It is that time of the year again, when the Royals find themselves hopeless buried in the standings by the time kids are out of school for the summer. It wasn’t supposed to be that way this year - there was some hope the team could make enough progress to at least hang around with a competitive record until July. Instead, the Royals have the worst record in baseball, and will be forced to approach the trade deadline as sellers. They have several players that could draw interest - catcher Cam Gallagher, outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Whit Merrifield, and pitchers Brad Keller, Zack Greinke, Amir Garrett, Scott Barlow, and Josh Staumont, among others. We’ll start by focusing on Keller.
Keller has been one of the best scouting finds of the Dayton Moore era. Originally plucked from the Arizona Diamondbacks organization in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, Keller has quickly established himself as a league-average starter. There have been 140 starting pitchers since Keller broke into the league in 2018 with at least 300 innings pitched, Keller ranks 65th in ERA at 4.02, and 70th in FIP at 4.16. That will get you a three- or four-year deal in free agency, worth around $8-14 million per season.
The knock on Keller has been his inability to miss bats. Of those 140 pitchers, Keller has the tenth-worst strikeout rate. Keller saw a spike in his strikeout rate last year to a career-high 8.1 strikeouts-per-nine-innings, but it was also the worst season of his career with a 5.39 ERA. He struggled from the outset, but tweaked his delivery in August and finished the season strong before he got hurt in the final month. He seems to have put those struggles behind him with a solid 4.15 ERA in ten starts this year, although his strikeout rate has plummeted to a career-low 4.9 per-nine-innings.
Keller will be under club control next year where he should make at least $10 million through arbitration before he hits free agency at the end of the 2023 season. He might be a candidate for a long-term deal, but the Royals have not had those discussions yet, according to JJ Picollo on a recent appearance on 610 Sports.
“We haven’t talked extensions with Brad directly,” he said. “Internally, we do have those discussion. You know, what’s the best route for us? Brad’s having a great year, so there’s going to be interest him. We also have a need for starting pitching, so it’s that balance of, ‘Is this the right time? Is this the right person? Do we need him long-term?’ And there are things we’ll have to determine as we get closer to the deadline, what direction we’re going to go.”
If the Royals decide Keller is not part of the long-term future, he becomes a prime candidate to be traded. There would be no urgency to trade Keller now, although the Royals have found that with no urgency to make a trade, they sometimes miss their window to obtain a good return. Trading a player that is not an impending free agent is a bit rare for Dayton Moore - the only player he has traded away mid-season since 2018 that was not a rental was lefty reliever Tim Hill when he was dealt to San Diego in 2020.
The lack of strikeouts could be what causes teams to avoid Keller, which could drive down his price. There aren’t many examples of pitchers with such low strikeout rates going in deals other than as throw-ins with more valuable pieces. And if a team is looking for a low-strikeout pitcher, Keller will be competing with Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks, who received Cy Young votes as recently as 2020, but has not pitched as well as Keller this year.
There aren’t too many great comps for pitchers like Keller being traded mid-season, but we can perhaps look at the Kevin Gausman trade in 2018. This is not the Kevin Gausman we know today, the one the Giants unlocked more potential out of to become a Cy Young candidate last year. This Kevin Gausman was a mid-rotation starter who had a 4.22 ERA, 100 ERA+ and 8.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings in his time with the Orioles until they traded him to Atlanta with reliever Darren O’Day for minor leaguers catcher Brett Cumberland, infielder JC Encarnación, pitchers Evan Phillips and Bruce Zimmermann and international bonus slot money.
Gausman actually had two years of club control after he was traded, unlike Keller, but Keller has pitched a bit better than Gausman had up to that point. But the haul was focused more on quantity than quality. Fangraphs would rank the prospects in the Orioles system that offseason with Cumberland at #12, Encarnación at #14, Phillips at #24, with Zimmerman - who has pitched the most big league innings and is currently in the Orioles rotation, albeit with a 4.87 ERA - unranked on the top 32 list. Cumberland is still in the minors at age 27, Phillips has moved on to the Dodgers, and Encarnación is out of affiliated baseball.
The Royals could do better than a pu-pu platter of non-top 10 prospects, but the return is not likely to bring back premium prospects. At best, the Royals would likely receive one top-ten prospect, plus perhaps a young player whose career has stalled out or a top 25 prospect, with a “lottery ticket”-type prospect thrown in. Still, for a team that is buried in the standings, getting back young players would be preferable than having Keller for one more season they are unlikely to be contenders.
The Minnesota Twins could be interested, finding themselves in first place with a rag-tag rotation. The Cardinals and Brewers could also be in the market for starting pitching after being hit hard by injuries. The Mets are looking for pitching help too, but may have bigger targets in mind. And the Rays seem like a poor fit due to Keller’s low strikeout rate and a salary for next year that is probably out of their range.
Would the Royals trade Keller? I am doubtful. The market is unlikely to be robust for him, and the Royals will likely value him more than other teams. Dayton Moore does not like subtracting from his team unless he going to lose the player in free agency anyway, and he might hold onto Keller hoping the Royals can make strides next year - or even in the latter half of this year.
Still, if they can find a trade for him, it would make sense to be more “transactional” and find a way to infuse the organization with more young talent.