At 36-53 going into this weekend’s series against the Orioles, it is pretty safe to say that the Royals’ playoff hopes will have to wait at least another season. After a hot start in April, the Royals have regressed each month since, which included a disastrous June in which they went 7-20 overall in the month. While injuries have played a contributing factor to the Royals’ struggles, lackluster performances in the lineup, rotation and bullpen have been a big reason why the Royals currently sit in the basement of the American League Central (though it won’t take much for them to get out).
Thus, with the Royals probably in “next year” mode, it is likely that they will be “sellers” on the trade market as the July 31st Trade Deadline approaches. That means that this Royals roster could see a lot of changes in both good and bad ways in the coming weeks.
As of now, when it comes to possible trade pieces for the Royals, Danny Duffy, who is in the last year of his current contract, is probably the most valuable asset on the Royals roster. Duffy is having a solid year, as he is posting a 2.53 ERA, 3.46 FIP, and 1.4 fWAR in 12 appearances and 57 innings of work. Considering the Royals have a plethora of pitching prospects who need some time to develop at the MLB level, and that Duffy will be a free agent after this season, it seems like trading Duffy would make the most sense for both sides. Duffy would get a chance to possibly be on a contender, and the Royals could get a couple of assets to help the club build more depth in their farm system, which will be beneficial in the long-term.
That being said, this will not be an easy decision, as Duffy has been a lifelong Royal and once declared to the media to “bury” him a Royal (i.e. stay in Kansas City his whole career). Will the Royals and Duffy’s attachment to one another possibly block a trade? Or will the Royals do the right thing in the long-term and take advantage of Duffy’s value on the trade market while they still can?
Right now, the popular opinion seems to be set on Duffy most likely being traded by the Trade Deadline, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported today.
As mentioned in the piece above, there could be two challenges to Duffy being traded: 1.) His health, as he did miss about a month of play this year and has had injury issues in the past to one degree or the other; 2.) Because he has accumulated 10 years of service time, he can veto any trade offer thrown his way (this was also an issue with Alex Gordon a couple of years ago).
Thus, if Duffy is intent on staying in Kansas City, trading him may be a scenario that could be easily done on paper, but more challenging in reality.
There is no question that Duffy holds value to the Royals now. The Royals starting pitching rotation has been inconsistent, to put it nicely, as Duffy has continued to persevere, unlike other veteran pitchers in the rotation such as Brad Keller and Mike Minor, who have failed to string together consistent solid outings. A big key for Duffy has been his ability to limit home runs, as he is only allowing an 8.6 percent HR/FB rate after giving up a double digit rate in this category the past three seasons. Additionally, Duffy is also striking out 9.79 batters per inning, his highest K/9 in his career. He is also posting a K/BB ratio of 2.95, which would be his highest ratio since 2017. This shows that not only is Duffy striking out more batters, but he is also demonstrating much better control and command in comparison to the past couple of season where he posted an ERA that hovered near the 5.00 range.
Of course, while Duffy has been a much improved pitcher in 2021 in comparison to 2020 and even 2019, there are still some concerns, which become more evident when looking at his percentile rankings via Baseball Savant. When glimpsing at those rankings on Savant, it is easy to notice that hitters are hitting the ball harder against Duffy than ever, which is demonstrated in his average exit velocity and hard hit percentage rankings:
As one can see, while he ranks high in getting batters to miss and chase, and has limited barrels for the most part, his expected numbers (i.e. metrics that start with “x”) paint a picture that he probably has been more lucky than good. He’s sub-40 and sub-30 in average and max exit velocity on batted balls, respectively, and he’s sub-42 in xWOBA, xERA, and xBA. This shows that Duffy, on a batted ball basis, may be more of an average, if not slightly sub-one, than an elite one, which his ERA demonstrates.
Granted, Duffy has always been a flyball-heavy pitcher, and expected numbers are always going to paint pitchers with such an approach unfavorably. That being said, Duffy is taking advantage of his home park (Kauffman is one of the most spacious parks in baseball), and he has at least been better at missing bats than in years past, which should at least beset these more concerning EV and expected batting numbers that don’t bode well in his favor.
So, while Duffy may not necessarily be a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher the rest of the way in 2021, he still is showing skills that demonstrate a 3.50-4.00 ERA one. That is a type of pitcher who many teams could use, especially this year, where so many pitchers have been beset by injury, which has put teams in binds.
What may make Duffy so intriguing to other teams is the increased velocity and better command of his four-seam fastball in 2021. After averaging 92.2 MPH on the pitch a year ago, he is averaging 93.8 MPH on the four-seamer this year. As a result, Duffy is not just throwing it 3.9 percent more than a year ago (39.4 percent usage a year ago), but it is also a sign of better development for him as a pitcher, as he has relied more on more on his fastball since 2017, when his slider was his most-thrown pitch. Take a look at Duffy’s pitch usage chart over the course of his career and notice how his fastball percentage has spiked:
And not only is Duffy pumping the heat on the four-seamer, but he is also throwing it in the right spots, especially in two-strike counts. In such counts, he is locating it up in the zone, and forcing batters to chase, which has led to more strikeouts overall this season. Take a look at Duffy locating a 96 MPH four-seamer just above the upper part of the strike zone to Minnesota’s Luis Arraez, which not only strikes him out, but ends the inning as well.
Thus, possible trade suitors may be intrigued by Duffy’s profile, for he is pitching better than ever, and could possibly be more than just a “half-season” rental, especially if he continues to perform well down the stretch. That in return could give the Royals a better return in exchange for Duffy, which would make this scenario a better “win-win” situation for everyone involved.
Dayton Moore will have to make a decision on Duffy in the next couple of weeks, and honestly, it may be best for the Royals and Duffy to strike while the iron is hot. If Duffy struggles in the next couple of starts, that could inflate his ERA numbers, which in turn could deflate his overall trade value.
The Royals haven’t shied away from trading players at the deadline in the past few seasons, as Mike Moustakas was traded for what seemed like a decent haul (Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez) as was Kelvin Herrera (Kelvin Gutierrez, Yohanse Morel, and Blake Perkins) back in 2018. It is possible that Duffy could net a decent 2-3 prospect return, but that could be dependent on how Duffy looks in his return after the All-Star break. Will he look fresh and repeat that sub-3.00 ERA self? Or will he start to be exposed, which in turn will cool the market on him in the next couple of weeks.
Duffy does have the right to veto any deal, and honestly, I could get why some Royals fans would be nervous that he would do so, which would limit the Royals’ trade options. That being said, Duffy is a California guy, and while he has close ties to Kansas City, a return to a club in California wouldn’t be the worst scenario for Duffy by any means. After all, it seems like all the California teams are still in the playoff hunt, and thus, if Duffy were to be traded, it is highly likely that it would be to a club in the Golden State.
Furthermore, the Royals could always bring back Duffy in free agency this Winter. After all, if he truly wants to be “buried a Royal”, I could see the Royals offering and him taking a two-year deal with a third-year club option that would be similar to what Mike Minor got this off-season. Could he perhaps get a bigger payday elsewhere? Sure, especially if he finished 2021 strong. However, the Royals will still be looking to get better in 2022, and if the pitching prospects aren’t where they’re supposed to be by the end of 2021, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Moore bring Duffy back, similar to what the Yankees did with Aroldis Chapman back in 2016 (traded him to the Cubs, only to bring him back in the off-season).
A Duffy trade isn’t a done deal by any means. After all, Royals fans are seeing a renaissance from him that has been enjoyable to see, especially after underwhelming seasons from 2018-2020. But the Royals need to continue to think long-term, and considering they are 17 games under .500, Duffy doesn’t really fit into that “evaluative” mindset they need to be in during the second half of 2021. They know what they have in Duffy, and they need to see what guys like Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic can do in a return to the rotation. That won’t happen with Duffy continue to take up a spot.
As said before, even if Duffy is traded, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the end of Duffy’s time in Kansas City. Who knows what his market could be. Moustakas was expected to be gone after 2017, but a depressed market on him led to him returning to Kansas City for at least a half of a season (before he was eventually traded in July). The same could happen for Duffy, or maybe he could return even longer, especially if the Royals are more competitive in 2022.
Let’s hope the Royals can find a deal and that Duffy doesn’t veto the trade either. A new spot may be needed for both sides. Duffy should get the experience to contribute to a playoff contender, and the Royals could use some more talent in their system.
And let’s see in the off-season if Duffy truly wants to come back to Kansas City after the 2021 season.
Because if he does, I guarantee Moore and the Royals will offer something that he will find agreeable.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports