It’s been a quiet offseason for the Royals on the whole, but they’ve taken up a prominent position on the trade market in the past few days, shipping center fielder Michael A. Taylor to the division-rival Twins in exchange for relief prospects Evan Sisk and Steven Cruz, and flipping infielder Adalberto Mondesi to the Red Sox in exchange for reliever Josh Taylor the following day.
Those might not be the only trades in store for general manager J.J. Picollo in his first offseason atop the team’s baseball operations hierarchy. The Royals have reportedly discussed infielder Nicky Lopez with the White Sox in what would be a second intra-division swap. More broadly, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported yesterday that Kansas City still had “a couple more deals” that they’re in the process of “lining up.” With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at some of the names the Royals could potentially ship out in the days and weeks leading up to spring training.
First and foremost, it should be pointed out that both Taylor and Mondesi were a year away from reaching the open market. They represented short-term assets for a Royals team that knows itself to be, at best, a long shot to contend in 2023. Lopez is more of of a mid-range player in terms of remaining club control, as he’s arbitration-eligible through the 2025 season. Presumably, the Royals won’t want to surrender much more team control than that. Players like Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto are all controllable through at least the 2028 season; it’s unlikely the Royals would give much consideration to moving anyone from that group.
Onto some more plausible names, beginning with the focus of yesterday’s White Sox rumors…
Nicky Lopez, 2B/SS | Age: 27 (28 in March) | Contract: Signed for $3.7MM, arb-eligible through 2025
Lopez has been an all-glove player outside a 2021 season that currently looks anomalous in nature. He posted a .300/.365/.378 batting line in 565 plate appearances that season but did so with a .347 batting average on balls in play that’s 53 points higher than his career mark of .294. Lopez is a career .252/.309/.321 hitter in more than 1600 plate appearances. To say he doesn’t hit the ball hard would be an understatement; Lopez ranked 246th of 252 qualified hitters with an 84.9 mph average exit velocity and 250th with a 22.9% hard-hit rate. Statcast ranked him in the third percentile of MLB hitters in terms of “expected” slugging percentage.
That’s not a ringing endorsement of Lopez by any stretch, but he has plenty of positive attributes: namely his bat-to-ball skills and prodigious defensive prowess. Lopez fanned in just 13.1% of his plate appearances in each of the past two seasons, exhibiting strong contact skills. He doesn’t take especially lengthy at-bats (average 3.66 pitcher per plate appearance, compared to the league-average 3.9), but Lopez puts the ball in play and runs fairly well, ranking in the 58th percentile of MLB players in terms of sprint speed, per Statcast.
Defensively, there are few better players in the game — at least in the estimation of Statcast. He’s been an above-average but not elite defender by measure of Defensive Runs Saved, but Statcast’s Outs Above Average credits Lopez with excellent marks at second base (12) and particularly at shortstop (31) in his career. The sure-handed Lopez has made just 20 errors as a big leaguer and shown aptitude at both middle infield slots as well as in briefer sessions at the hot corner.
With three more years of club control remaining, there’s no urgency to trade Lopez. However, the Royals have Witt at shortstop and want to give 24-year-old Michael Massey a chance to claim the second base job.
Scott Barlow, RHP | Age: 30 | Contract: Signed for $5.3MM, arb-eligible through 2024
Likely the most popular potential trade chip on the Royals, Barlow has stepped up as the team’s closer and solidified himself as a quality late-game option in Kansas City. He’s pitched matching totals of 74 1/3 innings over the past two seasons, logging a combined 2.30 ERA with a 28.2% strikeout rate, 8.4% walk rate, 43.3% grounder rate, 0.79 HR/9 mark and 40 saves.
Over the past two seasons, Barlow is tied for 22nd among 138 qualified relievers with a 15% swinging-strike rate. His 36.9% chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone ties him for 15th in that same set of hurlers. Barlow has also excelled at hitting spots and freezing batters (18.1% called-strike rate), and his combined 33.1% called strike-plus-whiff rate is eighth among MLB relievers since 2021. He limits hard contact extremely well (86.4 mph average exit velocity, 30.3% hard-hit rate in 2022), has plus spin on his heater and generates plus extension with his delivery, per Statcast.
It’s not all roses with Barlow, however. He saw his average fastball dip from 95.3 mph in 2021 to 93.7 mph in 2022. In conjunction, both his strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate saw notable drops. This past season’s 1.09 HR/9 mark was the worst he’s posted in a full season, and (likely because of the drop in strikeouts) Barlow needed a charitable .240 average on balls in play to get to his sparkling 2.18 ERA; that’s 75 points lower than his 2021 mark and 84 points lower than the career mark he carried into 2022. It’s not likely to be repeated, so if the velocity and strikeouts remain at their 2022 levels, Barlow’s ERA is going to be in for quite a bit of regression.
Even with some modest red flags in 2022, Barlow remains a quality reliever who can be controlled at a relatively affordable rate for the next two seasons. If he were a free agent this winter, he’d surely have commanded a good bit more than the $12-14MM or so he’ll command in his final two arbitration seasons. There’s surplus value here, and if the Royals are (understandably) pessimistic about their chances in 2023, Barlow’s trade value will be at its apex either now or this summer.
