Three Royals Arbitration Cases Worth Paying Attention to This Offseason

According to Roster Resource’s payroll data, the Royals are projected to have an estimated payroll of $79 million, which would be down from the $88 million payroll they finished at the conclusion of the 2022 season.

By no means do I think that the Royals will hover around that $79 million mark by Opening Day in 2023.

While JJ Picollo has promoted a more “prudent” approach when it comes to building a team this offseason, it is likely that the Royals will make a roster that will be around that $85-90 million payroll. That’s not exactly the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it isn’t the Pittsburgh Pirates or Cleveland Guardians either.

A big reason for the Royals’ projected drop in payroll is that they are not saddled with a lot of guaranteed contracts for next season (as of now). The only players with guaranteed salaries for next year are Salvador Perez ($20 million), Hunter Dozier ($7.5 million), and Michael A. Taylor ($4.5 million).

It is possible that Dozier and Taylor could be on their way out in Kansas City as well, as they are both over 30-years-old, and don’t really fit this young, rebuilding roster (both extensions came under former head of operations Dayton Moore). Hence, Picollo and the Royals could have even more payroll flexibility this offseason, should they be able to trade Dozier, Taylor, or both this Winter.

While the Royals do not have a ton of guaranteed money on the books for next year, they do have a plethora of arbitration decisions to make prior to the start of Spring Training.

The Royals have 11 arbitration-eligible players this offseason, and it is unlikely that all of them will be back in the Royals’ blue and white once Spring Training arrives in late February at the Royals complex in Surprise. Picollo doesn’t have “exorbitant” arbitration decisions to make (unlike last year, where they had to work out a deal for eventual All-Star Andrew Benintendi), but there certainly are some tough decisions to make that could result in some popular and/or high-potential (but high-risk) players getting jettisoned.

Kansas City needs all the help that they can get in terms of talent, especially if they want to improve upon their 65-97 record a season ago. That said, Picollo needs to make sound roster decisions, for it is likely that he won’t get as many years as his predecessor to turn this Royals ship around.

Of the 11 eligible players, I decided to take a look at three Royals who could be difficult decisions for Picollo this winter, on a roster, as well as financial, end.

(All projected salary amounts will come from the arbitration amounts estimated by MLB Trade Rumors.)

Amir Garrett, LHP

Estimated salary amount: $2.6 million.

The Royals acquired Garrett last year from Cincinnati in exchange for Royals starting pitcher Mike Minor. The deal was a smart one on the surface level: the Royals were able to shed an unfavorable contract, and in exchange, received some much-needed bullpen help. While Garrett certainly had his issues with the Reds, I thought the change in scenery, and the more pitcher-friendly home ballpark would help Garrett rebound after a down 2021.

Unfortunately, Garrett failed to produce statistically for the Royals in 2022, even though he provided some entertaining moments, especially when he faced Detroit’s Javy Baez (whom Garrett had beef with back when Baez was on the Cubs).

In terms of the metrics, Garrett was pretty underwhelming as he produced a 4.96 ERA and 0.5 fWAR in 60 appearances and 45.1 IP.

While nearly every Royals reliever was plagued by walks a season ago (they did rank 30th in BB/9 after all as a bullpen), the 30-year-old lefty particularly struggled. His BB/9 was 6.35 in 2022, which was 0.87 points higher than his mark in 2021, and 2.91 points higher than his BB/9 in 2020. In addition, his K/BB ratio was 1.53, which was considerably lower than his 2.10 and 3.71 marks in 2021 and 2020, respectively.

And not only did Garrett see a rise in walks, but a decline in strikeouts as well.

The Royals need relievers who can strike batters out in 2023, especially since Royals relievers also ranked last in K/9 in 2022 (and we wonder why Cal Eldred was let go as pitching coach). A two-year regression in strikeouts per nine innings (12.76 K/9 in 2020 and 11.59 in 2021) is not a good sign that Garrett can give Royals fans much hope for the bullpen in 2023.

