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A look at starting pitcher options for the 2024 Royals

The MLB roster needs at least two more starters

Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

The Kansas City Royals finished their 2023 season with a 56-106 record, good for 5th place in a very mediocre American League Central. The team’s General Manager and Executive Vice President, J.J. Picollo, discussed the state of the roster in an interview with the Royals Live Pregame Show on September 30. Jeff Montgomery asked Picollo a question that will clearly be on the mind of most Royals fans as we enter the looming offseason.

Montgomery asked if Picollo envisions the starting rotation “evolving” somewhat, and Picollo’s response was rather telling.

“I think we’re at a point where we need to go and get some other pitchers that can help our starting pitcher depth. Cole [Ragans] will be someone that’s in the rotation, Brady Singer we expect to be in the rotation, and Jordan Lyles. We have another year with Jordan, you know, just about 180 innings he gave us, [that] has a lot of value. But we need to create competition. We need to get a couple of guys that jump into the middle or top of that rotation, so we’re going to be active.”

If the Royals are truly planning to be active on the offseason market for starting pitchers, who might that include? Signing just one or two starting pitchers on the free agent market isn’t going to be enough to truly fix the major league rotation. Instead, Kansas City will need to cast a wide net, targeting both free agents and trade assets, while also considering which in-house arms could be candidates to contribute at the major league level next season.

Free-agent starting pitchers for the Royals to consider

The free agent market is headlined by some big names this offseason, starting with Aaron Nola and potential 2023 Cy Young winner, Blake Snell. Julio Urias was once considered a top name in the upcoming class, but a recent felony arrest for domestic violence likely changes that. Behind Snell and Nola, there are a couple of potential opt-out candidates in Marcus Stroman and Eduardo Rodriguez. In all, the free agent class isn’t great, but it certainly isn’t void of talent either. Here are some names in the free-agent mix that the Royals could consider this winter:

Julio Teheran, RHP

Teheran isn’t a flashy name, but he’s an experienced arm who could be a sign-and-trade candidate by next year’s deadline. He’s a veteran in the league, already with parts of 12 major league seasons under his belt. He’s still just 32, however, because he debuted at age 20. Mostly due to injuries, Teheran hasn’t been a full-time arm in the major leagues since 2019. Since the start of 2020, he’s thrown a total of just 108 innings with a 5.92 ERA, 6.1 SO9, and 2.7 BB9.

This season, however, Teheran looked a little more like his old self. He made 11 starts, throwing 71.2 innings with a 4.40 ERA, 50 strikeouts, and just 13 walks. Over the first half of the season, however, he was even better with a 3.64 ERA. He landed on the IL in late July but ended up out on rehab assignment by the time the season ended.

Jordan Montgomery, LHP

Jordan Montgomery was one of the largest acquisitions at the 2023 trade deadline. The Cardinals traded him to the Texas Rangers with Chris Stratton for a return of three prospects. On the year, he made 32 starts, throwing 188.2 innings with a 3.20 ERA. He has very good command on the mound and walked just 1.7 batters per nine innings following his trade to Texas.

He will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, heading into his age-31 campaign in 2024. It was a good contract year for Montgomery, a season in which he posted career-best totals for ERA, IP, SO, and ERA+. Spotrac lists Montgomery’s market value at $18.84 million per year, with an estimated contract of six years, $110 million. Jameson Taillon’s four-year contract with the Chicago Cubs is a good gauge of what it may cost for Montgomery’s services. Taillon signed for four years at $68 million.

Lucas Giolito, RHP

The Royals had a chance to bring Lucas Giolito to town earlier this season after he was designated for assignment by the Angels. They didn’t claim him, however, and in all, Giolito pitched for three different teams in 2023. In total, he pitched 184.1 innings this year with a suboptimal 4.88 ERA. Despite the high ERA total, he struck out a healthy ten batters per nine innings and is still just 28 years old.

His down performance over each of the last two seasons could decrease his value some on the free agent market. That would be good news for the pitcher-needy Royals. Spotrac lists Giolito’s market value as $11.4 million per year, placing his value somewhere between Eduardo Rodriguez and Sean Manaea. As such, a four-year, $47 million contract could be enough to acquire Giolito’s services. He’s a good bounce-back candidate, but it would be a contract that comes with some risk.

Starting pitcher trade targets for the Royals to consider

Much like when they acquired James Shields via trade, the Royals will likely need to utilize the trade market if they want to truly add some pitchers to pair with their young lineup. The same will likely be true this time around and a few teams figure to be in a position to rebuild or re-tool and thus will have arms available. The Giants' front office is reportedly willing to trade young arms this winter while the Padres are expected to trim as much as 20% of their payroll after a disappointing season. The Angels are open to trading Mike Trout if he wants out of Los Angeles and — in the same offseason they’ll likely lose Shohei Ohtani to free agency — that could signal a substantial rebuild for the Halos.

Each organization has at least a couple of promising arms to consider, but here are a few that could be available in a trade if Kansas City comes calling.

Patrick Sandoval, LHP, Angels

The Angels are likely to start a major rebuild this offseason after watching Shohei Ohtani depart in free agency. They’ve failed, to this point, to field a competitive roster despite fielding superstar-level talent such as Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Shohei Ohtani. Anthony Rendon has struggled immensely with injuries ever since signing a lucrative contract back in 2019 and the pitching has been unable to perform enough to carry the team into the postseason.

If a full rebuild is truly in the cards, Los Angeles could look to trade established players on their roster such as Mike Trout and Patrick Sandoval. Sandoval is 26 years old and won’t hit arbitration until this offseason. He won’t reach free agency until 2027, but had a bit of a down season in 2023, finishing 7-13 with a 4.11 ERA.

Sandoval was much better in 2022, finishing the year with an impressive 2.91 ERA over 27 starts. His walks were up this season to the highest mark of his career. If improving command in strikeout arms is what Paul Gibson and the Royals think they can succeed with, then Sandoval represents a perfect fit for the organization.

The Angels would want to get young talent back in any sort of trade, as goes rebuilding. The Royals have some outfield depth to trade from, and even if the farm system isn’t rated highly, there’s still good talent to be found for the Halos. A trade package of Kyle Isbel and Cayden Wallace could be enough to pry Sandoval from the Angels and if so, it’s a deal the Royals would have to consider.

Keaton Winn, RHP, Giants

Sticking with the young pitcher route, the Royals' best trade partner this offseason could be San Francisco. The Giants are reportedly willing to part with young pitching to acquire outfield help and Kansas City has a surplus of options in the outfield heading into the offseason. Notable Royals outfielders on the 40-man roster or Rule 5 eligible this winter include Kyle Isbel, Drew Waters, MJ Melendez, Edward Olivares, Tyler Gentry, Tyler Tolbert, Nelson Velazquez, and John Rave.

With so many outfield options available and such a need in the starting rotation, the Royals should talk with San Francisco about Keaton Winn. There are better young arms out by the Bay, including Logan Webb and Kyle Harrison. Winn won’t cost nearly as much as those two, however, and there’s still a lot to like with his stuff. He throws a dominant splitter with an upper 90s 4-seamer. His third pitch, a changeup, is still a work in progress.

Winn made his major league debut in 2023 and could factor into the Royals’ rotation to open next season. As a rookie, he had a 4.68 ERA over 42.1 IP with 35 strikeouts and just eight walks. It wasn’t stellar, but his 4.37 FIP points to potential improvement moving forward and he’s still just 25 years old. As far as a trade return goes, the Royals could offer up Drew Waters for Keaton Winn straight up. If that gets it done, it’s a win for both sides.

Joe Musgrove, RHP, Padres

If the Royals can’t get an arm on the free agent market, they could turn their eyes to the San Diego Padres. The Padres had yet another disappointing season in 2023 and have now stated that they’d like to reduce payroll ahead of 2024. If true, the Royals could look at veteran Joe Musgrove as a trade candidate. Musgrove only made 17 starts this season and spent most of the second half on the injured list. He could have returned late in the year, but instead, the team shut him down to look ahead to the offseason.

Over those 17 starts, Musgrove owned a 3.05 ERA, striking out nine batters per nine innings while walking less than two per nine innings. He’s 30 years old and has been established as one of the better starters in the National League since 2020.

A trade would be complicated, as the Royals would be taking on a lot of risk if they assume the remainder of Musgrove’s five-year, $100 million contract. 2023 was the first year of the deal, meaning he still has four years and $80 million left on the deal. For the Padres, they’ll certainly be hesitant to eat too much salary as they hope to trim payroll. 4/$80 million really isn’t that bad if Musgrove can be the pitcher he’s been for the better part of four seasons, but the injury risk is there and plays a part.

The best case for the Royals would be a trade involving some sort of cash coming over in the deal. Perhaps a deal involving Musgrove and $20 million for Anthony Veneziano, Luinder Avila, and Daniel Lynch could make some sense. The Padres save payroll while still recouping a couple of upside arms and a bounceback candidate in Lynch. Meanwhile, the Royals acquire a lock for their rotation for the foreseeable future at least.

Farm system starting pitcher options to know in 2024

Chandler Champlain, RHP

Chandler Champlain was acquired in the Andrew Benintendi trade and was one of the very best pitchers in the organization this season. He tossed 135.1 innings between High-A and Double-A this season with a 3.33 ERA. He struck out 8.3 batters per nine innings and walked 2.9 per nine innings.

He throws a mid-90s heater that features good life up in the zone. He pairs that with a curveball, slider, and a new splitter that he added after reaching Northwest Arkansas this season. Three of those offerings are at least above average, while his splitter is still pretty good but a work in progress. If the Royals still have an opening heading into Opening Day, they could certainly do worse than Champlain as their number-five starter.

Eric Cerantola, RHP

Eric Cerantola is a sneaky name to watch heading into next season. He was a fifth-round pick by Kansas City in the 2021 MLB Draft. Despite having some of the best pure “stuff” in his class, he fell due to concerns with his command. Those issues with control followed him into the minor leagues where he walked 46 batters in 76.1 innings this season. That BB/9 total (5.4) was actually up from last season (4.2).

The stuff is undeniable for Cerantola, however. He throws an upper-90s fastball, a hammer of a curveball, and a changeup with good, fading action. Over a small sample following a promotion to Double-A this season, he walked just 3.2 hitters per nine innings — a stark improvement over his 5.9 mark at High-A. Kansas City has started stretching Cerantola out as a starter in the minor leagues and he’s getting work in this fall in the Arizona Fall League. Of these four options in the farm system, he’s probably the most likely to debut as a reliever but the potential is certainly there for him to start.

Mason Barnett, RHP

Mason Barnett was awarded the organization's Paul Splittorff Pitcher of the Year Award this season. Barnett was a third-round pick just last year and was masterful this season, ultimately making his way to Double-A Northwest Arkansas by the end of the year. In all, over 114.1 innings pitched between High-A and Double-A, Barnett pitched to a 3.30 ERA with 137 strikeouts and 50 walks. His 137 strikeouts led all minor leaguers in the organization.

Barnett throws a four-pitch mix featuring a fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup. Command was the largest concern for him heading into this season but he walked just 8.8% of hitters following an August promotion to Double-A. If Barnett doesn’t start next season in the Major Leagues, he’s almost certainly guaranteed a chance to crack the big leagues by the middle of next season with another showing like we saw this year.

Andrew Hoffmann, RHP

Andrew Hoffmann joined the Royals’ organization in the trade that brought Drew Waters and CJ Alexander. He has a four-pitch mix, featuring a 4-seamer, sinker, slider, and changeup. Hoffmann’s slider is downright vicious and easily his best pitch. If you grade Hoffmann on the box score alone, it’s hard to see him as a candidate for the 2024 rotation. He pitched 125.1 innings this season between Double-A and Triple-A, finishing 7-9 with a 5.53 ERA. Beyond the box score, however, what matters most is development.

Hoffmann improved as the season went on, including a fantastic month of August. In August, he pitched to a 3.66 ERA over four starts with 29 strikeouts and 11 walks in 19.2 IP. There looked to be some tweaks to his mechanics after arriving in Omaha and while the results were inconsistent, there were clear improvements. He finished his season second in the organization with 133 strikeouts and he’s still just 23 years old. He’s also been rather durable, throwing in more than 100 innings in each of the last two seasons.

Although it’s unlikely any of these arms will start his 2024 season in the major leagues, the Royals clearly have a handful of good fallback options if the trade market and free agency don’t materialize the way they’d like this winter. If the Royals can prove effective in those avenues over the coming months, these minor leaguers make up much better depth than the organization had for most of 2023.