Three Takeaways from the Royals’ Recent Roster Moves (And Predictions for Friday)

The Royals have been in the news a lot this week, for both good and well…not so good reasons.

On Tuesday afternoon, owner John Sherman announced the Royals’ intention to move on from Kauffman Stadium at some point in the near future, with the plan to move into a downtown stadium in the process. As expected, the announcement has received its share of ardent supporters and venomous detractors.

Surprisingly, the announcement seemed to overshadow the Royals’ main roster moves announced earlier in the day, as the GM JJ Picollo and the Royals front office had to finalize their 40-man roster in order to protect eligible prospects from the Rule 5 Draft.

Not only did the Royals add three new players to the 40-man roster (and release three players as well), but they also avoided arbitration with a polarizing player among the Royals fanbase.

Without a doubt, the announcement of O’Hearn’s return to Kansas City certainly had an effect on Royals fans, especially on Twitter. After an offseason where goodwill was built with the hiring of manager Matt Quatraro and bench coach Paul Hoover, both from the Tampa Bay Rays organization, the Royals’ refusal to move on from O’Hearn has seemed to strike a nerve Royals fans, especially those who think Picollo may just be Dayton Moore 2.0.

The Royals should not be done with deals just yet, as Friday is MLB’s non-tender deadline, which means that all MLB organizations have to tender arbitration-eligible players a contract, or else they will lose them via free agency.

With O’Hearn off the board, the Royals have nine remaining players they have to decide on when it comes to tendering a contract for the 2023 season. And unfortunately, many of those decisions will be quite difficult and could result in the Picollo and the Royals parting ways with talented (albeit flawed) players this winter.

In this post, I am going to talk about three takeaways that Royals fans should have after the latest slew of Royals roster moves, and what Royals fans can expect in anticipation of Friday’s non-tender deadline.


O’Hearn Over Rooker Isn’t the End of the World

Without a doubt, the Royals’ decision to retain O’Hearn has not been met with much fanfare in Kansas City, which is evidenced in Tweets such as the one below:

There is ample evidence and reasoning to NOT bring back O’Hearn for another year, especially when one considers that he only played in 67 games and accumulated 145 plate appearances in 2022. At the end of the day, O’Hearn is a bench bat, plain and simple, significantly since he doesn’t add any value defensively at the first base or corner outfield positions.

However, I do think Royals fans are once again, making O’Hearn an unnecessary whipping boy for the Royals’ problems, and not necessarily looking at the whole picture with O’Hearn’s situation.

Now, in an ideal world, would O’Hearn be back? Probably not.

But, at the end of the day, he does know his role (bench bat) and offers some potential in that role, which he seemed to relish a season ago.

In high-leverage situations a season ago, O’Hearn hit .400 and posted a 160 wRC+ in 17 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs splits data. Furthermore, of Royals hitters with 50 or more batted ball events in 2022, O’Hearn actually posted the highest average exit velocity, according to Baseball Savant, which goes to show the quality of his contact last season.

In addition, O’Hearn finished second in hard-hit rate last year with a rate of 48 percent. Only Salvador Perez had a higher hard-hit rate than O’Hearn (49 percent).

Now, considering the Royals’ need for a right-handed hitter this offseason, many Royals fans may be wondering: why did the Royals decide to keep O’Hearn over Brent Rooker, who has a similar profile to O’Hearn, but from the right side of the dish?

In terms of Statcast metrics, O’Hearn actually greatly outperformed Rooker in 2022, and it’s not even close.

The Royals will only be paying O’Hearn $1.4 million in 2023. While some may disagree with him being on the roster at all, that’s a pretty paltry amount, all things considered. He actually produced a better xWOBA (.327) than Frank Schwindel (.278), Michael Chavis (.261), and Jesus Aguilar (.298).

Therefore, it isn’t a bad risk for the Royals to see if the new shift rules could help O’Hearn in 2023, especially considering his BABIP of .268, which is well below the .300 threshold.

If the new rules do boost O’Hearn’s production in 2023, he could not just be a productive bat off the bench for this Kansas City squad, but he could also be a trade candidate at some point in June and July as well who could net the Royals some prospect return.


Freddy Fermin Deserves His Chance

My initial reaction to Freddy Fermin being added to the 40-man, and consequently, Sebastian Rivero being DFA’d, was confusion.

After all, Fermin has gone under the radar in the Royals system for years and was more known for being catching depth in the Royals farm system. In addition, Rivero was known for his defense in the Minors, and it was assumed that trait would ensure him an MLB backup role, even though he struggled with the bat at the Major League level (career 21 wRC+, according to Fangraphs).

But the more I looked into both Fermin and Rivero’s profiles, the more the decision to replace Fermin with Rivero made sense for the Royals, especially in the short term.

According to Fangraphs, Fermin posted a .270/.365/.480 slash in Omaha with a 123 wRC+ in 348 plate appearances. He not only hit 15 home runs, but he also posted a BB/K ratio of 0.74 and had a penchant for heroics, with a walk-off in early April to boot.

Fermin is no one-year wonder, however.

