The Royals held a town hall meeting with Royals fans this evening to discuss the future of the downtown baseball stadium. It wasn’t just owner John Sherman who was present at the town hall. He also brought a team of architects and other members of the Royals organization to help push the narrative of why a downtown stadium was the next best step for the Royals, as well as baseball in Kansas City.
Funny enough, Sherman wasn’t exactly “blind” to the fact that the Royals have had a tame offseason where their biggest move of note, prior to the meeting, was a Minor League deal to a journeyman catcher (whom they picked up anyways off of waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers last season).
During the town hall meeting, Sherman seemed to hint to disgruntled Royals fans following in person and online that possible moves were looming, especially of the pitching variety:
And not too long after Sherman’s fateful words, the Kansas City Royals organization on Twitter announced their first “major” signing of the offseason.
Per Sherman’s prediction, it indeed was a pitcher.
According to KC Star Royals beat writer Lynn Worthy, not only is Yarbrough on a one-year deal, but it also comes at a reasonable price tag on an AAV end (average annual value). That should not be ignored, especially considering the expensive market of pitching, in general, this offseason (both starters and relievers have commanded quite a bit).
So the Royals “finally” made some kind of free agent splash, and they were able to bring in a guy whom new manager Matt Quatraro and bench coach Paul Hoover are familiar with as well from their coaching days with the Rays. That’s positive, especially as it makes the Royals’ rotation and pitching staff deeper for the upcoming 2023 season.
But what should Royals fans think overall about the deal? And what could also be on the horizon in Kansas City on a “hot stove” end, even if it’s been quite tame this winter?
Here’s a look at three takeaways from the Yarbrough deal, and what it means for the Royals.
Yarbrough Is Better Than His Surface Level Metrics Suggest
Yarbrough was far from a stud in his final season in Tampa Bay, which is a big reason why “pessimistic” Royals fans are not impressed with the deal.
That said, groin injuries limited him to 80 IP with the Rays in 2022. In 20 appearances and 9 starts, he posted a 4.50 ERA, 4.77 FIP, a 2.77 K/BB ratio, and an fWAR of 0.0. That is pretty underwhelming at the surface level, and it is a big reason why the Rays, with their organizational pitching depth, non-tendered him this offseason.
However, a deeper dive into Yarbrough’s splits from last year, and his performance over the past three years, paints a rosier outlook for 2023. Here’s a look at his month-by-month splits, as well as first and second-half splits, from last year.
Basically, Yarbrough was affected by a rough June, where he only pitched seven innings. In July, he was much better, as he not only posted a 3.52 ERA in 15.1 IP, but he also struck out 14 while walking two. In the second half overall, the 31-year-old lefty posted a 3.54 ERA (1.95 points better than his first-half mark), and also struck out 37 batters while only walking 11, suitable for a 3.36 K/BB ratio. That latter metric is much better than the 2.18 mark he posted in that category in the first half of 2022.
In fact, his overall 2.77 K/BB ratio would have been the third-best mark of Royals pitchers who started 50 or more innings last season (only Brady Singer and Scott Barlow posted better marks in that category).
For a club that finished last in the league in BB/9 as well as K/BB ratio, according to Fangraphs, the addition of a strike-thrower is a huge boost to this Royals pitching staff for next season (as long as he stays healthy, of course).
Yarbrough Adds Depth to the Rotation
Before this move, the Royals were looking at a projected starting rotation of Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jon Heasley, and Brad Keller. Granted, it was expected that new pitching coach Brian Sweeney would be able to help Lynch, Bubic, Heasley, and maybe even Keller to see some improvement in 2023 after inconsistent and lackluster 2022 campaigns.
However, other than Singer, there wasn’t a whole lot of “dependability” from that group a season ago, and of course, it made Royals fans nervous about the upcoming season, even with the pitching coach change.
Thankfully, Yarbrough boosts the credibility of the rotation, even if his role is still undetermined.
Theoretically, Yarbrough should at the very least be a No. 5 starter in the Royals rotation on Opening Day (Roster Resource sees him as a No. 3 starter).
In his last season in Tampa though, he was primarily utilized as a swingman, flip-flopping between the rotation and the bullpen. His lack of premium stuff (he only averaged 86.7 MPH on his sinker last year, according to Baseball Savant) was a big reason for that, especially with more high-upside arms in the rotation like Shane Mclanahan, Tyler Glasnow, and Drew Rasmussen.
On the other hand, while Yarbrough lacked high-velocity swing-and-miss stuff, he still did generate a CSW rate of 26 percent (better than every starter but Singer). Additionally, his exit velocity and hard-hit rate allowed ranked in the upper percentiles too, according to Savant.
Yarbrough’s primary pitch is his cutter, which he threw 28.6 percent of the time a year ago, according to Pitcher List.
His cutter was not just his most-thrown pitch a season ago, but also his most effective as well. The pitch generated a CSW rate of 27.6 percent as well as a PLUS percentage of 62.8 percent, which were both 1.9 and 4.8 percent higher than the league average, respectively.
Here’s an example of Yarbrough commanding his cutter effectively against Aaron Judge, getting him to strike out looking on the cutter in a full count at Yankees Stadium.
Without a doubt, it will be interesting to see if Bubic, Heasley, and Lynch, who are all fighting for rotation spots this Spring, will step up their game in Cactus League play in response to the Yarbrough signing. I do not think the Royals signed Yarbrough to be a bullpen piece, even at a $3 million price tag (though they do have him for one more year of team control after 2023).
However, if he does regress (or if one of those pitchers flourishes under Sweeney and the new pitching coach regime), it wouldn’t be surprising to see him transitioning to such a role by season’s end, whether it’s with the Royals or another club (should he be traded).
The Royals Shouldn’t Be Done
In his presser, Sherman mentioned, “a couple” of pitchers being picked up. Thus, while Yarbrough is a nice and cheap acquisition, the Royals should have plenty of money to add another decent free-agent pitcher. (The Royals estimated payroll is still under $80 million, according to Roster Resource.)
Does this mean a Zack Greinke announcement could be looming soon?
Greinke seems to be the favorite to be that “mystery” second pitcher, and it makes sense, especially when one digs deep into his metrics. Even though his K/9 dropped from 6.32 in 2021 in Houston to 4.80 in 2022, he still produced a better ERA (3.68 in 2022 to 4.16 in 2021) and fWAR (1.9 in 2022 to 1.3 in 2021).
Other than Singer, Greinke was one of the Royals’ most valuable starting pitchers last season, and it sounded like his tutelage was greatly valued by a really young rotation and pitching staff overall.
Maybe Greinke wants that World Series or wants one more shot in the postseason, which unfortunately won’t happen in Kansas City in 2023. Or maybe he’s just done and wants to call it a career at 39 years old.
If that’s the case, expect the Royals to add another starting pitcher for insurance (and at a much cheaper price than Greinke to boot).
It is possible Johnny Cueto could be a dark horse (he is coming off a solid season on the South Side), as well as Danny Duffy (if healthy), or even JP Feyereisen, another Rays pitcher who was recently designated for assignment to make room for Tampa’s latest free-agent signing, Zack Eflin.
(Though to be clear, Feyereisen would be out for a while as he recovers from shoulder surgery.)
Whoever the Royals go after to fill their pitching rotation, this much is clear:
Yarbrough won’t be the only pitching move Picollo and the Royals front office make before the Christmas Break.
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