The Royals’ wide-ranging search for rotation help has led to discussions with free agents Michael Wacha and Jack Flaherty, tweets Mark Feinsand of MLB.com. Kansas City has also been linked to free agents Marcus Stroman, Lucas Giolito and Seth Lugo within the past week.
Royals general manager J.J. Picollo has said on multiple occasions this winter that he’s hoping to bolster his starting rotation, and he recently acknowledged that his club has at least $30MM to spend this offseason. The Royals aren’t likely to be serious players for top-of-the-market arms like Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Blake Snell, but the list of names to which they’ve already been tied suggests they’re quite active in the second and third tiers of the market for starting pitching help.
Both Wacha and Flaherty figure to be in the Royals’ price range, landing annual values that fall well shy of that rough $30MM annual rate. Wacha’s two-year, $32MM club option was bought out by the Padres at season’s end, but after posting consecutive seasons with 125-plus innings and ERAs of 3.32 and 3.22, he has a case for a three-year pact — albeit perhaps at a lesser rate than the $16MM which San Diego declined to pay (or pick up and attempt to trade him at).
Over the past two seasons, between the Red Sox and Padres, Wacha has posted a combined 3.27 ERA with a 21.3% strikeout rate, 6.9% walk rate and 37.7% ground-ball rate. Despite being more of a fly-ball pitcher, he’s allowed a manageable 1.14 homers per nine frames. His 88.1 mph average exit velocity and 35.4% hard-hit rate are both a bit lower than this past season’s leaguewide averages (89 mph, 39.2%), which helps to mitigate the impact of a below-average strikeout rate. Wacha has dramatically reduced his reliance on a four-seam fastball over the past two seasons. He’s steadily increased his usage of a sinker and changeup in that time, posting new career-high usage rates for each pitch in both 2022 and 2023.
The broader question with Wacha is one of durability. He’s been placed on the injured list nine times in his MLB career — five of them due to right shoulder issues. Wacha landed on the IL with a stress reaction in his shoulder back in 2014, and he’s since had shoulder-related IL trips in 2016, 2020, 2022 and 2023. He’s also missed time with one-off oblique, hamstring, knee and intercostal injuries. Most recently, he missed six weeks of the 2023 summer with shoulder inflammation. However, he also posted a 3.88 ERA in 48 2/3 innings after returning and closed out the year with consecutive seven-inning gems (two total runs allowed on nine hits and two walks with 13 strikeouts).
Turning to Wacha’s former Cardinals teammate, Flaherty isn’t that far removed from looking the part of a blossoming ace. A first-round pick and top prospect before his big league debut, the right-hander logged a 3.34 ERA through 151 innings during his first full MLB campaign back in 2018. He was even better in 2019, tossing a career-best 196 1/3 innings with a brilliant 2.75 earned run average, excellent 29.9% strikeout rate and lower-than-average 7.1% walk rate. Unfortunately, he battled shoulder troubles of his own while pitching just 154 1/3 innings combined from 2020-2022.
This past season, Flaherty split the year between the Cardinals and Orioles, enjoying his healthiest year since 2019 but also displaying rather pedestrian results. Flaherty’s 4.99 ERA stands as an obvious eyesore, and his 22.8% strikeout rate was more or less in line with the league average. His 10.6% walk rate was a good bit worse than average. His fastball, which averaged 94.5 mph in that brilliant 2019 season, sat at 93.2 mph in 2023.
It obviously wasn’t Flaherty’s best work, but even with the downturn in results and durability concerns, there’s reason to believe he could yet command a multi-year deal. Flaherty only turned 28 in October, and a team might view him as a prime-aged rebound candidate who could pitch near the top of a rotation in a best-case scenario. He’d be an upside play based more on his prior heights than his 2023 output, but even if things don’t pan out, a two- or three-year deal likely wouldn’t break the bank.
Recent three-year deals for pitchers in this tier have generally landed around $12-13MM per season (e.g. Anthony DeSclafani, Yusei Kikuchi, Zach Eflin). It’s similarly feasible that Flaherty might just prefer a one-year deal that’d allow him to return to market next winter — although he could also get there via an opt-out. There are various contractual forms he can and likely is considering, but he’s unlikely to be prohibitively expensive in any of those scenarios, given Picollo’s prior comments regarding the team’s payroll flexibility.
Kansas City’s rotation currently projects to include Cole Ragans, Brady Singer and veteran innings eater Jordan Lyles. Candidates for the final two spots include Daniel Lynch, Jonathan Heasley, Angel Zerpa, Alec Marsh and Max Castillo, among others, but the Royals are hoping to add at least one, if not two veteran arms to supplement the bunch.