KC Royals: Midterm grades for Kansas City’s offseason

KC Royals, Maikel Franco (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
KC Royals, Maikel Franco (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

The KC Royals have acquired several new players since the 2019 season ended. Now, at the midpoint of baseball’s offseason, what kind of grades should the club’s moves get?

The KC Royals, a conspicuously bad team for two straight seasons, entered baseball’s winter hiatus pondering the unfortunate state of its starting rotation and bullpen, the uncertainty surrounding first base and the outfield, and the possible retirement of Alex Gordon. How to address these concerns was the club’s overarching winter question.

Halfway through the offseason, with Spring Training just weeks away, the answer is clear–the Royals have made one significant addition and, in a characteristically conservative fashion, added some inexpensive, low-risk pitchers.

Gauging the success or failure of these moves is a tricky business better postponed to a time, perhaps well into Spring Training, when these new Royals have been field-tested and their actual performance evaluated as it occurs. What is more susceptible to immediate analysis, however, is how General Manager Dayton Moore’s acquisitions stack up against the needs of a team in distress.

Let’s see how Moore’s moves to this point grade out.

Maikel Franco, third baseman.  Few of Dayton Moore’s past offseason moves have been surprising–typically, he operates on the cheap, searching for inexpensive players without many other suitors. Reclamation pitching projects are favorites of Moore, but the KC Royals’ GM occasionally finds bargain-basement position players to fill minor and temporary roles.

Moore’s pursuit and acquisition of Maikel Franco, however, is surprising not only because it deviated from Moore’s norm, but also for its immediate impact on the lineup. The Royals got Franco for one reason–to be their everyday third sacker, not a bench, bit or utility player–and he quickly displaced an incumbent Royal who seemed to have third base all to himself after a breakout 2019. Hunter Dozier will vacate third and move to right field. Whit Merrifield goes to center.

It’s tempting to seriously question this move–Franco’s poor hitting caused the Phillies to send their longtime third baseman to the minors last August and he finished the season with a disappointing .234/.297/.409 slash (and hit .175 in his short stint in the minors). And, save for the .270 he hit in 2018, his batting averages–.255 in 2016 and .230 in ’17–hadn’t approached the .280 he hit in 2015, his first season of significant action.

But this move makes sense, addressing as it does the Royals’ misgivings about Dozier’s defense at the same time it keeps his potent bat in the lineup. Franco has power–102 home runs in six seasons, with three campaigns of 20+ round-trippers. And it gives the club certainty in center field, where Merrifield will spend most of his time, without sacrificing any offense.

Grade: B+. Moore closed this potentially excellent deal for the relatively modest sum of around $3 million and acquired a decent player who isn’t eligible for free agency until 2022. It improves the club’s hot corner defense with a promising bat; if Franco hits like he can, he could boost this move’s grade to an A.

Trevor Rosenthal, pitcher.  The signing of former St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal is the kind of acquisition Moore seems to relish: a low cost, low-risk baseball salvage operation that, if successful, could pay dividends wildly disproportionate to investment.

Rosenthal is indeed a project. Under new Royals’ manager Mike Matheny in St. Louis, he saved 45 games with a 2.99 FIP and 11.1 SO9 in 2014, then set the Cardinals’ single-season saves record with 48 in 2015–and had a 2.10 ERA and 10.9 SO9. But he hasn’t been good since–he saved just 25 games in the next two seasons, suffered a UCL injury in 2017 and missed all of 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery. A combined 13.50 ERA, 2.413 WHIP, 36 ERA+ and 15.3 BB9 with Washington and Detroit made his 2019 comeback a failure.

There are signs, however, that Rosenthal’s $2 million minor league contract (with $2.5 million in incentives if earned) and non-roster invitation to Spring Training could prove to be one of Moore’s biggest bargains. His fastball hums in the high ’90’s, just as it did during his best seasons; despite his terrible 2019 record, his 12.0 SO9 matched his career average. (He peaked at 14.3 in 2017). A reunion with his former skipper can’t hurt–Rosenthal’s best years were with Matheny in St. Louis, and pitching coach Cal Eldred is familiar with Rosenthal from his own Cardinal organization days.

Grade:  B. If it pans out, this acquisition might make Moore look like a genius. Rosenthal, if effective, could replace Ian Kennedy, the Royals’ sure-to-be-traded-by-July closer. This will be Rosenthal’s age 30 season, meaning he could be a candidate to help the club beyond 2020. His fastball is still a force and he can still strike out hitters. All he needs is to regain his control, a now inconsistent component of his game.

Chance Adams, pitcher.  Like Rosenthal, Chance Adams was once an excellent pitcher who hasn’t been the same since elbow surgery; unlike Rosenthal, he’s never been successful at the major league level. A fifth-round Yankees’ draft pick in 2015 once considered one of the club’s five top prospects, Adams appeared destined for stardom after going 31-7 in the Yankee system with WHIPs of .0934, .0903 and 1.078 from 2015-17.

