I’m a bit leery of writing this. Last week I complained the Royals had done nothing to earn our trust or goodwill and they immediately went out and signed three legitimate pitchers (more on them in a minute.) What if writing this article leads to them trading Bobby Witt Jr. for a bag of cotton candy? That’s a risk I guess I’ve decided to take.
I have to admit, I’m excited for 2024 now. That could still change. A good deal of my excitement stems from the fact that I believe the Royals have at least one big trade and one more signing to make before the off-season is done. If they somehow walked away with Bryce Miller and maybe Teoscar Hernández or Lourdes Gurriel Jr. I’d be plenty happy with how the front office had gone about its work.
Some people are not going to be happy with these moves because none of these guys are stars. However, they still improve this team a lot. Seth Lugo, the Royals’ newest starting pitcher, is projected to be worth 2.1 fWAR next year. That would instantly make him the second most valuable pitcher on the roster after Cole Ragans. But it also has a domino effect of shoving someone else out of the rotation who doesn’t belong there. Some of you are thinking, “Well now Daniel Lynch IV doesn’t get a shot!” but what it means is, if Lynch is good enough, Jordan Lyles might be the one bumped from the rotation. Brady Singer no longer has to be a staff ace; between Ragans and Lugo he can settle into a third-starter role, something he’s probably more suited for.
And yeah, Will Smith and Chris Stratton aren’t exactly world-beaters in the bullpen. But if you add them to Nick Anderson, John McMillon, and James McArthur suddenly you’ve got five guys in the bullpen you’re not terrified to go to. Taylor Clarke, Carlos Hernández, Matt Sauer, Jake Brentz, and Will Klein get to battle for the last three spots in the bullpen along with whoever can’t make the rotation. That means a lot of guys who got significant innings last year for this team will be forced to improve or find a new team. The bullpen, which ZiPS projected to be below replacement level, and which was below replacement level last year once you remove Aroldis Chapman - to say nothing of Scott Barlow and Austin Cox - now has an opportunity to be at least competent.
When we talk about sports performance one of the most useful metaphors I like to use is the concept of ceilings and floors. The ceiling of a player is the best likely outcome, so a high-ceiling player is going to be very productive at their best while a low-ceiling player is one who, even if they do the best we could possibly expect, doesn’t move the needle a lot. Similarly, the floor defines the worst likely outcome.
Witt would be said to be a high-floor, high-ceiling guy. Even at his worst, you’d expect him to contribute, but at his best, you’d get a superstar. Jordan Lyles is a low-floor, low-ceiling guy. I think the Royals expected him to have a somewhat higher floor than he showed us last season but probably shouldn’t have.
A lot of the Royals players are low-floor, high-ceiling guys. MJ Melendez and Michael Massey could turn into studs at any minute. They could also be complete duds that act as anchors that might sink the team. Pitchers like Lugo, Smith, and Stratton are all high-floor, low-ceiling guys. They’re all much more likely to be at least competent than most of the options the Royals have. But even though they don’t bring a ton of potential surplus value their presence means things can only get so bad. It also means that the team ceiling rises because whichever pitchers the Royals have now that are closer to their high ceilings are the ones who will get to play, while the ones who sink to the bottom will be cut or demoted.
As I noted above, the Royals still need at least one more starter and one more hitter to raise the floor enough to ensure the team will be watchable next year. Still, this is exactly what I was begging the team to do a few weeks ago when I wrote about what free agency can do for a team. They’ve added some competence to make the team watchable, take pressure off of younger players, and give them some hope that winning any individual game is a real possibility.
That last bit should encourage players to try that little bit harder. Much has been made of the fact that the Royals underperformed their Pythagorean Record (a stat that attempts to determine how many games a team should have won, based on run differential among other things) by eight games last year. The 2014 and 2015 Royals outperformed their Pythagorean Record following the infamous team meeting led by veteran Raúl Ibañez. It seems plausible that a team believing in itself can help their record. The 2024 Royals are already almost certainly a better team than the 2023 iteration. If they can believe in themselves on top of that, maybe they can even surprise us all in a weak AL Central division.