The Dayton Moore front office was generally pretty tight-lipped about whatever moves they were plotting when he ran the Royals. In sharp contrast, we have seen numerous reports this off-season about general manager J.J. Picollo pursuing starting pitching. Already we have seen rumors about their pursuit of Lucas Giolito and Marcus Stroman, as well as trade talks with the Marlins and Mariners about their young pitchers.
But they appear to be casting an even wider net in their quest to upgrade the rotation. According to MLB.com reporter Mark Feinsand, you can add free agents Michael Wacha and Jack Flaherty to the list of free agents they are pursuing.
The Royals are indeed interested in Marcus Stroman, as @JonHeyman reported, but Kansas City is casting a wide net in its search for pitching. Per sources, the Royals have also had discussions with Lucas Giolito, Michael Wacha and Jack Flaherty.— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) December 11, 2023
Both Wacha and Flaherty began their careers with the Cardinals. Wacha was a first round pick in 2012 out of Texas A&M, and was in the big leagues a year later, winning NLCS MVP. He won a career-high 17 games in 2015 and was named an All-Star, but was ineffective the next season as he battled shoulder issues. After a few more disappointing seasons with the Cardinals, they let him leave via free agency. He was awful with the Mets in 2020 and largely ineffective with the Rays in 2021, but enjoyed a career renaissance with the Red Sox in 2022 with a 3.32 ERA and a career-high 3.3 rWAR. That landed him an unusual one-year deal with player options that he declined after winning 14 games with a 3.22 ERA.
Wacha has been a much improved strike-thrower since leaving the Cardinals. His 6.6 percent walk rate since 2020 is one of the better rates among pitchers while his strikeout rate has been average. He has become more of a flyball pitcher now, but hasn’t been particularly home run prone. His turnaround has been fueled by greater use of his change up - one of the most valuable off-speed pitches in baseball the last two years. Opponents hit just .207 against it this year with a 35.9 percent whiff rate, and he threw it over a third of the time. He also mixes in a 92 mph four-seamer, a sinker, a cutter and a curve.
Injuries have been an issue for 32-year-old right-hander. He hasn’t made as many as 25 starts in a season since 2017, with a host of shoulder injuries, including one that cost him six weeks this season. Because of that, he may be limited to two-year offers, although a team like the Royals may have to offer a third year. He is probably seeking around $12-15 million per season, although he may be open to a flexible contract for a lower average annual value like the one he received from the Padres that could have gone up to four years and $28 million.
Flaherty broke in with the Cardinals in 2017, and he earned Rookie of the Year votes the next year. He posted a career-low 2.75 ERA the next year, with the lowest WHIP and hits-per-nine-innings in the National League, earning Cy Young votes and a 13th-place finish in MVP voting with a career-high 5.8 rWAR. But shoulder injuries cost him the next three seasons, and he made just 32 starts combined from 2020 to 2022. He was healthy this year and had mixed results with the Cardinals before they traded him to the Orioles mid-season. His numbers took a dive in Baltimore and he ended the season with a 4.99 ERA and 4.36 FIP with a 22.8 percent strikeout rate and 10.2 percent walk rate.
The Pirates and Dodgers have been rumored to be pursuing Flaherty as well. He is just 28 years old, one of the younger free agent starting pitchers available. The Southern California native could be looking for a one-year deal to re-establish his value, but perhaps the Royals could entice him with a two- or three-year deal worth around $10-14 million per season with a club option if he returns to the form he showed early in his career.