Ranking the Royals’ 40-man “release” candidates this off-season

While the playoffs are still going on, it is never too early to talk about possible transactions or roster moves. That certainly is the case with the Royals, who are not only absent from the playoffs, but also probably contemplating on how they will parlay a promising 26-34 season in 2020 to more improvement over a “possible” 162 game season in 2021.

However, like any other year, general manager Dayton Moore and the Royals front office will have some tough decisions to make this winter when it comes to composing the 40-man roster. With some promising talent getting some solid development at the alternate site this past summer, as well as in instructional league in Kansas City this fall, the Royals will need to identify which players will be part of the Royals’ future, and which ones will need to be parted with in order to make room for those “impact” players. And hence, an interesting development for Royals fans to follow will be the 40-man roster, and how that will change, especially once the playoffs end, and “hot stove” season officially begins.

So, I decided to take a look at the 40-man roster, and analyze some players who could possibly be “released” this off-season to make room on the roster for either free agent signings or possible prospects moving up in the system. With Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Khalil Lee, and maybe even Bobby Witt, Jr. or Kyle Isbel knocking on the door, it would make sense for Moore to make some tough decisions roster-wise to give the 40-man some flexibility going into 2021. And thus, I broke the possible 40-man cuts into three different categories: Certain; Likely; and Possible.

Let’s go into further detail in terms of what each tier means:

  • Certain: This means that the player’s likelihood of getting released or traded this off-season is over 80 percent. It seems hard to imagine that this player will be on the Royals’ 40-man roster in 2021.
  • Likely: This percentage hover around 51-79 percent. It’s seems realistic that this player will be released, but it doesn’t seem like a sure deal either.
  • Possible: About 50 percent or below likelihood of player being released. Still a chance, but also not a sure deal, and could see Moore bring the player back for 2021…even if it may not make the most sense for the club.

Thus, with the tiers being set, let’s take a look at possible Royals facing the “chopping block” and where they fare in terms of staying on the 40-man roster in 2021.


Certain

Candidates: Matt Harvey, SP/RP; Kevin McCarthy, RP; Glenn Sparkman, SP/RP; Chance Adams, SP/RP; Ryan McBroom, 1B/OF; Erick Mejia, Utility; Bubba Starling, OF.

The most obvious cuts to the 40-man stem from the pitching staff. The Royals have a surplus of young pitching talent waiting in the wings, and the bullpen proved to be a strength of the Royals in 2020, so the standard is much higher. The Matt Harvey experiment was a nice idea, but ultimately it failed in 2020, and it would be in the Royals’ best interests to move on from Harvey by 2021 (which seems likely, especially after he went on the IL at the end of the year). If the Royals bullpen needed more help, I would toy with the idea of moving Harvey to the pen full-time. However, the Royals are doing that with Jakob Junis already, and it didn’t seem like Harvey did much better in a relief role either in his last couple of appearances.

McCarthy and Sparkman have had some high points in their time with the Royals. McCarthy was a pretty reliable reliever in 2018, and Sparkman had a few decent starts as a swingman in 2019. However, they are entering arbitration and only combined for 11 innings in 2020. Considering their 4.50 and 5.40 ERA in 2020, respectively, it seems likely that the Royals could find much cheaper (not to mention dependable) options to supplement their bullpen for 2021.

As for Chance Adams, the Royals were hoping that an “Escape from New York” could turn the former top prospect’s carer around (and I too was hopeful in his potential as well). That being said, he struggled in limited work in 2020, as he gave up 15 hits in 8.2 IP and also posted a 9.75 ERA in the process. Furthermore, his stuff is mediocre (he averages low 90’s on his fastball), he will be out of Minor League options next season, and it’s hard to see him break with the active roster out of Spring Training next year (though I am not sure how updated the Cot’s Contracts are…he could have one left when they update the rosters and service times). Much like Harvey, if the Royals bullpen wasn’t as settled, I think the Royals would be willing to be patient and give Adams a full-season to prove himself. However, with the Royals bullpen such a strength, keeping him would be a disservice to the other promising arms in the Royals system.

Moving onto the “certain releases” on the position player-end, there were some signs during the end of the season that these players’ times may be up in Kansas City. McBroom had some highs in his first full season as a Royal, as he hit six home runs and posted a .789 OPS. However, despite solid slugging numbers (.506), he also had a strikeout rate of 35.3 percent as well as a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Considering Moore’s desire to improve their lineup’s ability to get on-base this off-season, McBroom doesn’t fit the mold of a player worth keeping.

