Free Agent Pitching Will Be Expensive, And That Puts Pressure on the New Royals Pitching Coach

The Royals finally made some news this hot stove season after being pretty quiet following the hiring of new manager Matt Quatraro.

Today, the Royals announced not only a new pitching coach but their infield coach as well.

Alguacil comes from the Nationals organization, but was in the Giants organization for a long time prior (he was also the manager of the Sacramento Rivercats, the Giants’ Triple-A team, and my hometown Minor League ballclub). If anything, Alguacil’s hiring probably was done as a response to the organization losing Pedro Grifol and Mike Tosar to the White Sox. With both gone, the Royals lack a Spanish-speaking presence in the dugout, and thankfully, Alguacil fills that void.

It is also likely that the Royals tabbed Alguacil, a native of Venezuela, as a coach who could connect with franchise player Salvador Perez in the wake of Grifol and Tosar’s departure. Both coaches were close with Salvy, and Salvy went on the record to say that he wished Grifol was the one who succeeded Matheny as Royals manager.

Let’s be honest though.

The bigger news is the Royals’ hiring of Sweeney to replace Cal Eldred as pitching coach. Sweeney comes over from the Cleveland Guardians organization, where he served as bullpen coach.

The Guardians had one of the best bullpens in the league last year, headlined by closer Emmanuel Clase, who was second only to New York’s Edwin Diaz in reliever fWAR, according to Fangraphs. As a collective, the Guardians ranked 4th in reliever fWAR at 6.6, which was behind only the Dodgers (8.6), Atlanta (7.6), and Houston (7.6).

In his role as bullpen coach in Cleveland, Sweeney was a major advocate of incorporating analytics, which isn’t necessarily a surprise considering the Guardians’ reputation for utilizing and incorporating data as an organization. Furthermore, in unrelated but cool news nonetheless, Sweeney served as a volunteer firefighter as well during the COVID Pandemic.

After a slew of disappointing roster moves during the non-tender deadline week, it seems like JJ Picollo and the Royals regained some goodwill with fans and Royals content creators with the hiring of Sweeney.

While there was hope that the Royals would somehow snag Giants pitching coordinator Brian Bannister, Sweeney is a nice consolation. He definitely will fit into the “analytical” culture that Quatraro, Picollo, and owner John Sherman want to build in Kansas City for years to come.

David Lesky of Inside the Crown mentioned him as a possible candidate in a post earlier this offseason. As expected, Lesky lauded the move today as a great fit for the Royals, especially considering the issues the Royals pitching staff suffered through under Eldred since 2018.

While the wait is finally over in regard to who the Royals pitching coach will be in 2023, there still are two lingering questions among the Kansas City fan base:

Who else are the Royals hiring on staff? And which pitchers will the Royals bring in this winter via free agency or trade?

In regard to the first question, Picollo and the Royals don’t seem to be done adding to the coaching staff.

According to Royals writer Anne Rogers, it appears that the Royals may also be adding an assistant pitching coach who will work closely with Sweeney and Quatraro.

Rogers’ report is huge for a couple of reasons.

For one, it means that bullpen coach Larry Carter is likely out (no official word was made about his future following the firings of Eldred and manager Mike Matheny). That’s good news for a staff under Quatraro that is trying to change the tune in terms of how they embrace analytics and data as a group.

In addition, the hiring of an assistant pitching coach also gives the Royals a staff structure at the Major League level that mirrors what they did on a hitting end last season.

In addition to hitting coach Alec Zumwalt, who replaced Terry Bradshaw in May, the Royals also had assistant hitting coaches Keoni Derenne (who was there at the beginning of the year) and Tosar (who was previously a roving special assistant in the organization). That kind of hitting support structure in the dugout was a big reason why the Royals hitting improved after a slow start in April and May.

While the Royals have not made much of a splash in terms of player personnel (so far), they have definitely seemed intent on revamping their coaching staff so that it can mirror the best and most modern organization (i.e. Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Houston). I long wondered why the Royals wasted assistant coaching spots on just general “assistant coaches” (i.e. John Mabry), instead of developing more specialized personnel. This was especially true on the pitching end, which has obviously been an area of weakness for the Royals over the past five years.

Then again, the culture in the Royals’ coaching staff appeared averse to change under Matheny. It’s possible that Picollo and Sherman wanted to add such specificity to coaching roles, but Moore and Matheny didn’t want to rock the boat, especially with a coach in Eldred who had a reputation for being abrasive.

That culture already seems to have changed under Picollo and Quatraro, especially with the hiring of Sweeney and a soon-to-be assistant pitching coach.

