The Royals have been “aggressive” in their search for rotation help this offseason and made an offer to right-hander Sonny Gray before he signed with the Cardinals, reports Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Rosenthal further writes that the Royals are among the teams showing strong interest in right-hander Seth Lugo, who’s drawn widespread interest this winter.
Kansas City general manager J.J. Picollo has made no secret about his desire to add to his rotation, plainly stating early in the offseason that “one of our goals is to get starting pitching.” The Royals need at least one arm and could well look to add multiple pieces to the rotation between now and Opening Day. The Royals got a breakout showing from Cole Ragans after acquiring him from the Rangers in exchange for Aroldis Chapman this past summer, and right-hander Brady Singer is likely locked into a rotation spot even after an up-and-down year (and, more broadly, up-and-down big league tenure in terms of performance). Beyond that, the Royals have veteran innings eater Jordan Lyles signed for next season and are surely still hopeful of getting some quality innings from former top prospects Kris Bubic (recovering from Tommy John surgery) and Daniel Lynch.
That said, the Royals have been hoping for the quartet of Singer, Lynch, Bubic and Jackson Kowar to eventually emerge at the MLB level for several seasons. That group comprised the nucleus of a vaunted 2018 crop of college arms around whom the Royals hoped to build, but their development hasn’t panned out. Singer had a brilliant 2022 season and took a step back in 2023. Bubic had Tommy John surgery early in 2023. Kowar has been twice traded this offseason and is now in the Mariners organization.
Rosenthal suggests that in their quest to find rotation upgrades, the Royals have been willing to talk about trades of former top catching/outfield prospect MJ Melendez, infielder Michael Massey and catcher Freddy Fermin. Melendez and Massey, however, are coming off dismal 2023 campaigns. The former is a .227/.314/.396 hitter in 1136 MLB plate appearances and has posted bottom-of-the-scale defensive grades both behind the plate and in the outfield corners. The latter got his first full-time look in ’23 but managed only a .229/.274/.381 slash with mixed defensive ratings (-9 Defensive Runs Saved, +3 Outs Above Average). Both players still have five seasons of remaining club control.
Fermin, meanwhile, looks to be a late-blooming option capable of handling a regular workload behind the dish, be it for the Royals or another club. He entered the 2023 season with just seven MLB plate appearances but wound up tallying 235 trips to the plate with a .281/.321/.461 output and nine home runs. Defensive Runs Saved credited Fermin at a hearty mark of +8, and both FanGraphs and Statcast credited him as an above average framer. Statcast also tabbed Fermin as league-average in terms of blocking balls in the dirt, and his 31% caught-stealing rate checked in 10 percentage points above the league average.
Age and lack of big league track record notwithstanding, there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding Fermin and his breakout rookie season. However, that also makes him quite valuable to a Royals club that has an aging Salvador Perez behind the plate. Perez’s defensive ratings have been in a freefall for the past few seasons, and his production at the plate has also begun to wane. The 33-year-old (34 in May) team captain still smacked 23 home runs last year, but his overall .255/.292/.422 batting line was his weakest since 2018. Perez still caught 91 games last year (against 29 at DH), but at some point the Royals could begin playing him more regularly at DH, which would open time for Fermin. Perez is still signed for another two years at a total of $44MM.
Since Rosenthal reports that Kansas City has spoken with the Marlins and Mariners about pitching-related trades, Miami might stand out as a logical team that could have interest in Fermin’s services. The Fish are in need of catching help, and seem to be open to the idea of dealing more pitching, after already parting ways with a decent chunk of their rotation depth in other trades over the last couple of years.
As for the team’s free-agent pursuits, Lugo is a sensible and logical target both due to his strong platform season and the fact that the Royals also reportedly had interest in him a year ago. After spending the bulk of his career as a reliever with the Mets, Lugo signed a two-year, $15MM deal with the Padres, who offered him a chance to start and even included an opt-out in the event that he showed well in a starting role.
That’s exactly how things played out. Lugo took the ball 26 times and posted a 3.57 ERA with a 23.2% strikeout rate and 6% walk rate in a career-high 146 1/3 innings. He’s already 34, but Lugo figures to command a much nicer multi-year deal this time around — perhaps reaching three years in length. That the length of his deal will likely be capped due to age should be appealing to the Royals, who typically operate on a tight budget but do have some spending flexibility this winter. Picollo has already said that his club should have at least $30MM to spend.