The 2021 trade deadline passed last week without much fanfare for the KC Royals. There were no blockbusters, no major deals, no playoff-securing acquisitions for Kansas City.
For the most part—two out of the three deals they made—the Royals’ deadline transactions were noteworthy only for who they involved, and not any long-term impact they’ll have on the club. General Manager Dayton Moore managed to move free-agents-to-be Danny Duffy and Jorge Soler, the former for a player to be named later, the latter for a minor league pitcher. KC also paid cash to Toronto for reliever Joel Payamps.
The trades were, in the grand scheme of things, lackluster deals made by a team clearly content to stand mostly pat as its prospects move closer to the major leagues, and led by a general manager known for his reluctance to move “core” players under team control beyond the current season.
So it is the best move Moore and the KC Royals made may be one they didn’t.
They kept their best reliever. Scott Barlow is still a Royal.
Barlow surviving the deadline is at least mildly surprising. In three-plus seasons with the Royals, he’s quietly established himself as one of the busiest and best relievers in the game. He led the majors in appearances in last year’s short season with 32, pitched 61 times and struck out 92 batters in 70.1 innings (11.8 SO9) in 2019, and is 3-3 with a 2.65 ERA and six saves in 48 games this season.
Enhancing Barlow’s trade value is how controllable he is. He’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 campaign. And at age 28, the righthander certainly isn’t over the hill.
By baseball standards, all of that made Barlow attractive to trade and trade for. But when the deadline dust settled after a furious Friday of activity, Barlow remained in Kansas City.
Why keeping reliever Scott Barlow was an excellent move for the KC Royals.
Assuming other clubs asked Moore about Barlow—a reasonable assumption given contenders’ customary interest in picking up backend, stretch-run relievers at the trade deadline—Moore and the Royals were right not to move him. He’s the most valuable component of a troubled bullpen sure to experience turnover before next season starts.
Chances aren’t great, for example, that Greg Holland and Wade Davis will return. Holland leads the club in saves with seven (one more than Barlow), but he’s also lost four games, blown four saves, owns an elevated 4.75 ERA, will turn 36 in November, and isn’t pitching as effectively as he did last season. And despite not allowing a run in five appearances since returning from a forearm strain, Davis will be 36 next month and has pitched poorly most of the season.
Richard Lovelady’s job also isn’t secure. Despite a good minor league record, Lovelady continues to struggle whenever Kansas City recalls him. He posted a 7.65 ERA two seasons ago, pitched only once for KC last season and, although he’s won two games this year, he’s surrendered six runs and walked five in 11 innings, and allowed three inherited runners to score in Tuesday’s 7-1 loss to the White Sox.
Kyle Zimmer and newcomer Jake Brentz, largely effective most of the season, have both fallen on hard times lately and are struggling, and Zimmer landed on the Injured List today with neck and trap issues. Josh Staumont isn’t pitching as often in high-leverage spots.
And there are no present sure-fire replacements for Barlow in the minors. Triple-A Omaha, the most likely source for a Barlow replacement, has Gabe Speier (2-0, 2.78, five saves in 30 games) and Grant Gavin (3-2, 4.21 in 28 games), but Speier had a rough July (3.60, .311 OBA) and Gavin has four blown saves in five opportunities.
Barlow, though, remains a good constant in the KC Royals’ pen. His 51 innings pitched, 67 strikeouts, 2.65 ERA, and 1.20 WHIP lead the club’s regular relievers. Barlow’s 31.5% strikeout rate is the best of his career; his 9.9% walk rate is second only to the 4.6% he posted in 2018, but he threw only 15 innings that year.
Naturally, however, some won’t like the fact Kansas City didn’t deal Barlow—they’ll argue his present trade value will never be higher, and that’s when good players should be moved for prospects.
But that’s an argument too often made, a position of near bromide proportion. Not every player within two or three seasons of peak value must be traded. Such is the case with Barlow: he’s the cream of the Kansas City bullpen right now, its steadiest and most reliable piece. If the Royals are to contend next season, Barlow will be an important piece.
Scott Barlow is still with the Royals. And that’s a good thing.