What the KC Royals just did shouldn’t surprise anyone

(Mandatory Credit: Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports)
(Mandatory Credit: Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports) /

Baseball’s contract tender deadline passed earlier this evening, and with it any notion that the KC Royals would use the occasion to part ways with Ryan O’Hearn.

O’Hearn, who doesn’t appear to have a position to play and hasn’t hit like a big leaguer since 2018, was tendered and is still a Royal. Richard Lovelady, who until this season hadn’t shown many signs of being in the majors the stellar pitcher he’s been in the minors, was not and is not.

Kansas City non-tendered Lovelady, making him a free agent and reducing the 40-man roster to 39, which means the club tendered or signed their other arbitration-eligible players—Andrew Benintendi, Adalberto Mondesi, Nicky Lopez, Brad Keller, Scott Barlow, and Cam Gallagher.

If how the Royals handled O’Hearn and Lovelady surprises you, it shouldn’t.

For whatever reason or reasons, the Royals remain mysteriously committed to O’Hearn, an obviously inferior hitter whose 44-game 2018 rookie season remains the only campaign he consistently demonstrated an ability to hit big league pitching.

That’s the year he slashed .262/.353/.597 and clubbed 14 home runs to excite the Royals and their fans. He followed with 14 homers in 2019, but hit only .195, a disastrous mark he repeated in 2020. He improved to .225 in 2021, but his .268 OBP isn’t everyday worthy, and Kansas City needs more power from him than the nine home runs he produced.

O’Hearn also owns a disturbing 27.2% career strikeout rate.

If it hasn’t already reached inexplicable proportions, the Royals’ insistence on sticking with O’Hearn is certainly approaching that level. His bat is weak, unworthy of a daily spot in the lineup and too unreliable for important pinch-hitting duty. His trade value isn’t high, or even average.

Maybe Kansas City wants him for minor league depth. But if that was the plan, the club could have non-tendered him and signed him to a minor league deal down the road. Maybe they’re working a trade and, despite his low value, some other club is willing to take him as a throw-in.

Or perhaps there’s just something about O’Hearn the Royals like, something that gives them hope he’ll somehow find the magic Nicky Lopez discovered this season when he transformed himself into a legitimate threat at the plate.

Whatever it is, he’s still on the club. Considering the organization’s apparent stubbornness when it comes to all things O’Hearn, that just isn’t surprising.

The KC Royals non-tendering Richard Lovelady Tuesday also isn’t shocking.

Kansas City’s decision to not offer Lovelady a new contract is something everyone should have seen coming. And under all the circumstances, there’s a certain logic to his non-tender.

Before this season, the lefthander had been a bit of a Royal pitching enigma, a reliever who excelled in minor league bullpens but couldn’t find success in the majors. Since being picked by KC in Round 10 of the 2016 amateur draft, he’s pitched consistently well at all levels of the Royals’ farm system—in five minor league seasons, he’s 10-8 with 32 saves and a superb 2.17 ERA.

Far different, however, were his first two chances with Kansas City—he went 0-3, 7.65 in 25 games in 2019, and the Royals sent him to their Alternate Training Site after he surrendered a run in the only inning he pitched at the major league level in 2020.

But Lovelady improved immensely this season. The Royals called him back up in late June and he was 2-0 with a 3.48 ERA in 20 games when a left UCL sprain forced him to the Injured List Aug. 29. He didn’t pitch again and underwent Tommy John Surgery.

That’s why letting Lovelady walk Tuesday is no shock. If he pitches at all in 2022, it won’t be until late in the season—non-tendering him means Kansas City won’t have to pay him while he recovers and works back into pitching form.

Whether finances actually had anything to do with not offering Lovelady a 2022 contract isn’t known publicly, but such an approach makes some sense. And this isn’t the first non-tender for a Kansas City reliver on the mend from TJS—it’s how the club handled Greg Holland following the 2015 season.

In any event, Lovelady is gone…at least for now. Like other clubs, the Royals have been known to re-sign non-tendered players, and after his promising 2021 season they may bring Lovelady back. That will depend, of course, on how he progresses post-surgery.

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The Royals made their tender decisions Tuesday. They really weren’t surprising.