The Royals reunited with one of the best homegrown pitchers in franchise history on the tail end of his Hall of Fame career but were otherwise quiet, as they’re banking on an increasingly MLB-ready set of prospects to drive a return to contention in the AL Central.
Major League Signings
Trades and Claims
- Acquired LHP Amir Garrett from the Reds in exchange for LHP Mike Minor and cash
- Acquired minor league RHP Zach Willeman from the Dodgers as the PTBNL from July’s Danny Duffy trade
- Signed CF Michael A. Taylor to a two-year, $9MM extension (technically just before the end of the regular season; Taylor would have been a free agent)
Notable Minor League Signings
- Brad Peacock, Daniel Mengden, Arodys Vizcaino, Sam Freeman, JaCoby Jones, Colten Brewer, Ivan Castillo, Richard Lovelady
- Mike Minor, Hanser Alberto, Greg Holland, Kyle Zimmer, Scott Blewett, Ervin Santana, Jakob Junis, Wade Davis (retired), Jesse Hahn, Ryan McBroom
The Royals got their first couple orders of offseason business done before the regular season had even ended. Longtime general manager Dayton Moore was promoted to president of baseball operations, while longtime assistant GM J.J. Picollo was elevated to the title of general manager. It’s still Moore atop the baseball ops hierarchy, but the pair of promotions made it all the more difficult for other teams to lure the Royals’ top executives away. Kansas City also signed all-world defensive center fielder Michael A. Taylor to an affordable two-year, $9MM extension on Sept. 29 — keeping him from the market and ensuring a continuance of the excellent defense that has been a hallmark of Moore’s best Royals teams.
Though the Royals finished the 2021 season with a 74-88 record, they’d made it clear even dating back to the 2020-21 offseason that the team was intent on moving out of a brief rebuilding phase and shifting to a win-now mindset. Moore had plainly stated as much, and the 2020-21 offseason signings of Mike Minor and Carlos Santana were clear bets on formerly productive veterans that they could return to form and help to mentor an otherwise extremely young Royals roster.
Unfortunately, neither deal paid dividends. Minor posted a second straight ERA north of 5.00, while Santana hit just .214/.319/.342 through 659 plate appearances. Both former All-Stars may have had some sage advice for the Royals’ up-and-coming prospects, but they each quickly went from rebound candidates to struggling veterans now multiple years removed from productivity.
For a Royals club with a deep collection of young starting pitchers and several MLB-ready top prospects on the position-player side of the depth chart, the presence of Minor and Santana quickly became a roadblock. That’s not to say there wasn’t room for a veteran anchor to the rotation, but the Royals clearly felt Minor wasn’t up to the task of shepherding the group in 2022, as they traded him to the Reds in a straight-up swap that brought hard-throwing lefty reliever Amir Garrett to Kansas City.
The trade gave the Royals two years of control over Garrett, a clearly talented but highly inconsistent lefty who, if he can right the ship at Kauffman Stadium, will give manager Mike Matheny a viable high-leverage arm. Command issues have plagued Garrett in the past, but from 2019-20 he pitched to a combined 3.03 ERA while striking out one of every three batters he faced. Home runs were an issue in 2021, but the move from Great American Ball Park to Kauffman ought to help him in that regard.
As importantly — if not more importantly — the Minor/Garrett swap trimmed more than $7MM from the Royals’ payroll. Kansas City agreed to pay the $1MM buyout on Minor’s 2023 option and also chipped in $500K to help cover salary. The Reds otherwise surprisingly took on $7.3MM in additional salary for a 34-year-old lefty with a 5.18 ERA over the past two seasons and a shoulder issue that Cincinnati knew would have him behind schedule in camp. (Minor opened the season on the injured list but was sent on a rehab assignment yesterday.)
That bit of extra payroll space proved vital. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported not long before the trade that the Royals had been hoping to shed payroll in order to bring in some rotation help. They both saved money and created a rotation vacancy in one swoop, setting the stage for a reunion with Zack Greinke, who won a Cy Young Award with the Royals back in 2009. Greinke, the No. 6 overall pick in 2002, returned to Kansas City, spurning similar offers from the Twins, Tigers and others in deference to a full-circle homecoming.
Swapping out Greinke for Minor should be an upgrade but it wasn’t the only starting pitching avenue the team explored. Even after signing Greinke, the Royals continued to pursue Oakland’s Frankie Montas, but the reportedly exorbitant asking price on the 29-year-old righty was too much for Kansas City — or any club, for that matter — to meet. Montas remains in Oakland, and Greinke is now charged with serving as the veteran leader of a rotation that enters 2022 with the same questions it did in 2021.
Kansas City has an impressive collection of young arms, including Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, Jonathan Heasley and Carlos Hernandez, but to this point that sextet has only had scattershot success. Every member of the group has shown flashes of mid-rotation potential (if not more), but consistency hasn’t been there. That makes a rebound from 26-year-old Brad Keller, who pitched to a career-worst 5.39 ERA in 133 2/3 frames last year, all the more important. Greinke is no longer an ace, but if he and Keller can provide serviceable bulk innings and even one or two of the organization’s touted young arms can take the next step, it’s easy enough to see a quality starting staff coming together.