On the other hand, he did limit the longball (zero home runs allowed) and was able to allow fewer barrels in 2022 boot, as his 6.4 percent barrel rate was 3.2 points lower than his 2021 rate, and 4.7 points lower than his 2020 rate. It’s not a surprise that Garrett looks a lot better in metrics other than ERA. His xERA last year was only 3.62 and his FIP was only 3.40, which are more tolerable numbers for a left-handed reliever.

If Garrett can lower the walks a little bit, or better yet, increase the strikeouts, it’s certainly plausible that he could be a more dependable reliever for the Royals in 2023, even if a possible setup role may not exactly be in his future.

He also had a solid last two months of the year, which included the last month of play that saw him post a K/9 of 12, which was his best month in that category.

One possible roadblock that may prevent a Garrett return to Kansas City though could revolve around how many left-handed relievers the Royals would like to keep on the active roster. After a rough year as a starter, it’s possible that Picollo may want to transition Kris Bubic to the bullpen, especially since his stuff plays up better in shorter stints (though the sample size is still limited).

Furthermore, Anthony Misiewicz was better than expected after coming over from Seattle via a trade mid-season.

Here’s how Misiewicz and Garrett compared metrically, via Fangraphs:

Garrett did edge our Misiewicz in terms of fWAR and HR/9. On the other hand, Misiewicz posted a better ERA and xFIP, and also posted a more tolerable BB/9 than Garrett as well. One has to wonder what Misiewicz’s numbers would look like, had he gotten the same number of innings and appearances as Garrett.

In addition, Misiewicz will cost a whole lot less than Garrett, especially since he has only two years of service time (unlike Garret who has over four years).

Will Picollo go cheap and stick with Misiewicz and maybe Gabe Speier or Jake Brentz, when he returns from injury? That will be an interesting dilemma for the Royals GM, especially considering Garrett seems to like Kansas City, the young roster, and is a rare veteran presence not only in the bullpen but on the pitching staff in general.

Royals fans though will see how much those “intangibles” will be worth this winter, with Garrett being the primary case (and maybe Zack Greinke being the other).

Nicky Lopez, Utility Infielder

Estimated salary amount: $3.4 million

Lopez had a breakout season in 2021 after two good defensive but sub-par offensive seasons in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The 27-year-old Creighton product not only produced a 105 wRC+ in 2021, but he also generated a 5.9 fWAR in 151 games, according to Fangraphs.

Going into 2022, many Royals fans believed that Lopez had finally demonstrated that he could be an everyday infielder in Kansas City, even if it meant switching between shortstop and second base (due to the presence of Bobby Witt, Jr. and Adalberto Mondesi).

Unfortunately, things just nosedived for Lopez at the plate, and as a result, his overall value tanked as well in 2022.

In 142 games and 480 plate appearances, Lopez only hit .227 and generated a wRC+ of 57. Not only was that 48 points lower than his mark in 2021, but it was only four points better than his sophomore campaign in 2020, and one point higher than his rookie year in 2019.

While Lopez still didn’t strike out a lot (13.1 percent rate), he was more impatient at the plate last year. His walk rate dropped to 6.0 (2.7 points lower) and his swing rate and O-Swing percentage increased by four points and 5.3 points, respectively, as well, which can be seen in the data table below.

His chase rate (O-Swing %) was a career-high and a troubling trend for a hitter who doesn’t possess much if any power. In order for Lopez to succeed with his limited tool set, he needs to be extremely patient. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen consistently last year, and as a result, Royals fans were treated to plate appearances like this one which happened far too often whenever Lopez was in the lineup.

Despite his offensive limitations, Lopez still offers the Royals a lot of value with his glove and on the basepaths.

Even though he played three different positions in 2022 (SS, 2B, and 3B), Lopez still produced an OAA of 14 and has accumulated a career OAA of 47. Not only is that one of the best marks of Royals players currently on the active roster, but it is also one of the best marks in the American League over that timespan as well.

To be honest, it’s kind of a crime that Lopez has only gotten one Gold Glove nomination since 2019 (and has failed to win the award as well over that timespan).

On a baserunning end, not only has Lopez stolen 35 bases over the past two years (and has only been caught four times), but he has also accumulated 13.4 baserunning runs (BsR) as well, according to Fangraphs data. That mark leads all Royals from the past two years, which includes high-profile base stealers such as Whit Merrifield, Witt, and Mondesi.