Taylor Clarke, RHP | Age: 29 (30 in May) | Contract: Signed for $1.15MM, arb-eligible through 2025
Cut loose by the D-backs after the 2021 season, Clarke signed a surprising Major League deal with Kansas City and proved a shrewd pickup, tossing 49 innings with a 4.04 ERA. Clarke logged 10 holds and a trio of saves but worked more in low- and medium-leverage spots than in high-leverage scenarios.
It might be a middle relief profile, but if you squint there’s perhaps a bit more here. Clarke’s 3.9% walk rate was elite, and he posted career-best marks in strikeout rate (23.6%), swinging-strike rate (12.2%) and opponents’ chase rate (36.5%) — all while averaging 95.7 mph on his fastball. Fielding independent metrics felt he was far better than his ERA (3.30 FIP, 3.15 xERA, 3.16 SIERA). He doesn’t immediately jump out as a trade candidate, but three affordable years of control on a hard-throwing reliever who’s trending in the right direction might pique another team’s interest.
Amir Garrett, LHP | Age: 30 (31 in May) | Contract: Signed for $2.65MM, free agent after 2023 season
The Royals picked up Garrett in the March trade that sent lefty Mike Minor to Cincinnati. It didn’t work out particularly well for either side. Garrett pitched 45 1/3 innings and limped to a 4.96 ERA as his longstanding command woes spiked to new heights. Garrett walked 16.3% of his opponents last year, plunked another five batters and threw seven wild pitches. His 94.2 mph average fastball was his lowest mark since moving to the bullpen full-time.
Garrett still whiffed a quarter of his opponents, however, and he somewhat incredibly didn’t give up a home run all season. Unsustainable as that feat may be, its reflective of the fact that Garrett didn’t really get hit hard in Kansas City (88.3 mph exit velo, 30% hard-hit rate). Hard-throwing lefties who can miss bats are always going to find work, and Garrett’s salary is quite affordable.
At his best, Garrett logged a 3.03 ERA with a 33% strikeout rate in 74 1/3 innings from 2019-20. Another club might look at him as a bargain power arm who could be fixed.
Brad Keller, RHP | Age: 27 | Contract: Signed for $5.775MM, free agent after 2023 season
It’s been a rough couple seasons for Keller, who from 2018-20 looked like one of the best Rule 5 Draft picks in recent memory. Keller logged a 3.50 ERA through his first three seasons, going from a long reliever to an entrenched member of the Kansas City rotation. His 2021-22 seasons, however, have gone the opposite direction. Since Opening Day 2021, Keller has a 5.24 ERA in 273 1/3 innings. His walk rate has crept upward, and his once solid abilities to avoid hard contact have seemingly evaporated; Keller’s 1.15 HR/9 mark over the past two seasons is nearly double the 0.60 rate he turned in from 2018-20. His opponents’ barrel and hard-hit rates have exploded from 4.5% and 35.7%, respectively, to 8.7% and 42.8%.
Those struggles notwithstanding, Keller’s only trip to the Major League injured list (Covid-related list excluded) was in 2021 when he missed the final month of the season due to a lat strain. That didn’t seem to linger into the 2022 campaign, as Keller avoided the IL entirely while making 22 starts and another 13 relief appearances. At the very least, he should be viewed as a durable, affordable, innings-eating rental. And, if a team can restore his once-plus slider to its previous form, there’s bargain potential for the righty, who won’t turn 28 until late July.
Hunter Dozier, 1B/3B/OF | Age: 31 | Contract: Guaranteed $17.5MM through 2024, plus $10MM club option for 2025
Dozier’s outstanding 2019 season feels like a distant memory. He slashed .279/.348/.522 with 26 home runs that season, clocking in at 23% better than league-average, by measure of wRC+. (If that seems low, recall that 2019 is widely regarded as a season in which MLB juiced the baseballs, resulting in unprecedented levels of offense throughout the game.)
Since that time, Dozier has recorded a tepid .226/.297/.391 batting line. His authoritative batted-ball profile from that 2019 season has wilted and now looks quite pedestrian, and Dozier doesn’t have the defensive skills to offset his now lackluster offense. He’s posted respectable defensive grades at first base but ranks as one of the worst third basemen and right fielders in the sport, according to both Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average.
With $17.5MM in guaranteed money left on his contract, Dozier’s deal is underwater. He could potentially be swapped out for another bad contract, although the Royals typically haven’t made that type of move in the past.
There are, of course, others who could potentially be of interest to other clubs. The Royals control Brady Singer for another four seasons, and he just enjoyed what looks like a breakout 2022 campaign. Given that glut of remaining club control, however, there’s little reason to entertain the idea of moving Singer unless another team makes a staggering offer. For different reasons, reliever Josh Staumont also seems unlikely to go. The Royals control Staumont through 2025, and from 2020-21 he looked like a long-term piece in the bullpen. Staumont’s walk rate spiked to an awful 16.5% last year, though, and he missed a combined seven weeks with a neck strain and biceps tendinitis. Trading him now would be selling low on a potential power-armed, leverage reliever.
Behind the plate, Salvador Perez is entrenched as the effective captain of the Royals. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic wrote earlier in the offseason that the Royals have no interest in moving Perez, who’s owed $64MM over the next three seasons. That’s not at all surprising, given his status within the organization. Some might naturally think that means young catcher and recent top prospect MJ Melendez could be available, but the Royals have worked Melendez into the outfield and DH mix as well. With six years of club control remaining, there’s little reason to think he’d be available, particularly on the heels of a down season. Melendez isn’t the type of player on whom the Royals would sell low.