The Royals have made a pair of relatively low-cost additions to their rotation this offseason. Ryan Yarbrough inked a $3MM guarantee in mid-December, while Jordan Lyles secured a two-year, $17MM commitment a couple weeks later.
Those veteran starters join younger, in-house hurlers like Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Max Castillo and Kris Bubic in the rotation mix for first-year skipper Matt Quatraro. It also raises the possibility that Kansas City’s top free agent of the winter, Zack Greinke, heads elsewhere. Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reports that while Kansas City remains open to bringing Grienke back, the six-time All-Star would likely have to take an incentive-laden contract to return. Such a deal would have a relatively low base salary that’d allow him to unlock bonuses at various innings thresholds.
At the start of November, Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported that Greinke was planning to return to the majors for a 20th season. Heyman wrote at the time Kansas City was hoping to bring the former Cy Young winner back. There was no indication then anything between the Royals and Greinke’s representatives at Excel Sports Management was close. No other team has been substantively linked to the right-hander throughout the offseason.
Greinke began his professional career with K.C. as the sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft. He starred in Kansas City not long after debuting at age 20 in 2004, going on to win the Cy Young after leading the majors with a 2.16 ERA a few years later. Greinke spent parts of seven seasons with the Royals before being dealt to the Brewers in a 2010-11 offseason blockbuster. He’d spend the next decade solidifying a strong Hall of Fame résumé while pitching for Milwaukee, the Angels, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Astros before returning to free agency last winter.
Kansas City brought Greinke back on a one-year, $13MM guarantee that contained an additional $2MM in potential incentives. Teams like the Twins and Tigers reportedly showed strong interest as well, but Greinke relished the opportunity to return to his original organization.
During his return season to Kaufmann Stadium, the 39-year-old threw 137 innings over 26 starts. He posted a solid 3.68 ERA, largely on the strength of his typically excellent control. Greinke only walked 4.6% of batters faced, the 13th-lowest mark among 140 pitchers with 100+ innings. No pitcher within that group had a lower strikeout percentage than Greinke’s 12.5% rate, while his 7.3% striking strike rate is fourth from the bottom. Greinke’s fastball now sits around 89 MPH and he’s a pitch-to-contact control artist.
While he’s now best suited for back-of-the-rotation work, there’s little question Greinke is still a major league caliber hurler. He hasn’t had an ERA above 4.16 in any of the last six seasons. He had a pair of injured list stints related to forearm discomfort last year but still managed to top 25 starts for the 14th consecutive 162-game season. On top of the value he could bring to younger pitchers in the clubhouse, he remains a solid innings eater for teams seeking to bolster their back end.
Kansas City could fit Greinke onto the roster even after bringing in Yarbrough and Lyles. Only Singer has firmly seized a rotation role among the team’s young starters. Yarbrough has struggled for the past couple seasons and could fairly easily move to long relief himself. The bigger question seems to be finances. The Royals presently project for a payroll in the $86MM range, per Roster Resource. Cot’s Baseball Contracts pegged them around $95MM to start last season, but K.C. general manager J.J. Picollo indicated at the outset of the offseason the club was dealing with budgetary limitations.
Greinke is one of the top starters who remains unsigned. Aside from Michael Wacha, no free agent starter who hasn’t agreed to terms is coming off a better 2022 campaign. Perhaps Greinke is willing to take an incentive-laden deal to return to K.C. — particularly given his strong track record of staying healthy and amassing plenty of innings — but Rosenthal’s report suggests it wouldn’t be a surprise if another club is willing to beat whatever guarantee the Royals put on the table.