With the current lockout going on, it’s been a dead “hot stove” season, much to the dismay of hardcore Royals and baseball fans like myself. While teams have still been able to make Minor League transactions (the Royals made such a move by signing reliever Arodys Vizcaino to a Minor League contract), the tension between owners and the MLBPA has stunted any movement on a trade or Major League free agent end this Winter.
That being said, while teams aren’t making any moves as of this moment, that has not stopped Royals fans from theorizing possible moves that the Kansas City front office could make once the lockout finally ends.
In this post, I take a look at three veterans on the Royals’ active roster who could possibly be traded this season, whether it’s shortly before the start of the season or after Opening Day, whenever that should be (let’s hope the lockout ends by Spring Training). While Dayton Moore and the Royals have continued to promote a message that the Royals can “compete now”, the reality is that the Royals are at least another year away, though they certainly have a chance to improve upon their 74-88 record a year ago. Thus, that makes a few veterans on this Royals roster expendable, especially considering the depth at their respective positions.
Hence, let’s take a look at each possible trade candidate and when those possible moves could be made next season.
Mike Minor; LHP; 34-years-old
The Royals signed Minor to a two-year deal last season with a club option for a third year. At this point, it is extremely likely the Royals won’t exercise that option, which thus makes the 34-year-old veteran an expendable asset in the Kansas City rotation.
While Minor’s 5.05 ERA isn’t impressive, he actually was the most valuable starting pitcher for the Royals on an fWAR end, as his 2.3 fWAR led all Royals pitchers in 2021, according to Fangraphs. Minor not only paced all Royals pitchers in innings (158.2 IP), but he also led all Royals starting pitchers with 50 or more IP in K/BB ratio (3.63) as well. In actuality, the former Ranger and A’s starting pitcher probably wasn’t as bad as his ERA indicated, which is further proven by his 4.29 FIP and 4.39 xERA, both more palatable marks.
If there was one thing that Minor struggled with last season, it was giving up the longball, as his HR/FB rate of 13.4 percent was the second-highest rate of his career (only 15.7 percent rate last year was higher). A big contributor to that high home run rate was his lackluster slider, as he posted a +5 run value on the pitch according to Baseball Savant. He also allowed a slugging percentage of .511 on the breaking pitch, which was the highest mark of the four pitches he threw in 2021.
Here’s an example of Minor leaving the slider too up in the zone to the Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado, who blasts it over the left-field fence at Kauffman Stadium:
Despite his home run problems, Minor would be a valuable asset to a Major League club, especially one looking for help at the end of the rotation. Minor can eat innings, strike out a decent amount of batters, and limit walks, all pitcher characteristics that are in demand by Major League teams, especially ones competing for a postseason spot. It wouldn’t be surprising if a team like the Angels, Mariners, or Mets, who have playoff aspirations but are unsettled at the end of the rotation, discuss an offer for Minor once the lockout ends.
Now, will Minor get traded before Opening Day? That is tough to envision with how the lockout is going currently, but I think a Minor trade will be a priority for Moore and the Royals front office once the lockout is finished.
While Minor will provide a veteran presence in the Royals rotation for 2022, they have a ton of internal pitching candidates right now. It may be better for the Royals to give innings to younger, more long-term arms like Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar over Minor, who won’t be part of this club’s plans beyond 2022.
While it is difficult to determine when the lockout will end, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Minor dealt shortly before Opening Day in order to help solidify and clear up the rotation situation before the start of the season.
Carlos Santana; 1B/DH; 35-years-old
Santana was acquired last offseason to give the Royals a veteran presence at the first-base position and also help improve the lineup’s ability to get on-base. After a hot start to the season, a combination of injuries and regression had an effect on Santana at the plate in the second half, and he ended up posting a .294 wOBA and 83 wRC+, both career-worst marks. Thus, it’s not a surprise that Santana has been the talk of frequent trade discussion this offseason, especially after he was mentioned in trade talks around the trade deadline last July.
While some Royals fans may think trading Santana may be priority No. 1 for the Royals front office when the lockout ends, I disagree and think Minor will be the easier (and quicker) player to trade.
