The Royals are close to securing their second free-agent pitcher of the day, as they’re reported to be finalizing a two-year, $8MM deal with reliever Chris Stratton. The contract will pay the McKinnis Sports client $3.5MM in 2024 when finalized, and there’s a $500K buyout on a $4.5MM player option for the 2025 season. Kansas City also agreed to terms with righty Seth Lugo on a three-year contract in near simultaneous fashion.
Stratton, 33, has been a quality middle-inning arm for the Pirates, Cardinals and Rangers over the past four seasons, tallying 255 1/3 innings of 3.91 ERA ball in that time. Along the way, he’s fanned 24.5% of his opponents against an 8.9% walk rate with a 42% ground-ball rate and 0.85 homers per nine frames. Of that trio, only the Pirates regularly used him in high-leverage spots, but Stratton still collected 11 saves and 27 holds in that time (mostly coming in Pittsburgh).
Stratton has regularly worked multiple innings, evidenced by the fact that those 255 1/3 frames came over the life of just 219 appearances. He averaged just shy of 1 1/3 innings per appearance in 2023, topping out with a three-inning appearance for Texas on Aug. 12. Overall, 36 of this past season’s 64 appearances saw Stratton record at least four outs.
It’s fairly surprising to see Stratton secure an opt-out provision in his contract. Middle relievers of this ilk typically haven’t been afforded that luxury, although the Reds did give Emilio Pagan an opt-out after his first season earlier this month. For Kansas City, perhaps that was a necessary bridge to cross in order to sway a reliever they were prioritizing to sign there rather than with a more clear-cut contender. Regardless, Stratton will now get the benefit of pitching the 2024 campaign in a pitcher-friendly home park — likely with more leverage opportunities than many contending clubs might’ve otherwise offered. If it all goes well, he could be set up nicely next winter, age notwithstanding.
Stratton is the second bullpen addition for the Royals this week. Kansas City also agreed to a one-year, $5MM deal with left-hander Will Smith over the weekend. That gives the Royals a pair of affordable veterans to pair with 27-year-old James McArthur, whose overall 4.63 ERA masks the dominant finish he enjoyed in 2023; from Sept. 2 onward, McArthur rattled off 16 1/3 shutout innings with 19 strikeouts (35.8% strikeout rate) and no walks. Small sample or not, he clearly thrust himself into the team’s late-inning mix with a performance like that. The Royals also picked up former Rays and Braves reliever Nick Anderson in a swap with Atlanta earlier in the winter; Anderson has been prone to injury but boasts a 2.93 ERA, 35.5% strikeout rate and 6.6% walk rate in 122 2/3 career innings when healthy.
The additions of Stratton and Smith tack about $9MM onto the 2024 payroll, and today’s agreement with Lugo adds another $15MM. Royals general manager J.J. Picollo said earlier in the month that he had at least $30MM to spend (for the 2024 season, not overall). That would leave the Royals with at least another $6MM or so to put toward improvements for the current roster, if not a bit more. Kansas City has also reportedly been active in the trade market, with names like MJ Melendez, Freddy Fermin and Michael Massey among those on which they’re said to be comfortable listening. Even if the budget is a bit tight for another notable free-agent move, it’s possible a deal for rotation and/or bullpen help could come together via the trade market.