Royals left-hander Danny Duffy made his return from the injured list this evening, starting tonight’s game against the Yankees. The 32-year-old tossed two scoreless innings in a purposely brief appearance, his first action in a little more than a month. Before going on the IL with a left flexor strain, Duffy had gotten off to a very strong start to the season. Through seven starts totaling 41 2/3 innings, he worked to a pristine 1.94 ERA/2.35 FIP/3.65 SIERA.
Over the season’s first month-plus, he punched out a well above-average 28.2% of opposing hitters, a career-best mark, while walking only 7.1%. On a pitch-by-pitch basis, Duffy generated swings and misses at a 14.2% clip, also a career-best figure that’s well above the league average of 11.4%. His average fastball, slider and curveball velocity were all up between one and two ticks relative to last season. He held that increased pitch speed in today’s start, a welcome development considering there could’ve been some concern about potential lingering effects of the injury and accompanying layoff.
Because of the injury, his body of work remains a fairly small sample. Duffy’s had better month-plus stretches in his career, but he hasn’t had a seven-start run at this level since late in 2017, his last season posting an ERA below 4.00. Duffy’s not going to sustain an ERA below 2.00, but he certainly looks to have bounced back from his middling 2018-20 form. Between 2016-17, the veteran worked to a 3.64 ERA with above-average strikeout and walk numbers- solid mid-rotation production. Given his improved raw stuff and early-season peripherals, it’s not unreasonable to think he can approximate that kind of performance moving forward.
If Duffy continues to pitch at an above-average level while building back towards a starter’s workload, contending clubs figure to reach out about his potential availability. The Royals got off to a strong start but they’ve fallen off rather precipitously since the start of May. Now 33-39, Kansas City has fallen ten games back in the American League Central. They don’t seem like plausible postseason contenders in 2021. With Duffy slated to be a free agent at the end of the year- and the trade market for starting pitching shaping up to be thin- he’d be a fairly straightforward trade candidate in most organizations.
The Royals operate differently than many MLB teams, though. The front office has a reputation for being more loyal than most, and they’ve re-signed or reacquired many of the players who contributed to their pennant-winning clubs of the last decade. Trading away marquee players midseason hasn’t been their M.O.
In the past, Duffy has expressed a desire to stick in Kansas City for his entire career. In response to 2017 trade rumors, he rather famously tweeted “bury me a Royal” and expressed a strong affinity for the organization and the city. Even if the front office were willing to consider moving him near the deadline, Duffy could end those discussions. He entered the season with 9.085 years of MLB service, meaning he’ll have eclipsed ten years by July 30. Players with ten years of service, the most recent five with the same team, are granted full no-trade rights under the terms of the CBA. If Duffy has no interest in moving elsewhere midseason, he could exercise his 10-and-5 rights and block a move.
The Royals’ record and Duffy’s impending free agency could open a mutually-beneficial opportunity for a midseason deal, though. Trading Duffy (with his permission) before July 30 could give him an opportunity to play in a pennant race in 2021 and allow the organization to bring in some young talent. A midseason trade wouldn’t foreclose the two sides reuniting next winter. It’s not common for teams to sign players whom they traded away midseason in free agency the following offseason, but it’s not completely unheard of, either (the Cubs’ 2014 deal with Jason Hammel and the Yankees’ 2016 reunion with Aroldis Chapman being prominent examples). A trade would result in Duffy forfeiting his 10-and-5 rights, but the sides could agree on a no-trade clause as part of a free agent deal if he’s concerned about being moved again in the future.
It’s certainly possible the two sides work out a long-term deal during or after the year, with Duffy never changing uniforms. While it seems unlikely, there’s some chance the Royals hang onto Duffy all season but allow him to depart in free agency. But the opportunity also seems to exist for a trade that could appeal to both Duffy and the Royals, even if both sides want to continue the relationship over the long term.