Mejia and Starling are both intriguing players who had solid Spring Training and Summer Camp campaigns, but failed to transition those performances to the regular season. Though Mejia can play multiple positions, he only batted .071 in 16 plate appearances, and spent most of the season at the Alternate Site. As for Starling, he played the entire year in Kansas City, but he only posted a .456 OPS in 64 plate appearances. With the additions of Lucius Fox from Tampa Bay and Franchy Cordero and Edward Olivares from San Diego during the season, it seems superfluous to keep both Mejia and Starling on the 40-man, especially since they pretty much “are what they are” as Major League players at this point in their careers (Mejia will be 26 next year; Starling will be 28).


Likely

Candidates: Richard Lovelady, RP; Gabe Speier, RP; Ryan O’Hearn, 1B

These three candidates are intriguing, because it seems like it would be in the Royals’ best interest to let them go from the 40-man this off-season. However, there are a couple of factors that could work in their favor, which keep them from being “certain” candidates like the players listed in the tier above.

Lovelady and Speier both challenged for the main “left-handed reliever” role in the wake of the Tim Hill trade to San Diego. And yet, neither pitcher showed well in the role. Lovelady was demoted after his one and only appearance in 2020, and Speier struggled in his short tenure as well, as he posted a 7.94 ERA and 2.30 WHIP in 5.2 innings of work and 8 appearances. The new 3-batter rule doesn’t bode well for either’s future, but both will have Minor League options and they could be worth keeping in order to add some depth to the bullpen over the full 162-game slate should Kyle Zimmer not recover as expected (and who knows how long Foster Griffin will be on the shelf).

As for O’Hearn, the writing seems to be on the wall with the emergence of Hunter Dozier as the Royals’ regular first-baseman at the end of the season. Furthermore, O’Hearn’s 2020 slash of .195/.303/.301 was not promising, especially considering his regression in 2019 in which his slash was .195/.281/.369 in 370 plate appearances. However, much like Speier and Lovelady, O’Hearn won’t hit arbitration until next year, and will still have a Minor League option available. And lastly, Dozier has had a history of injury issues, so O’Hearn could be tabbed as an emergency backup option should Dozier get hurt in 2021 and lose time at first base, especially with the lack of first-base options in the upper minor levels of the Royals system.


Possible

Candidates: Scott Blewett, SP/RP; Mike Montgomery, RP; Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B

Some Royals fans may disagree and think that these three should be in the “likely” or “certain” tiers, and I can understand that line of thinking. However, I think these three will continue to be on the 40-man roster in contrast to popular sentiment among Royals fans.

At the beginning of the year, I was privy to believe that Blewett was on his way off the 40-man. However, Blewett was a frequent member of the Royals’ travel taxi squad, and he also got to make his debut at the end of the year. He only made two appearances and gave up six hits in three innings of work, which resulted in an ERA of 6.00 in 2020. That being said, while the line wasn’t impressive, Blewett was better than I expected. His fastball is still really straight, and he’ll need to work on his secondary pitches should he want to find any success at the MLB level (he was absolutely bombed in Omaha in 2019). However, he casts a strong presence on the mound, works quickly, and has the potential to at least be a decent middle-innings guy. I think he’ll start the year in Omaha again, but I think the Royals trust Blewett more than Royals fans imagine.

It was a tough year for Mike Montgomery, as he missed most of the season due to injury, and only pitched a total of 5.1 innings in 2020. Monty will be entering his final year of arbitration this off-season, and his return may depend on whether or not he will accept a role in the bullpen in 2021. Monty succeeded in Chicago as a late-innings specialist (he posted a 3.74 ERA in 119 appearances with the Cubs over four seasons), and even with the change in rules, I think Monty would succeed in the role in a way that Lovelady or Speier couldn’t (mostly due to Monty’s experience). As a starter, Monty simply does’t work: his pace is too slow, and he relies primarily on breaking balls, not a good combo when it comes to projecting success as a MLB starter. That being said, over a 1-2 inning span, that kind of approach can be successful, and I think Monty would give the kind of production as a reliever that Danny Duffy would. Thus, I would rather give Monty the left-handed setup role, and either let Duffy round out the rotation, or perhaps trade Duffy if the opportunity presented itself.

Lastly, Gutierrez could be a candidate to be “released,” especially since he has not done much at the MLB level since being acquired from Washington in the Kelvin Herrera deal in 2018. However, while it seems likely that Moore will bring back Franco for another season in 2021, it will be interesting if Fanco will be able to duplicate his 109 OPS+ production next year. That’s a big question mark, and Franco’s defense, while better than expected, still wasn’t metrically great, as his -2 OAA (outs above average) was the worst mark for Royals infielders, and ranked 35th of 39 qualified third-basemen in 2020 as well. Though Gutierrez has left a lot to be desired at the plate (career .244/.308/.329 slash in two seasons), he has only played 24 games, and his defense would be an upgrade over Franco. If Franco declines, and Gutierrez can stay healthy, it would not be surprising to see perhaps Gutierrez slide in at the hot corner at some point in 2021 (though the latter statement has been an issue for Gutierrez since being acquired by the Royals).

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