Royals: Can old friend minor league free agents help KC?

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 03: Terrance Gore #0 of the Kansas City Royals in action during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium on September 3, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 03: Terrance Gore #0 of the Kansas City Royals in action during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium on September 3, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /
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Kansas City Royals (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Kansas City Royals (Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

The field of minor league free agent pitchers includes several former Kansas City Royals, but few are worthy of serious consideration.

Greg Holland has pitched for five major league teams but had his best days with the Kansas City Royals. Holland pitched six seasons in KC and was the second “H” in the feared lockdown “HDH” bullpen machine that helped carry the Royals to the World Series in 2014 and 2015. Together with Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis, Holland formed an unstoppable back-of-the-pen combination that made late-inning KC leads insurmountable.

Holland saved 145 games for the Royals (78 over the Royals’ magical 2014 and ’15 campaigns) and a high of 47 in 2013, but injuries have plagued him since late 2015. Only in 2017 with Colorado did he consistently display the form that made him one of the game’s top closers from 2012-2017.

He saved 17 games for Arizona in 2019 before a midseason slump led to his release; he signed with Washington in August and made eight encouraging minor league appearances, holding opponents scoreless over nine innings with nine strikeouts and three walks. If the Royals consider Holland, that late-season minor league stint, and his pre-slump, pre-release performance with Arizona offers some hope that he has something left. But inconsistency and injuries warrant caution.

Finding room for Holland may be difficult, also. Ian Kennedy is the closer and probably won’t be moved until the midseason trade deadline, and the Royals’ bullpen is crowded with other pitchers looking for jobs. Holland’s price might be too high and the new ownership might be reluctant to take a chance on the aging veteran. Only if the Royals plan on moving Kennedy this winter or early in the season should they seriously consider taking a chance on Holland, and then only on a budget-friendly short-term deal.

Tim Collins is another familiar former Royal. He averaged 57 appearances per season as an established part of the Royals’ bullpen from 2011-2014. But Collins underwent Tommy John surgeries in 2015 and 2016 and has pitched only sparingly since. He appeared in 18 games spread across three levels of the Nationals’ system in 2017; although he struck out 23 in 17.1 innings (11.9 SO9), he had a 7.3 BB9 and a 7.79 ERA.

Collins made it back to the majors in 2018, appearing in 38 games and pitching 22.2 innings for the Nats. It was an unremarkable season–he had a 4.37 ERA, a 5.76 FIP, and 12 walks and 22 strikeouts. Collins split most of 2019 between Cubs and Reds minor league teams and appeared in nine games for the Cubs without distinguishing himself.

Unfortunately, Collins hasn’t pitched much in the big leagues since surgeries deprived him of two full seasons and his minor league performances don’t warrant more time in Kansas City. The Royals shouldn’t look long at Collins.

Ervin Santana was considered a major addition when the Royals acquired him from the Angels shortly after the 2012 season. He was a serviceable addition to a gradually maturing KC team that contended for the first time in years, starting 30 games and going 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA. Although the Royals fell short of a playoff berth that season, they became contenders with Santana’s help and he was capable of playing a key role in the future.

But Santana, owner of over 100 wins and starter of at least 30 games in six of his nine big league seasons, opted for free agency and signed with the Braves. He enjoyed a 14-10 season in Atlanta, then signed with Minnesota and posted a 30-25 record in four seasons before surgery and injuries limited Santana to five games in 2018 and the Twins declined his option. He signed with the White Sox for 2019 but pitched only three times before the Sox DFA’d him; he landed a minor league deal with the Mets and went 5-5 with an unflattering 5.31 ERA in 18 combined starts with the Mets’ High A and AAA clubs.

Santana was a highly regarded starter for the Angels from 2005-2012 but has been inconsistent since leaving Los Angeles for the Royals; after leaving KC and then Atlanta, he’s averaged only six wins per season.

The Royals’ rotation is shaky and Santana–if healthy–could be relied on for 30 starts, but he turns 37 in December and injuries have taken their toll. Age, recent injuries, and declining performance don’t make Santana a promising choice for a 2020 contract.

Zachary Lovvorn is a former 6th-round Royals’ draft pick. Chosen out of high school, Lovvorn is an eight-year veteran of the organization who first made it to AAA Omaha in 2018 and spent time there again in 2019. Utilized more as a starter than a reliever, Lovvorn has only two winning records to his credit–4-3 at Northwest Arkansas in 2018 and 1-0 there in 2019, but he split both seasons with Omaha and finished with combined losing records of 6-9 and 5-11, respectively.

His career minor league numbers are more uninspiring: a record of 31-67, 5.11 ERA, 5.74 RA9, and 1.508 WHIP. And his 4-11 record, 8.84 ERA, 9.44 RA9, and 2.14 WHIP at Omaha last season are frightening.

Lovvorn’s eight-year record with the Royals doesn’t warrant another season in the organization.

Miguel Almonte signed by the Royals as a 17-year old amateur free agent in 2010, toiled in the minors for five years before breaking through to Kauffman Stadium in 2015. He pitched in nine games that season and returned to the Royals in 2017 for 2 games. In 10.2 total innings for KC, Almonte struck out 10 but walked nine–high numbers of walks mar his career.

Traded to the Angels after the 2017 season, Almonte posted a disturbing 9.70 ERA in 26 minor league games in 2018, and an even more alarming 10.29 ERA in eight games with the Angels. He didn’t pitch in organized ball last season.

Although Almonte has averaged almost a strikeout an inning in his 19 big league frames, his ERA of 8.66, 7.28 FIP, 1.868 WHIP, and 6.1 BB9 don’t bode well for the future. The Royals shouldn’t consider him.

Bryan Brickhouse showed some promise in four seasons in the low minors after the Royals made him a third-round draft choice in 2011. But Tommy John surgery interrupted his career and a rocky recovery led him to leave baseball for two years.

The Royals’ organization welcomed Brickhouse back and gave him another chance in 2018. He pitched well at High A Wilmington, posting a 1.99 ERA in 27 games, but poorly at AA Northwest Arkansas (11.81 ERA, 15.19 RA9). Then, after good stops at High A and AA in 2019, his control suffered at AAA Omaha–he walked 19 batters in 17.1 innings, with a 1.904 WHIP and 10.38 ERA.

His recent statistics weigh against a new Royals contract, but Brickhouse’s comeback reflects determination and perseverance that complement underlying talent. The Royals should give Brickhouse another year in the organization.

Brandon Maurer was infamously bad for the Royals in 2017 and 2018 after the club landed him in one of the worst trades in its history. The Royals must learn from that mistake–under no circumstance should Kansas City pursue Maurer.

These are a few, but not all, of the former Royals’ pitchers available on the minor league free-agent market. Brickhouse deserves at least one more shot and Holland should be considered for a short-term contract if the Royals decide to move on from Ian Kennedy soon. No others in this group merit serious looks.

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