The hiring of Sweeney is certainly something to be celebrated among the Royals faithful (especially considering how long it took). However, the goal of improving the Royals’ pitching staff in 2023 is far from over.

Now, it is expected that the Royals pitchers next season will see some improvement, especially with a full winter and spring of work with the new Royals pitching development team (it will be interesting if we witness some more organizational changes related to pitching announced soon). Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jon Heasley, Carlos Hernandez, and Brad Keller will be key pitchers at the Major League level who will need to have bounce-back campaigns if the Royals have any hope of escaping the AL Central basement next year.

That being said, the Royals will still need to add pitchers from outside the organization to realistically see major improvement. Depending solely on pitching “within” the organization for success is just not realistic, especially with a Royals organization that has not done well in terms of developing pitching internally over the last two decades, roughly.

Some major pitching moves though in free agency could make the Royals’ ability to add pitching a difficult, as well as expensive, endeavor this winter.

Earlier this morning, Jeff Passan reported that the Detroit Tigers brought back former ace Matt Boyd on a one-year $10 million deal. Boyd previously played for the Mariners last season after being released by Detroit following the 2021 season.

Boyd spent most of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery and only pitched 13.1 innings in 10 appearances. The 31-year-old left-hander only produced an fWAR of 0.1 and has only accumulated a 1.3 fWAR in 152.1 IP since the 2020 season.

And yet, he still was able to collect $10 million in a one-year deal this winter from a team that not only has a new GM (Scott Harris came from the Giants) but is looking to rebound after a rough step back in 2022 as well.

If anything, the Boyd deal pretty much set the standard of what free-agent pitchers could expect at a minimum. That was further evidenced by Zack Eflin inking a three-year, $40 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams.

Eflin was seen as a possible Royals target this offseason after posting a 4.04 ERA in 20 appearances and 75.2 innings with the Phillies in 2022. While Eflin was good when healthy, his inability to stay off the IL was a big reason why he lost his spot in the rotation, and why Philadelphia was willing to part with him this offseason.

If the typically frugal Rays are more than willing to give Eflin a deal with an AAV (average annual value) of $13.3 million, then it’s safe to assume that other teams (especially big market ones) will be ready to pony up more cash for pitchers with even more established track records.

The Royals have been linked to free agent arms such as Jameson Taillon and Sean Manaea this offseason. Both pitchers have their share of issues, but they would at the very least give the Royals that “top of the rotation” arm that they need who could last a few seasons in the role.

To make Taillon, Manaea, or any free-agent pitcher a reality though, Picollo and the Royals will have to pony up big money and multiple years as well.

That doesn’t necessarily match what Picollo was harping about free agency and roster building earlier this offseason, much to the chagrin of frustrated Royals fans who are sick of all the losing since 2018.

Of course, the Royals will make some kind of free-agent pitching pickup or two this offseason. It is likely that they will grab someone close to Spring Training who is in need of major reclamation (and may come initially on a Minor League deal). They also could still bring back Greinke, who seems intent to play in Kansas City if he doesn’t want to call it a career just yet.

Going into this winter, there were many Royals fans who thought Greinke could play for a bit less than the $13 million he inked in 2022. While he did post a sub-four ERA, Greinke accumulated the fewest innings (137 IP) in a non-COVID season since 2016, his first season in Arizona. Thus, there was some thought that those two factors would encourage him to take a “hometown discount” this offseason.

Based on the recent Eflin and Boyd deals though, it is likely that Greinke won’t come back for anything less than the $13 million he signed prior to the 2022 season. In fact, it could be even more on an AAV end, especially considering how the market rate is looking for starting pitchers right now in Major League Baseball.

For a rebuilding team with limited spending resources, that kind of free-agent market will put pressure on Sweeney and his team to produce in 2023, especially with the young pitchers in the organization who still have multiple years of control.

Sweeney and the pitching team will need to help a young Royals pitcher or two take the next step forward in 2023, much like Singer last season. Whether it’s Lynch, Bubic, Heasley, or someone else altogether is yet to be known. If Sweeney and Quatraro want to prove that their “methods” work in Kansas City, much like they did in Cleveland and Tampa, respectively, they will need to see gains from the young pitchers next season.

That is perhaps a bigger priority for this coaching staff (and probably the front office) than simply improving win-loss-wise in the standings.

Because major help may not be on the way to Kansas City from outside the organization, especially with it likely that starting pitchers will command record highs in AAV marks this winter.

The Royals will need to get better with what they have currently, and it looks like Picollo and Sherman are taking all the right steps to make sure the right people are in place on staff to make that happen.

Of course, we still have a few more months left in the offseason…

So, who knows what else Picollo and the Royals’ front office have up their sleeve.

Photo Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports


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