It’s been pretty rough for baseball fans when it comes to the hot stove season, mostly thanks to the owner’s lockout. Typically, December can be an intriguing month, due to the GM Winter Meetings as well as the Rule 5 Draft, which spurs a lot of action on the MLB hot stove.
Unfortunately, the lockout has pretty much killed those two events in December, though it is likely that the Rule 5 Draft will occur, whenever the lockout is lifted.
As stated before on this blog, it is unlikely that the Royals will be major players on the free-agent market, even when the lockout ends. The Royals currently rank 25th in projected payroll for 2022, according to Cot’s Contracts, and the biggest signing they made before the lockout was reliever Taylor Clarke, who was non-tendered by the Arizona Diamondbacks. With the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins making big moves before the lockout, it hasn’t been easy for Royals fans this Winter, who were spoiled by the Carlos Santana, Mike Minor, and Andrew Benintendi deals last offseason.
That being said, with Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez added to the 40-man roster this offseason; Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Brady Singer, Carlos Hernandez, and Kris Bubic primed to get better with more big-league experience; and Bobby Witt, Jr. set to make his MLB debut at some point in 2022, it makes sense why the Royals would stay pat this hot stove season. They not only need to give their young players opportunities at the Major League level next season, but they also need to set money aside for the future, so they can afford to extend their prospects who could become franchise cornerstones in the years to come (Witt especially).
On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt for the Royals to find a veteran arm or two to help ease the pressure on the young starters, especially after the peaks and valleys they all went through in 2021.
With the lockout timetable questionable at this time, it is possible that the Royals could find a decent free-agent starting pitcher whom they could sign on a Minor League deal and invite to Spring Training, with an opportunity pending if they make the active roster. Such deals are win-wins for clubs like the Royals: it gives them an opportunity to add a veteran pitcher to their staff, but if it doesn’t work out in Spring Training, they can part ways with the pitcher at a minimum cost.
Last year, the Royals were able to find success with Wade Davis, who signed a Minor League deal and made 40 appearances and pitched 42.2 innings with the Royals in what was his final season in Kansas City. However, the Royals also signed Brad Brach to a Minor League deal, and after a rough Spring Training, he was released by the Royals prior to Opening Day.
Thus, the Minor League deal can work both ways, especially for pitchers.
Therefore, who are some free-agent starting pitchers out there who could be good, and affordable fits in the Royals rotation, even if they may not be long-term options beyond 2022?
Let’s take a look at three free-agent starting pitchers whom the Royals could sign on Minor League free agent deals, whenever the lockout ends.
Jose Urena; Age: 30; fWAR in 2021: 0.4
Urena pitched in a hybrid role with the Detroit Tigers, as he accumulated a 100.2 IP in 26 appearances and 18 starts. The former Marlins Opening Day starter posted a 5.81 ERA, as well as a K rate of 14.7 percent, and a K-BB rate of 5.5 percent, both lackluster metrics. Hence, it’s not a surprise that the Tigers pretty much used Urena in a bullpen role from August 28th to the remainder of the season, especially with higher-upside arms available in Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning.
The nice thing about acquiring Urena for the Royals would be versatility, as he could take on a starting or bullpen role. He doesn’t strike out a whole lot of batters, as Urena has a career strikeout rate of 15.7 percent, and a BB/K ratio of 1.89. However, his fastball velocity ranked in the 62nd percentile, and he still ranked in the 44th percentile in chase rate, according to Baseball Savant.
Urena also succeeds in terms of generating groundball outs, as Urena’s groundball rate a year ago was 52 percent, which was a career-high. However, despite a high groundball rate, Urena experienced a .319 BABIP and his strand rate was 65.3 percent, both signs that he suffered from some difficult batted ball luck in his lone season in Detroit.
Urena wasn’t helped much by his defense last season, as the Tigers were the 9th-worst team in baseball on an OAA basis, according to Savant. Thus, considering the Royals’ defense is much stronger, and Kauffman Stadium is more pitcher-friendly, it is possible that Urena could experience a bounce back with a move to Kansas City.
The big question will be if Urena can channel his sinker to an effective pitch again at the Major League level, as it produced a +7 run value last year, according to Savant. When located down in the zone, the sinker can be a solid groundball-inducing pitch, as demonstrated by Urena getting Austin Meadows of the Rays to groundout on the pitch in a September 18th game at Tropicana Field:
However, when Urena made mistakes up in the zone with the pitch, hitters thrived, even when he pumped it in the high-90s velocity-wise. That was evident in this mistake to White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal, who crushed a sinker up in the zone for a double on an 0-2 count.
If the Royals can get Urena on a Minor League deal, he could be a valuable hybrid pitcher who could have even more of an impact in 2022, especially if he can command his sinker more effectively.
Trevor Cahill; Age: 33; fWAR in 2021: 0.5
Cahill signed with the Pirates on a one-year, $1.5 million deal in March of 2021 after putting up a 3.24 ER in 25 IP with the San Francisco Giants during the COVID-affected 2020 season. The deal was seen as a low-cost, high-upside potential deal for the Pirates, as Cahill would not only give the Pirates innings on the mound but also provide a veteran presence in the rotation for a young Pirates team that was obviously rebuilding.
Unfortunately, injury cut Cahill’s season in Pittsburgh short, something that has happened in his career far too often. Cahill only made nine appearances and eight starts and pitched 37 innings for the Pirates in 2021 before being shut down for the remainder of the season in early July:
It will be interesting to see if Cahill will pitch another season or opt for retirement, especially considering his long injury history. However, should he decide to give baseball another shot in 2022, he could be a low-cost option for the Royals who could give the rotation a veteran presence (and at a bargain of a price as well).
Despite posting a 6.57 ERA last year, Cahill’s FIP and xFIP were much more impressive at 4.06 and 4.13, respectively. Cahill still demonstrates good command of the strike zone, as he posted a 2.29 K/BB ratio and 19.3 percent K rate in 2021. Furthermore, the former Oakland second-round pick also kept the ball in the yard, as he generated a 55.2 percent groundball rate and only allowed an HR/FB rate of 12.9 percent, which was lower than his career rate in the latter category (13.8 percent).
On a pitch-arsenal end, according to Savant, Cahill sports five pitches, including a sinker, (29.8 percent usage), changeup (23.9 percent), curveball (21.7 percent), cutter (18.5 percent), and a four-seam fastball (6.2 percent). His curveball, which acts more as a knuckle curve, was one of his more effective pitches on a whiff rate (23.7 percent) and K rate (23.1 percent) end, though it did produce a run value of 4. That being said, last year was a small sample, and in 2020, his knuckle curve produce a run value of -5. Hence, it has the potential to be an effective pitch, especially considering the spin rate ranked in the 97th percentile last year.
Here’s an example of Cahill utilizing his curveball effectively for a strikeout of the Brewers’ Luis Urias in one of his final appearances in 2021:
With Cahill’s injury history, it is possible that the Royals could get Cahill on a Minor League deal, and may not have to compete with a lot of teams for his services as well.
Cahill did pitch for the Royals in 2017, as he was acquired in a Trade Deadline deadline deal with San Diego (Brandon Maurer was actually the key piece). Unfortunately, he struggled in 23 innings in Kansas City, as he posted an 8.22 ERA with the Royals after posting a 3.69 ERA in 61 IP with the Padres.
It will be interesting if Moore and Picollo will hold that previous performance against him, or if they will give Cahill a second chance in Kansas City, should he be available.
Vince Velasquez; Age: 29; fWAR in 2021: -0.3
Unlike Urena or Cahill, Velasquez is a high-strikeout pitcher (career 25.4 percent K rate) who has struggled with flyballs (career 0.85 GB/FB rate) as well as the long ball (career 15.1 percent HR/FB rate). The Padres acquired Velasquez from the Phillies in September, where he has pitched for most of his career. While the former second-round pick of the Astros continued to strike batters out (28.6 percent K rate) and limit walks (4.00 K/BB ratio) with the Padres, he struggled with the long ball, as he gave up an HR/FB rate of 27.3 percent and barrel rate of 22.2 percent in 12.2 IP in San Diego last year.
Here’s an example of Velasquez giving up a home run to Justin Turner of the Dodgers on September 30th on a 93.4 MPH four-seam fastball that catches just way too much of the strike zone:
While Velasquez struck out 27.9 percent of batters in 2021 on his four-seam fastball, he also gave up a hard-hit rate of 48.7 percent and a slugging percentage of .581 on the pitch, according to Savant. Thus, it’s not a surprise that his four-seamer produced a run value of 7, not good for a pitch he threw 49.9 percent of the time in 2021.
What is interesting about Velasquez’s pitch mix is that he generated a -1 run value on his sinker, even though he threw it 4.2 percent of the time. That was the second-best pitch of his arsenal on a run value end (only his curveball, which he threw 16.6 percent of the time, was better at -3). While Velasquez’s sinker generates less K’s (9.1 percent K rate), it does produce a comparable whiff rate (24.3 percent to his four-seamer’s 26.5 percent), as well as a much lower launch angle at 10 degrees (compared to his fastball, which averages 32 degrees on batted balls).
Here is Velasquez’s sinker getting him out of a jam when he was still with the Phillies, as his causes Webster Rivas of the Padres to ground into an easy 5-4-3 double play to end the inning:
Thus, it will be interesting to see if Velasquez will use his sinker more in 2022, even if it may result in fewer strikeouts than his four-seamer. The lower launch angle and average exit velocity on the pitch (76.8 MPH EV) are obvious incentives for him to use the pitch more in Kansas City, especially with a pretty solid Royals infield and outfield defense behind him which can turn batted balls into outs on a more frequent basis than in San Diego or Philly last season.
While Velasquez doesn’t have the groundball prowess of Urena or Cahill, his high K-rate ability could make him a fit in Kauffman’s big dimensions, much like Danny Duffy, who was similarly a high-strikeout, high-flyball pitcher. Velasquez on the other hand will be much younger than Duffy and is less of an injury risk.
Thus, if Velasquez can be acquired on a Minor League deal, he could experience a resurgence in Kansas City, especially after pitching in a hitter’s park for so long in Philadelphia.
Photo Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports