How Matt Shoemaker could affect the Royals rotation in 2021

The Royals appear at the outset of the off-season to be more on the “buyer” end than “seller” end, much to the delight of Kansas City baseball fans. The two areas in most need of an upgrade appear to be the outfield (especially in the wake of Alex Gordon’s retirement) and the starting rotation. The Royals saw some growth in the rotation from 2019 to 2020, as the top pitching prospects Brady Singer and Kris Bubic replaced 2019 rotation counterparts such as Jakob Junis, Glenn Sparkman, and Jorge Lopez. Thankfully, Singer and Bubic performed well in their debut MLB campaigns, as they posted 4.06 and 4.32 ERAs, respectively.

However, while the Royals rotation seems set at the top with Brad Keller (who posted a 2.47 ERA in 2020), Singer, and Bubic, the back of the rotation still remains a question mark. Danny Duffy is one of the longest-tenured Royals currently on the roster, but his days as a top-of-the-rotation option (or option in the rotation at all) seems numbered, especially after a season in which he posted a 4.95 ERA and 13.7 HR/FB rate in 56 innings of work. Furthermore, while Carlos Hernandez made some starts in 2020, he may needs to polish up his repertoire in the minors (especially after posting a 7.56 ERA). Lastly, it is unlikely that star prospects such as Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, or Asa Lacy will get a shot at the beginning of the year, especially after a lost Minor League season.

Thus, a free agent starting pitcher makes a lot of sense for the Royals, and Jon Morosi has already floated a possible name for Dayton Moore to acquire:

In addition to posting a 4.70 ERA (which ranked 18th in baseball), the Royals starting staff also only posted a starting pitcher WAR of 1.8, which ranked 25th in baseball in 2020. And thus, Shoemaker, or a similar kind of free agent pitcher, could be the kind of boost the Royals need when it comes to improving the rotation in 2021 (or at least solidify things in the short term until Lynch, Kowar, or Lacy is ready).

Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Shoemaker should be a familiar name to Royals fans, as he pitched against Kansas City in the 2014 ALDS as a member of the Los Angeles Angels. Shoemaker pitched decently in the contest, as he allowed five hits, one run, and struck out six in Game 2, which went to the scorching Royals (he received a no-decision; the Angels ended up losing in extra innings). In fact, one can find Shoemaker’s start in its entirety on YouTube, as evidenced below:

Not drafted after a career at Eastern Michigan, Shoemaker was signed by the Angels in 2008 and ended up spending six seasons with the Angels organization in which he posted a 3.93 ERA in 101 appearances and 545 innings of work. Shoemaker did sign as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays after the conclusion of the 2018 season, but he struggled to stay healthy, as he only pitched 57.1 IP over two seasons with the Jays. That being said, while he didn’t accumulate a lot of innings, Shoemaker was at least decent when healthy, as he posted a 3.14 ERA and 0.97 WHIP as a Blue Jay the past two seasons.

Shoemaker is known for two things primarily as a starting pitcher: excellent control, and an ability to induce batters to keep the ball on the ground. In terms of the former, Shoemaker displays excellent command of the strike zone, for he posted a 2.89 K/BB ratio in 2020 with the Jays, and also holds a K/BB ratio of 3.67 over his eight-season career in the Majors, according to Fangraphs. In terms of the latter point, he has evolved in his ability to induce groundballs in the past three seasons, as his GB/FB ratio improved from a mediocre 0.83 in 2017 to 1.28 in 2018 to 1.41 in 2019 an 2020. Thus, these two characteristics should bode well for Shoemaker to find success on the mound if he does make the move to Kansas City in 2021.

The big issue with Shoemaker is health, as he only made six starts and pitched 28.2 innings in Toronto in 2020. In addition, 2019 was not much better, as he only made five starts before missing the remainder of the season due to a torn ACL. Thus, the Royals will probably want to know if he’s fully healthy for 2021, and if that’s still up for debate, then it’s possible that the Royals could hesitate on Shoemaker, especially since they tend to be frugal with pitcher free agent deals (remember, they signed Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland to Minor League deals last year).

Most likely, Shoemaker will only be a temporary acquisition (it is hard to see the Royals offer him anything beyond a two-year contract, and even that seems unlikely). That being said, he will bring a veteran presence to this rotation that will not break the bank (he only made $4.2 million last season). Furthermore, his presence could be a calming influence in the Royals rotation should Lynch, Kowar, or Lacy make their debut in 2021.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There is no question that Shoemaker is not a “sexy” free agent pitcher target to Royals fans by any means. When looking at the MLB Trade Rumors list, Royals faithful may be tempted by bigger starting pitching names such as former Royal Jake Orodrizzi, Corey Kluber, and even Chris Archer. However, Shoemaker may make more sense for this Royals rotation at the present. The Royals do not need a long-term option. They need someone who can hold the fort until their remaining arms in the Minor Leagues are ready to show what they can do at the Major League level. That can be in September of 2021 or perhaps even as soon as mid-season. Nonetheless, it seems like it will only be a matter of time before Lynch, Kowar, or Lacy make their way to Kansas City, and it would be better to have rotation flexibility than a free agent arm who would only block one of those pitchers’ paths to the KC rotation in the next year or two.

Moore will have an interesting decision to make this off-season when it comes to building the rotation for 2021. They still have a decision to make on Duffy, who may be a candidate to move the bullpen, but no word has been mentioned yet of such a transition. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how aggressive Moore will move with Lynch, Kowar and Lacy. The Royals didn’t wait very long with Singer and Bubic, though the quick call-up may have made Singer’s service time situation a little more complicated. Will Moore do something similar, or will he be patient, with the goal to preserve the trio’s service time in a move to save money?

Whatever the Royals choose to do in free agency, this much is certain: expect the Royals to pursue a pitcher in that Shoemaker mold. The Royals do not need a long-term solution in the starting rotation, especially with so many promising prospects waiting in the wings. Rather, they need someone who can give the Royals some production at the end of the starting pitching staff in 2021, and could perhaps generate some trade value as well by the July Trade Deadline next season. Shoemaker fits that mold perfectly, as he may be open to be traded to a winner mid-season, especially since he is 34-years-old and may not have many opportunities left.

At this point, it would be surprising to see the Royals NOT sign a free agent starting pitcher this off-season. Hopefully, it’s Shoemaker, as he is a solid option when healthy (which will be a big “if”, unfortunately).

That being said, even if he doesn’t make his way to Kansas City, Royals fans should expect someone similar…

Ergo, they should expect a stopgap option that can keep the seat in the rotation warm until Lynch, Kowar or Lacy is ready.

Hopefully, those prized prospects will debut sooner rather than later, much to the hope of Royals fans everywhere.

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