Being the resident history nerd here at Kings of Kauffman, I can't help but view the KC Royals' recent flurry of signings through the lens of the past. The last several days have been some of the most active in recent franchise memory, and arguably the two biggest recent moves were the acquisitions of free agent pitchers Seth Lugo Tuesday and Michael Wacha Friday. These starters immediately improve the rotation and, if enough other pieces fall into place, Royals fans may dare to envision a path to contention.
To understand that, fans need only to look back at the club's most recent run at success and one of its savviest additions.
Jeremy Guthrie's KC tenure can provide a blueprint for the new starters
Although the comparison isn't perfect, Lugo and Wacha were free agents, and Guthrie came to Kansas City in a trade, but all three moves signaled a more active approach by the front office coupled with a fresh determination to win. And while more attention is generally given to splashier moves the Royals made on their road to back-to-back World Series in 2014-2015, like the Zack Greinke trade with Milwaukee and the deal to acquire James Shields and Wade Davis from Tampa Bay, none may have been more consequential than acquiring and keeping Guthrie.
The Royals, remember, traded pitcher Jonathan Sánchez, who started well for them in 2012 before sinking into an ugly slump, to Colorado to get Guthrie, who
was a solid pitcher for Baltimore for several years. But his half-season with the Rockies in 2012 was nearly as bad as Sánchez's was in Kansas City — he was 3-9 with a 6.35 ERA in 15 games with the Rockies.
But Guthrie turned out to be the perfect addition to an up-and-coming Royals team. Nothing about him was flashy, but his steady, workmanlike demeanor and leadership skills quickly proved to be major assets for a young team reliant on consistency and fundamentals rather than star power. He was the club's best pitcher in the latter half of 2012, winning over fans and the organization itself with a 5-3 record and 3.16 ERA in 14 starts.
That set the stage for the Royals to make a huge leap forward in 2013. They added Shields to be their ace and Ervin Santana as a formidable No. 2 starter, and Guthrie locked down the No. 3 spot with a 15-12 record, 4.04 ERA, and 1.394 WHIP in over 33 starts. The rest of the rotation was still a work in progress, but Guthrie solidified the rotation and helped pave the way to Kansas City's first winning season in a decade.
The big breakthrough came in 2014. Shields remained the ace, Jason Vargas (another good comp for Lugo and Wacha) took over Santana's role after Santana left for free agency, and Guthrie provided the anchor for a rotation filled out by young talents Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy. Guthrie posted a 13-11 record with a 4.13 ERA in 32 games as the Royals clinched their first postseason appearance since 1985.
Guthrie made one start in the ALCS, pacing the Royals to a victory in Game 3 on their way to a sweep of Baltimore. He started two games in the World Series, winning Game 3 against San Francisco, and was manager Ned Yost's choice to start Game 7. He was far from dominant, giving up three runs in 3.1 innings, but pitched well enough to give the Royals a shot to win. Unfortunately, their own hitters ran into an otherworldly Madison Bumgarner and the Royals had to wait another year for their second World Series title.
Guthrie fell off considerably in 2015 and didn't make the postseason roster, but he was still a visible leader in the dugout as the Royals made their championship run.
Can Lugo or Wacha have a similar impact for the 2024 Royals? Only time will tell, but they have remarkably similar profiles. Lugo was 8-7 this year with a 3.57 ERA and 1.203 WHIP in 26 starts, and Wacha was 14-4 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.161 WHIP in 24 starts. Neither will be asked to fill the role of ace, but they added instant credibility to the rotation the moment they agreed to join it. If either, or even better both, can channel an inner Jeremy Guthrie next season, the Royals could be on the verge of something special, especially in a weak American League Central.