Hot stove season is fun. Especially for amateur baseball bloggers. With little to no team access, it’s fun to theorize which free agents would be good fits for a team, and which ones would not. As fans, we want to see our club improve, especially if your club is a losing one (hence, us as Royals fans). One way to do that is through free agency, especially since free agency is the quickest way to patch a club’s problems.
One of the biggest problems for the Royals in 2019 was the starting pitching. According to Fangraphs, the Royals ranked 27th in WAR and FIP for starters in 2019, not exactly comforting for a club that has traditionally played in a “pitcher’s park”. While Opening Day starter Brad Keller posted a 2.2 WAR, he regressed a little from a solid debut in 2018, and neither Jakob Junis nor Danny Duffy did much to inspire the masses in Kansas City last season as well. While the Royals have some solid potential in the minors in Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic, it may be a couple of years before that cadre of arms makes its way to Kansas City in its entirety.
Thus, the Royals are not necessarily looking for a long-term option in free agency, but rather a short-term solution that can hold the fort down until those four arrive. Hence, a starting pitcher on a modest one-to-two year deal probably is what Dayton Moore and the Royals are looking for this Winter.
So who are those options? Let’s take a look at a few candidates who have gotten some Royals buzz, and could realistically find their way to the heart of the Midwest.
Kyle Gibson, RHP, Minnesota Twins
2019 stats: 13-7 record, 34 G, 29 GS, 160 IP, 2.86 K/BB ratio, 4.84 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 2.6 WAR
Gibson is an intriguing option because he has some local ties to KC, as he pitched at Mizzou in college. Hence, if the Royals sign him, the local media will eat up the angle that he’s a former Tiger now playing for the Missouri baseball team on the western side of the state. Midwest people love this kind of crap, so I’m surprised the push for Gibson hasn’t been stronger this off-season.
Gibson, a former top prospect in the Twins system, has been good, but not great for the Twins. In some ways, many Twins fans envisioned him to be their ace for years to come, and Gibson really hasn’t become that. He’s been serviceable, a No. 3-4 type in the rotation with the Twins, but not the franchise-altering arm that they envisioned when they drafted him in the first round in the 2009 draft. Add that with a ho-hum season, and it’s not a surprise that the Twins did not offer Gibson a qualifying offer.
I think Gibson though is an underrated option that could help stabilize the Royals rotation immediately. His ERA-FIP difference suggests that he was better than what his traditional numbers portray, and he’s actually been more dominant over the past three seasons. His swinging strike percentage has risen from 10 percent in 2017 to 13.1 percent in 2019, and hitters’ contact rates against him went from 78 percent in 2017 to 71.6 percent in 2019. Thus, it’s no surprise that Steamer is projecting a 4.04 ERA and 2.9 WAR from him next season, which the Royals would gladly take.
The big issue regarding Gibson is his health, and will he accept a one to two year deal on a rebuilding club? Gibson suffered from a variety of medical issues in 2019, but they were pretty random, and should be properly addressed over a full off-season. Nonetheless, it ate into his innings total in 2019, and it would suck to see it affect him again in 2020. The Royals need him to be a 180 innings-plus guy to be worth a contract.
As for the latter, Gibson is getting buzz with other organizations like the Cubs, who obviously are more suited for the postseason than the Royals. After being on a playoff club last year with the Twins, would Gibson accept a role on a team that’s just looking to get better, not win the whole thing? At the end of the day, money and fit matter most, but at 32 years old, the window of opportunity to get a ring is closing quickly. Winning may be more of a priority for Gibson than being a mentor to a young Royals staff.
Martin Perez, LHP, Minnesota Twins
2019 stats: 10-7 record, 32 G, 29 GS, 165.1 IP, 2.01 K/BB ratio, 5.12 ERA, 4.66 FIP, 1.9 WAR
Jesse Anderson of Royals Review brought this up on a post today, and it made me think of how Perez would fit in KC. Perez is an interesting candidate because he looked dead to rights two Winters ago. The Twins basically took a flier on the former Rangers top prospect after Perez bottomed out in his final season in Texas. After posting a 6.22 ERA, 2-7 record and only accumulating 85.1 total innings with the Rangers in 2018, Perez recovered in the new surroundings up north. While his ERA still could make the average baseball fan cringe, his FIP was a bit better, and he did accumulate a 165.1 IP, which is almost double his total from 2018.
One of the keys to Perez’s success in 2019 was the addition of a cutter to his pitch repertoire. He got rid of his slider, added the cutter, and it became one of his most used (he threw it 30.9 percent of the time according to PitchInfo data on Fangraphs) and valuable pitches (it saved the Twins 13.8 runs above average; it was the only positive pitch he had according to PitchInfo data). However, even though Perez experienced early success, things turned for him after the All-Star break. After posting a 4.26 ERA and 3.71 FIP in the first half, Perez struggled after the Mid-Summer classic, as his ERA and FIP rose to 6.27 and 5.94, respectively. A big reason for this decline was that his cutter wasn’t as effective in the second half as it was in the first, which makes one wonder was this a sign of fatigue or that Perez was just having some abnormal success in the first half?
Perez is definitely a higher risk option for the Royals than Gibson. While he could channel his first-half self in new surroundings in KC, it’s also possible that he will be the same pitcher he was in the second half in 2019 as well as in 2018 with Texas. If the Royals can get a cheap one-year flier in the 5-7 million range, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, as the Royals had success with fliers before, with Homer Bailey being the biggest example from last season.
Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves
Teheran is probably the most accomplished hot stove target for the Royals of the three. The Braves’ Fansided affiliate Tomahawk Take tweet this out earlier this week:
I like Teheran for all kinds of reasons: he’s a durable arm, he’s a former top prospect, and he could benefit this club much like Edinson Volquez in 2015. The advanced stats don’t look impressive, but neither did Volquez’s when he arrived to Kansas City from Pittsburgh. Teheran would automatically be the Royals’ number one guy, and he would not be as risky as Gibson or Perez. He’s thrown over a 170 IP every season since 2012, and he’s only 29. The Royals would certainly kill for that kind of dependability in the rotation, especially as they await their top pitching prospects over the next two seasons.
The one issue with Teheran is whether or not the Royals will be able to sign him. It seems there are a lot of conflicting reports in terms of how much Teheran will command this off-season. Some people think that a two-year, $7-9 million per year range is likely, which would be within the Royals’ price range. However, some think he’s more likely to command a three-year deal in the $11-13 range. If that’s the case, the Royals may pass, as they probably do not need another $10-plus million contract on their payroll as of this moment.
I go back and forth on Teheran. As I said, I think the Volquez comparison is valid (in a good way), and I do think that he is due for a change after being the “hope” for the Braves for so long. However, the lackluster K/BB ratios and high FIP numbers scare me, and make me envision that it would be the Royals’ luck to sign him to a $10-plus million per year, only to see him collapse ala Ian Kennedy in 2017 and 2018.
If the Royals can get him on a discount (i.e. under $10 million per year), Dayton Moore should go for it. If they have to compete with other clubs in that expected $10-plus range…well…maybe a cheaper, but higher-risk option like Gibson or Perez would be a better fit.