The Royals have been one of the game’s most active teams this winter but don’t appear done with their offseason just yet. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that Kansas City still hopes to add a closer to its bullpen and is currently looking at the trade market now that free agency has been largely picked over.
While a handful of names have popped up on the trade market this offseason, Kansas City may be just as hard-pressed to find a closer via trade as in free agency. The Guardians listened to offers on closer Emmanuel Clase at the Winter Meetings in December, but he’s signed for another five years. That’d point to a massive asking price in return, and the price for a division-rival club might be even steeper.
More recently, Red Sox closer Kenley Jansen has surfaced in rumors, but the Royals’ projected $112MM payroll is already going to be the team’s highest since 2018. Adding Jansen’s $16MM salary would give the Royals their third-highest payroll ever, trailing only the 2016-17 seasons that immediately followed their consecutive World Series appearances (and 2015 World Series victory).
Any mention of a team trading for a closer figures to reignite yearslong speculation about Pirates star David Bednar, but a move involving the Pittsburgh native seems overwhelmingly unlikely. Bednar remains highly affordable and is controllable for another three seasons. The Pirates’ offseason has been focused on adding pieces rather than subtracting them, and owner Bob Nutting recently commented at length about his desire to contend in 2024. A trade of Bednar would register as a legitimate surprise at this point.
It bears mentioning that trading for “a closer” is a somewhat nebulous description. Players like Clase and Jansen are clear, set-in-stone closers with their respective clubs, but many teams take a committee approach to the ninth inning. Others are content to plug in a less-experienced arm and hope for solid results, as the Nationals did last year with Kyle Finnegan, for instance. The 32-year-old Finnegan was available at the trade deadline but didn’t change hands. He paced the Nats with 28 saves, bringing his career total to 50. That certainly qualifies him as a “closer,” but it’d be a stretch to think that makes him more preferable to the Royals than, say, a younger high-end setup man with more club control and superior rate stats but fewer saves.
However the Royals want to define their targets, the implication is clear: they’re looking for a leverage arm to pitch meaningful innings in what they hope will be a much-improved 2024 season. Kansas City has already signed Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha, Hunter Renfroe, Will Smith, Chris Stratton and Garrett Hampson to big league deals totaling $105MM in value. They acquired righty Nick Anderson from the Braves, and in a separate deal with Atlanta picked up injured starter Kyle Wright, who’ll likely miss the ’24 season following shoulder surgery but is controllable via arbitration through 2026.
As things stand, the veteran Smith and righty James McArthur are probably the front-runners to close games in Kansas City. Smith has 113 career saves and signed a one-year, $5MM deal to return to the organization with which he made his MLB debut back in 2012. McArthur was a speculative pickup after being cut loose by the Phillies, and after a slow start he finished out the season with 16 1/3 shutout innings, 19 strikeouts and no walks in his final 12 appearances. Stratton and Anderson give the Royals a pair of experienced setup options — health permitting, in Anderson’s case — and they’ll likely be joined by flamethrowing righty Carlos Hernandez.
It’s somewhat interesting to note that the Royals are only a few months removed from trading prior closer Scott Barlow, who went to the Padres at last summer’s trade deadline (and has since been shipped to Cleveland). That swap arguably came a few months too late, as Barlow’s rocky first half in 2023 surely caused his stock to dip from where it’d been after he notched a 2.62 ERA, 28.7% strikeout rate and 8.2% walk rate with 42 saves from 2020-22.
The Royals’ wide-reaching slate of acquisitions to this point have undoubtedly bettered the roster, but Kansas City would need to improve by a magnitude of around 30 games to have a real postseason chance after going 56-106 last year. Extensive as their acquisitions from outside the organization have been, that’s not likely to become a reality without some meaningful improvements from young players already in house. Adding another quality bullpen arm to the late-inning mix can only help, but it’s a steep road back to contention after losing a combined 203 games over the past two seasons.