The Royals could certainly use Lopez as a defensive and baserunning weapon off the bench who could fill in when there’s an injury or if Witt or Michael Massey need a day off.

But is that worth $3.4 million to Picollo and the Royals?

And could the Royals perhaps trade him to a contender, who could better utilize the skill set on a more competitive roster, especially come postseason time?

That amount is a lot more tolerable for a team like the Yankees, whose defensive issues certainly plagued them this past postseason.

Adalberto Mondesi, SS

Estimated Salary Amount: $3 million

I know what you’re thinking…

Royals fans should probably be giving up on Mondesi returning to Kansas City in 2023, let alone having any kind of impact, especially after he has only played in 50 games over the past two seasons.

And yet, he continues to remain an intriguing arbitration decision, especially as he enters his last season of arbitration, with the likelihood being that he would command a paltry amount in a possible deal.

After all, he is projected to make $0.4 million less than Lopez, via MLB Trade Rumors. Surprisingly though, Mondesi actually has accumulated roughly the same amount of value as Lopez over his career (6.7 fWAR to Lopez’s 6.8 fWAR), despite the number of injuries and playing 94 fewer games than Lopez as well.

In fact, let’s compare Mondesi and Lopez and their career numbers, via Fangraphs.

As one can see, while Lopez does slightly edge out Mondesi on an fWAR basis, most of that is due to Lopez’s superior defensive value and playing more games. Mondesi pretty much dwarfs Lopez in nearly every offensive category (other than walks and strikeouts), and he has done so despite accumulating 273 fewer career plate appearances.

Of course, staying healthy is a skill, and Lopez has been able to stay healthy over his career while Mondesi hasn’t (no other way to put it). Lopez should be credited for taking care of himself and being able to stay on this roster consistently in some capacity, especially over the past two seasons.

And yet, the Royals do not necessarily need a no-hit, defensive-first utility infielder right now.

The Royals have Nate Eaton, who can play every outfield position and third base. They also have shortstop Maikel Garcia on the 40-man roster. He not only performed well in his limited big league stint but also demonstrated an uptick in power in his time in Triple-A Omaha.

Garcia, who should be a Top-Five Royals prospect in the Royals system this winter by most prospect experts, has a chance to perhaps push Witt off the shortstop position on Opening Day in 2023. That could especially be true if Garcia has a strong Spring Training, and Witt fails to show much progress defensively at shortstop in Surprise.

If the Royals are going to keep an extra infielder on the active roster, it would make more sense for the Royals to keep a wild card who could perhaps generate some kind of return in a trade rather than a light-hitting one who offers little upside beyond his baserunning and glove (which Mondesi does just as well as Lopez, if not better, when healthy).

After all, Lopez is not going to be hitting bombs like this anytime soon (even though this home run came in 2021 from Mondesi…never mind the obnoxious Zack Hample appearance):

The Royals may benefit from keeping Mondesi, putting him in a utility role off the bench where he can rotate between second, third, and shortstop, initially. This could help him preserve his health, and get him more acclimated after two shortened seasons.

If Mondesi can find his stroke and stay healthy, then he could perhaps slide into an area of need in the infield, even if it may be in a platoon role (third base seems like a realistic option, if Bobby doesn’t move there first). Once he gets more playing time and is putting up solid numbers, the Royals can then flip Mondesi for a package of prospects that can help restock their system.

The package won’t be what it could’ve been a couple of years ago when Mondesi was viewed as a potential superstar. And there’s also a strong possibility that Mondesi could flail at the plate like he did in 2022, or worse yet, suffer another long-term injury.

But at $3 million for one more season? If he is not producing by June or if he is hurt again, then the Royals can cut him and finally move on.

With one more year of team control though, Picollo and the Royals front office should look to roll the dice and give Mondesi one more season in Kansas City, even if it is in a more limited role.

Because he could be an early trade candidate who could help boost this Royals farm system that could use more talent next year, especially if they want to build a long-term winner.

Photo Credit: William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

4 thoughts on “Three Royals Arbitration Cases Worth Paying Attention to This Offseason

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