Right now, Santana’s trade value is incredibly low, and it’s hard to see a lot of bright spots in his performance last year (unlike Minor, whose main issue was simply home runs allowed; that could change in the right ballpark and defense behind him). Any team interested in a deal for Santana would probably give the Royals an extremely low-ball offer, and knowing Moore’s history, it is unlikely that he would settle for such a proposal.
On the other hand, while I think a Santana deal makes sense at some point for the Royals, they do not need to rush a trade, and that could actually benefit the Royals in a multitude of ways if he has a hot start to the year, much like he did in 2021. When Santana was at his most productive in April, the Royals were at the top of AL Central, and he also gives them a hitter who can get on base and draw a walk, which is much needed in a projected Royals lineup that tends to be free-swinging.
Furthermore, Santana playing first base and DH’ing in Kansas City for a couple of months gives the Royals the opportunity to continue to take things slow with Nick Pratto, which not only saves him service time but also gives him an opportunity to cut down the strikeout rate, which was near 30 percent last season in both Omaha and Northwest Arkansas.
Santana will probably be the Royals’ Opening Day starting first baseman, but that isn’t a bad thing, nor a long-lasting one as well. If he gets off to a hot start, the Royals will be able to get better value in a possible trade, which most likely could happen at the end of May or June.
And if he struggles in April and May, like he did in August and September?
Well, the Royals can cut bait with him by DFA’ing, and then the Pratto-era can begin by the All-Star break at the very latest.
Scott Barlow; RHP; 29-years-old
This may be a surprising one to see, especially since Barlow not only emerged as the Royals’ best reliever last year (and closer) but also their best pitcher in general, as he earned the Royals’ team award for “Pitcher of the Year” last season.
Hence, Royals fans may think “why would Dayton Moore possibly trade his closer, especially if he believes they can win now?”
Well, if there is one thing that the Royals have done well since 2018, it has been finding solid relief arms at a discount and within the Royals system.
Last year, Barlow had his best season yet, as he saved 16 games, posted a 2.42 ERA, and generated a 2.1 fWAR in 71 appearances and 74.1 IP. While he is not used exclusively in save situations, it is obvious that he has been Mike Matheny’s most preferred reliever the past two seasons, and that is further shown in his 1.42 gmLI (leverage index when a pitcher enters a game), which is the second-highest mark for a Royals reliever since 2020. Matheny trusts Barlow in the toughest situations, and that will probably continue in 2022.
That being said, it is hard to imagine Barlow being much better in 2022 and beyond than he was in 2021. While he continues to display a stellar K/BB ratio (3.25), it was a regression from last year (4.33), and he did see a regression in groundball rate (47.3 percent in 2020 to 38.9 percent in 2021). Additionally, his xERA (3.37) and xFIP (3.59) show that he may not have been as elite as his sub-three ERA indicated (though he still was pretty good overall).
There were some rumors circulating at the trade deadline last year that teams were asking around about Barlow, though nothing eventually materialized.
If the Royals did not have much of a bullpen behind Barlow, I am not sure if Moore and JJ Picollo would even consider parting with Barlow. However, the Royals saw tremendous growth from Josh Staumont, who quietly had a career year, despite battling COVID and injury issues (2.88 ERA in 65.2 IP). Additionally, Domingo Tapia proved to be a surprising setup option in the second half of the year, and Dylan Coleman has “closer potential”, especially with his electric fastball.
Lastly, Barlow will be entering his second year of arbitration this offseason and is projected to make around $2.4 million this year. Do the Royals want to continue to keep paying him that rate (he has one more year of arbitration after this offseason), especially considering their internal options, and how volatile relievers can be? Moore hasn’t hesitated from trading Royals closers since 2018, as he parted with Kelvin Herrera in 2019 and Trevor Rosenthal in 2020.
I do not think the Royals pull the trigger on a Barlow deal before the season or even after the first month or two of play. However, I think if Barlow continues to perform in his late-innings role in Kansas City in 2022, he will be a hot commodity around the Trade Deadline in July.
And this time, Moore and the Royals will get a deal done.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports