Last winter, former Royals farmhand Matt Strahm was a free agent coming off a solid season with the Red Sox where he had a 3.83 ERA in 50 relief appearances. The lefty made 16 starts in 2019 with the Padres, but had battled injuries since then, settling into a reliever role.
But as he approached free agency, he made it known he wanted a chance to start again. The Phillies offered him a two-year, $15 million deal that one executive said “destroyed the market.” But the Phillies weren’t signing him to be strictly a reliever, the deal was in-between what he would get as a reliever and what he might expect as a starter. Sure enough, the Phillies gave Strahm 10 starts (where he had a solid 4.05 ERA) and 46 relief appearances (where he had a fantastic 2.82 ERA) and overall he was a 2.2 rWAR pitcher, well worth his salary.
The Royals won’t be able (or perhaps willing) to pay top dollar for starting pitchers on the free agent market. But they can outbid other teams, particularly contenders, in one resource - playing time. The Royals only have three rotation spots filled - Cole Ragans, Brady Singer, and Jordan Lyles (really 2.5 considering Lyles’ performance). That leaves lots of opportunities for any swingman relievers who want another crack at starting. Here are a few candidates.
Shintaro Fujinami came over to the States this year and put up pretty ugly numbers his first two months in the big leagues. But he had a solid 4.22 ERA after June 1, largely due to moving to the bullpen. However the door may not be completely closed on the 29-year-old right-hander starting. He had a big fastball in the upper-90s with a splitter that yielded a 40 percent groundball rate. His command was an issue and he has a tendency to get hit hard, but the velocity is interesting enough that he could be worth a second look as a starter.
Jakob Junis may not have much interest in returning to the Royals, once saying that things did not end well for him in Kansas City. He served as a swingman with the Giants the last two seasons, making 21 starts with a 4.19 ERA and 3.93 FIP and a very impressive 5.1 percent walk rate. He battled neck issues that cut his season short this year, but he had a career-best 26.2 percent strikeout rate in 86 innings. Perhaps having J.J. Picollo in charge instead of Dayton Moore can help convince Junis to return to the place he pitched from 2017 to 2021.
Sean Manaea was Junis’ teammate in San Francisco and is also a former Royals draftee. Last year he made just 10 starts and 27 relief appearances, with a 4.44 ERA overall. He enjoyed some solid seasons as a starter in Oakland, including a 1.7 rWAR season as recently as 2021. But the last two seasons have been much more mixed, and he had a 4.82 ERA as a starter last year, although with a very good strikeout rate. The 31-year-old lefty has a starter’s arsenal and may just need another opportunity to show he can be a rotation piece.
Nick Martinez was a swingman with the Rangers before going to Japan and returning to sign a multi-year deal with the Padres. They declined his option this winter, making the 33-year-old right-hander a free agent. He made just nine starts in his 63 games this year, but pitched very well as a starter with a 2.32 ERA with a 21.6 percent strikeout rate. Because of that success and some terrific underlying metrics, he could be pretty coveted this winter.
Yariel Rodriguez is a Cuban-born right-hander who has pitched as a reliever the last few seasons in Japan. He had a dominating 1.15 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings this season for Chunichi, but has started in the past, including for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic. The Royals are reportedly not among the top candidates to sign the 26-year-old, but they could offer him a chance to start that other teams may not be willing to make.