almost certainly be sellers at the trade deadline, the only question is how aggressive they’ll be in selling. Dayton Moore indicated he wants to make moves with an eye towards improving the team in 2022, and would have to be “overwhelmed” to move core pieces.
While that likely means we won’t see All-Star second baseman Whit Merrifield, there is another valuable player that could have a lot of suitors that Dayton Moore could deal - reliever Scott Barlow. Barlow has emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball over the last three seasons, with the ninth-highest WAR, according to Fangraphs.
This year he has really come into his own with a 2.76 ERA and 3.08 FIP, a 30.6 strikeout rate, and one of the lowest home run rates in baseball. The Royals have club control over the 28-year old right-hander through 2024, and hasn’t even qualified for arbitration yet. So why would the Royals trade their best reliever when they can keep him the next few years?
Barlow will never be more valuable than he is right now
Scott Barlow is proven (three seasons now of being a very effective reliever), cheap, with three more controllable years beyond this one. He will be attractive to not only top contenders, but teams that are hanging around, unsure if they’re really contending or not, but with hopes of contending the next few seasons, like the Mariners, Reds, Phillies, and Braves.
The bullpen market is going to get crazy over the next 31 hours. Brewers, Giants, Braves, Mets, Blue Jays, Rays and White Sox among the teams still looking for relief help. Kimbrel, Rodriguez, Kennedy, Tepera, Hudson, Hand, Soria, Robles, Shaw, Fry, Cisnero among those available.— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) July 29, 2021
Relievers with several years of control left have gotten pretty good prospect hauls in the past. In 2019, the Marlins got a breakthrough performance from 28-year old rookie Nick Anderson who had a ridiculous strikeout rate that year. They dealt him to Tampa Bay along with back-of-the-rotation starter Trevor Richards to land Top 100 outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez and pitcher Ryne Stanek. Anderson was great for pennant runs in 2019 and 2020, but tore his UCL and has not pitched this season.
The Rays also took advantage of the reliever market when they got a breakthrough performance from 28-year old journeyman Emilio Pagan. Despite having him under club control for several seasons, they shipped him to San Diego in 2020 for outfielder Manny Margot, who has been a solid outfielder the last two years (2.6 WAR in 124 games, according to Baseball Reference).
Baseball Trade Value lists Barlow’s surplus value at $16.8 million, or roughly worth a low-end Top 100 prospect (like say, Jackson Kowar). That’s not the end-all, be-all of evaluating trade values, but the point is that Barlow should be worth a pretty good return. It is possible that teams are hoarding prospects more, and the market has shifted. But every day the Royals wait to trade him, Barlow loses value as he gets older, more expensive, and closer to free agency.
The Royals have potential bullpen arms to replace him
The Royals bullpen has not been stellar. They have the eighth-worst ERA and fourth-worst FIP in baseball. But a lot of that has been the over-the-hill crowd of Greg Holland, Ervin Santana, and Wade Davis, who have combined for a 6.01 ERA in 100 1⁄3 innings. The core of Barlow, Jake Brentz, Josh Staumont, and Kyle Zimmer has been decent, and the Royals have some other intriguing MLB-ready arms in Carlos Hernandez, Richard Lovelady, Ronald Bolaños (who is out for this year).
Furthermore, if Dayton Moore really trusts the pitching depth he has in his system, there should be no shortage of bullpen candidates in the next few years. Not all of the young pitching prospects will be cut out for MLB starting work and some could find more success coming out of the pen. Moore also has a reputation for being able to find relievers off the scrap heap - that’s how he found Barlow in the first place! Perhaps Domingo Tapia can become the next Barlow?
Will Scott Barlow continue to be effective the next few seasons?
The Royals have to consider how likely it is that Barlow will be a terrific reliever through 2024, when he will be 31 years old. When Greg Holland was 30, he needed Tommy John surgery, and was never quite the same pitcher. Wade Davis was still elite at age 30, his last year with the Royals, but also suffered some worrying forearm issues, and began to decline at age 32. Kelvin Herrera was out of baseball before his 31st birthday.
Research by Bill Petti at Fangraphs shows that relievers typically lose their velocity at age 31. The Royals can gamble that Barlow will be effective through his 31st birthday, but if they are not contenders by then, there may not be any value to salvage from him by then.
Can the Royals seriously contend in the next few years?
A lot of this also depends on what you think of their contention timeline. If the Royals really think they can be contenders in the next 2-3 seasons - and not just a .500 team, but real contenders - then it makes sense to keep Barlow as a piece that can help them win the pennant. But it seems more likely that it will take a year or two for Bobby Witt, Jr. and Nick Pratto to adjust the MLB pitching, for the Royals to sort out their young pitchers, and for the Royals to add the complementary pieces needed to build a championship club. If you’re looking at the past rebuild, from the time it took Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to reach the big leagues, it took another three seasons until the Royals won the pennant.
Maybe the Royals are confident that they can be good in that window, and that Barlow can hold up. But they may have an opportunity to move him for another piece that can potentially fill another need. Virtually every contender in baseball could use more bullpen help, and Barlow could be quite coveted. If the Royals really are focused on building the best team for the future, they may want to make Barlow available this year before it's too late.