It’s also possible that any of those six young hurlers could eventually wind up in the bullpen on a full-time basis. Singer is there right now in a long relief capacity, though he has the most big league experience of Kansas City’s young arms and could get a look back in the rotation sooner than later. There’s a fair bit of uncertainty beyond Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont and the previously mentioned Garrett, however. Lefty Jake Brentz had a nice year in 2021 but needs to improve his command, and righty Dylan Coleman has impressed thus far but in a very limited set of innings.
It’s surprising, then, that Kansas City’s only bullpen addition was righty Taylor Clarke, whom the D-backs non-tendered on the heels of a generally nondescript run in 2020-21 (86 2/3 innings, 4.67 ERA, 21% strikeout rate, 9.3% walk rate). Perhaps owner John Sherman simply wasn’t comfortable pushing payroll past the current $97MM Opening Day mark, but if that’s the case, the decision to restructure Whit Merrifield’s contract to pay him more in 2022 is unusual. Some teams are hesitant to add players late in the offseason when their 40-man roster is full and they fear losing a decent player, but it’s hard to argue that the Royals’ 40-man roster doesn’t have a player or two who could justifiably be jettisoned for some proven bullpen innings.
Nearly 20 relievers signed one-year deals worth under $4MM, and there are even still a few unsigned names who’d have seemingly made some sense for Kansas City (e.g. Yusmeiro Petit, Tony Watson). As with the rotation, though, it seems the Royals will hope in-house options like Coleman, Collin Snider, Gabe Speier and others can step up and fill in the gaps. To their credit, Barlow and Staumont are a pair of developmental success stories.
Turning the focus to the lineup, the Royals are running out the same group of hitters they did late in the 2021 season — with one notable exception. Top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. obliterated Cactus League pitching, just as he did Double-A and Triple-A arms in 2021, and forced his way onto the Opening Day roster. The 21-year-old, second-generation talent was the No. 2 overall pick in 2019 and is viewed as a star in the making. He’s slotting in at third base early in the season, though he’s played primarily shortstop in the minors. The Royals plugged Adalberto Mondesi back in at short, however, and moved Nicky Lopez from shortstop to second base. As was the case in 2021, the Royals should be a tremendous defensive club.
Still, it’s fairly surprising the Royals didn’t find a means to move on from Santana on the heels of such a poor showing. If the first-base cupboard beyond Santana were bare, it’d be more understandable, but that’s not the case at all. Rather, Kansas City has a pair of top-50 prospects who burst onto the scene with mammoth 2021 seasons between Double-A and Triple-A. First baseman Nick Pratto slashed .265/.385/.602 with 38 home runs between those two levels, while catcher MJ Melendez led the minors with 41 homers and posted an even better .288/.386/.625 line. Pratto is the heir-apparent at first base, and it’s a bit puzzling to see Santana getting playing time over him. Melendez isn’t going to unseat Salvador Perez behind the plate anytime soon, but he could mix in at designated hitter and the infield corners — the Royals tried him at third base a bit last year — were more at-bats available.
Santana, fellow first baseman Ryan O’Hearn and utilityman Hunter Dozier combined for a .217/.297/.368 batting line in 1456 plate appearances last year. All three are on the Major League roster right now, while Pratto and Melendez are in the minors. Dozier is signed through 2024 with a 2025 option, so it’s understandable if the Royals are committed to getting him right at the plate. But he’s also played all four corner positions and could be dropped to a utility role because of that versatility. O’Hearn and Santana, meanwhile, seem more like pure roadblocks to the Royals’ more promising prospects. Perhaps they’re both on short leashes, but it’s a bit odd that Witt’s huge Spring Training landed him an Opening Day roster spot while Pratto and Melendez were optioned relatively early despite outstanding performances themselves.
If that seems like a lot of focus on the Royals’ incumbent options rather than their new additions, that’s because there simply weren’t any new additions on the position-player side of things, aside from the promotion of Witt. The Royals firmly believe the core of their next contending club is already in the organization, but that only makes it more curious that two of their three best prospects were sent out after huge spring showings. Again, in Kansas City’s defense, both Melendez and Pratto have struggled through a handful of Triple-A games so far, so perhaps this is the right tactic for their development. If Santana continues struggling as he has early in 2022, however, it’ll be increasingly difficult not to dip into the farm.
Ultimately, it was a quiet offseason for the Royals, setting them up to live or die by the developmental strides of young players like Lynch, Singer, Bubic, Kowar, Hernandez, Heasley, Pratto, Melendez and, of course, Witt. That group should get as many reps as possible this year once the organization deems them ready, and while they won’t all pan out, a full year of evaluation should give Moore and his staff the chance to determine where they need to supplement next winter. The Royals are a long shot to contend, but if enough of the kids step up, there’s at least some Wild Card potential with this group.