He had elbow surgery after the 2017 campaign and has struggled since. Especially troubling were his two stints with the Yankees–in 16 games over 2018 and ’19, all but one of which was in relief, he was 1-2 with an 8.18 ERA, 1.879 WHIP and 12.8 H9, and surrendered 10 home runs. New York dropped him from its 40-man roster to make room for Gerrit Cole, then traded him to KC for Cristian Perez.

Grade: C+/B-. Although some might give this trade a higher grade because the KC Royals didn’t sacrifice much for Adams and won’t lose much if he fails, its potential must be considered. Adams was a dominant minor league pitcher until elbow surgery intervened; whether it caused his dramatic decrease in efficiency is uncertain, but it’s not likely a coincidence. Adams’ performance against big league hitters offers little hope for success. But the subject of Moore’s latest reclamation experiment has more raw talent than many others. For that, and its low risk, the deal warrants a grade bit above average.

Braden Shipley, pitcher. The KC Royals reportedly spent only $600,000 to add Braden Shipley to the growing list of Moore’s pitching projects. His professional performance has never equaled his status as Arizona’s first-round draft pick in 2013–he owns a nondescript 41-42 record across seven minor league seasons, has never posted an ERA lower than 3.50 (it peaked at 5.95 in 2019 after growing progressively worse after 2016), and walks too many batters.

His big-league numbers are similarly unimpressive. In 26 games with the D-backs over three campaigns, Shipley had a 5.49 ERA, 5.78 FIP, 1.600 WHIP, 4.1 BB9 and 5.8 SO9. Simply put, he hasn’t lived up to expectations.

Grade: C (at best). Shipley may be less expensive, but his acquisition is harder to understand than the Rosenthal and Adams deals: they’ve performed and Shipley has yet to firmly establish himself at any level. This contract may be one the Royals ultimately regret.

Stephen Woods, pitcher. A break from the Royals’ penchant for trying to salvage pitchers was their selection of Stephen Woods in December’s Rule 5 draft. Typical of such picks, Woods was largely undetected but holds some promise. Woods, who will turn 25 in June, is 16-12 in three minor league seasons; most notable was his 2019 campaign with Tampa Bay’s High A Charlotte affiliate, where he started 12 of 18 games and was 9-3 with a 1.88 ERA and 2.61 RA9. His career 2.61 ERA suggests he can pitch and the Royals have been interested in him before.

Rule 5 selections carry some risk–the Royals had to pay Tampa $50,000 for Woods, must keep him on the major league roster for the entire 2020 season, and must offer him back to the Rays for $25,000 if they can’t keep him in the majors for the required time. (If the Rays don’t want him, KC can waive him). The impending expansion of big-league rosters to 26 players may afford the club the luxury of keeping Woods, but only if his Spring Training performance warrants it.

Grade: B+. This isn’t a bad deal for a club looking for pitching help wherever it can be found. Woods is inexperienced and hasn’t pitched above A-ball, but he’s been on the KC Royals’ radar before and has potential. The risk is low and the price is right.

Other needsPitching has been the KC Royals’ primary offseason focus. Their acquisitions are characteristically Royal–inexpensive, low-risk hurlers working to recapture past success, or other clubs’ unwanted and unproven commodities.

Established big-league starters are still available but KC hasn’t penetrated that market, probably planning instead to turn around 2019 rotation disappointments or await the arrivals of Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, and the club’s other promising hurlers. The apparent willingness to stand pat seems reasonable–the Royals won’t contend this season and young, quality starters willing to sign long-term deals–the type of contracts most suitable for the club’s future needs–don’t come cheap. Their cost is simply too high for these Royals.

Also unaddressed this offseason is first base, a position rendered uncertain by Ryan O’Hearn‘s deeply disappointing 2019. It is simply too soon to give up on O’Hearn; he and Ryan McBroom will contest the spot in Spring Training. The need to give O’Hearn another long look makes the pursuit of another first baseman unwise.

Finally, the outfield picture, one given some clarity by Franco’s acquisition with its attendant moves of Dozier to right field and Merrifield to center, remains a bit muddled by the uncertainty surrounding Alex Gordon. If Gordon returns, a Gordon-Merrifield-Dozer outfield is set; if he retires, the club appears committed to giving Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips one more chance to separate themselves from each other and win an outfield job. If they fail, Nick Heath may be ready to fill the gap. Acquiring a big-name outfielder now is a luxury the club needn’t pursue.

Grade: A.  Assigning a grade for what hasn’t been done is unusual and difficult; grades typically measure achievement and accomplishment, not omission. In the present case of the KC Royals, however, resisting the temptation to add expensive stars is commendable. This is a team rebuilding and remaking itself, one that won’t contend for at least another season. Spending on free agents and trades makes little sense; saving for future contract extensions and players who can transform contenders into champions is wise. KC deserves credit for staying the course.

Next. Kansas City's biggest mistakes of 2019. dark

So far, none of the KC Royals’ offseason moves have been breathtaking. But context gives them meaning–with the exception of Franco’s signing, they are primarily deals designed as bets on the come; low-risk and cheap, most will succeed if they provide serviceable placeholders while the club seasons its future stars. Credit Dayton Moore with getting Franco and for giving Matheny some pitchers who may have some good days left.