In 2021 in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, Fermin slashed .279/.356/.446 with the Naturals in 303 plate appearances. This included 10 home runs, a 116 wRC+, and a BB/K ratio of 0.58.

The fact of the matter is that Fermin has not only excelled with his defense and pitch-calling skills in the minors, but he has also demonstrated a pretty effective bat as well.

To compare, Rivero has only posted a wRC+ over 100 once in his career, which was an eight-game sample in rookie ball in 2016. Last year, in Double-A, he only posted a wRC+ of 76 in 178 plate appearances. In addition, Rivero didn’t show much progress defensively at the MLB level, especially on a framing end.

While his framing was still better than Salvy and MJ Melendez, Rivero was still 2.3 percent below league average on a frame rate-end, according to Baseball Savant.

While some may question the Royals’ need for a third catcher, my guess is that the Royals are going to push Melendez to a corner outfield role this offseason, especially considering his poor framing metrics (he was four runs worse than Salvy, who’s a notoriously poor framer) and questionable blocking skills.

Thus, it makes sense why the Royals would add Fermin to the Royals’ 40-man this offseason, as he adds a lot more offensive value at the catcher’s position than Rivero (and maybe defensive as well, depending on how the framing metrics pan out at the MLB level).


Will Someone Select Sikkema and Veneziano in the Rule 5 Draft?

As expected, the Royals added the hard-throwing Marsh to the 40-man roster on Tuesday.

On the other hand, Kansas City left off TJ Sikkema, whom the Royals acquired from the Yankees in the Andrew Benintendi deal.

Now, the Royals still have Chandler Champlain and Beck Way as pitching capital from the Benintendi deal. That being said, Sikkema appeared to be the most MLB-ready of the trio from New York, and he had a solid campaign in the Arizona Fall League to boot.

To be fair, Sikkema was not good in Double-A Northwest Arkansas after coming over from the Yankees.

He posted a 7.44 ERA in eight starts and 32.2 IP, which is brutal, even for Northwest Arkansas pitcher standards (more on that in a second). Nonetheless, Sikkema was a former first-round pick, and he is still a top-20 prospect in the Royals system, according to MLB Pipeline.

The fact that Picollo is leaving Sikkema unprotected seems to be quite a risk, especially considering how pitchers are often chosen in the Rule 5 Draft.

The same could also be said of Anthony Veneziano, a tall left-handed pitcher who can pump his four-seam fastball into the upper 90s, which is a trait that is very in demand by MLB teams in the Rule 5 Draft.

Like Sikkema, Veneziano struggled in his Double-A debut in 2022.

Not only did he post a mediocre 5.72 ERA in 122.2 IP, but he also generated a 1.95 K/BB ratio and HR/FB of 15.3 percent. The latter metric was a 2.2 percent increase from a season ago, which is not a good trend, especially for a 25-year-old pitcher.

On one hand, there is some hope that Veneziano could improve in a bullpen role, which he hasn’t really done at the professional level just yet (only three appearances in the Minors were NOT starts).

However, it is strongly possible that an MLB team other than the Royals may be the ones helping him with that “transition” in 2023, especially if Veneziano is selected in the Rule 5 Draft.


Expect More Big Moves from the Royals on Friday

I have already talked about the Royals’ difficult dilemma with Brad Keller earlier this week. (Is he worth $7 million?) But the fact of the matter is that the Royals have multiple tough arbitration decisions that will need to be figured out by Friday’s deadline.

And let’s just face the facts: the Royals, as frustrating as they can be at times, are going to make a couple of surprising roster moves by tomorrow that perhaps could give this roster some flexibility this winter.

If I had to guess, at this point, I think it’s highly plausible that Keller and Adalberto Mondesi will be gone by Friday, either through a trade or non-tender decision (the fact that non-announcement has been made on their status, while O’Hearn has, is very telling).

I also wouldn’t rule out the non-tender of Amir Garrett, who’s been a nice influence in the Royals bullpen, but hasn’t really backed it up metrically (4.96 ERA; 1.53 K/BB ratio) and may not be worth nearly $3 million in his final year of arbitration.

And that isn’t including some possible trades that have been floated out throughout the offseason. Michael A. Taylor has been the subject of frequent trade discussion, as has first-base prospect Nick Pratto, who had an up-and-down rookie campaign last year. Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Royals included one of those two players in a trade along with Keller, Mondesi, and/or Garrett by the Friday deadline.

Already teams have been making a flurry of trades leading up to tomorrow, with Seattle’s trade for Toronto’s Teoscar Hernandez being the prime example:

Picollo has made some wise moves (hiring of Quatraro and Hoover; adding Marsh, Fermin, Diego Hernandez, and Samad Taylor to the 40-man roster) and some puzzling ones (O’Hearn) early in his tenure as head of Royals baseball operations.

But some big decisions are on the way by Friday, and I guarantee you they will be polarizing among the Royals’ touchy fanbase (especially on Twitter).

Time will tell if those “bold” moves will pay off for the Royals in the AL Central standings not just in 2022, but beyond as well.

Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

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