Rival Preview: A slew of off-season spending has Kansas City in position to compete once again

Photo credit:Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Stack
1 month ago
We’re getting close to the 10-year mark since the Kansas City Royals made their first of back-to-back trips to the World Series. Since then, some standout seasons from Whit Merrifield and Salvador Perez did whatever they could to illuminate the darkness of the franchise finishing towards the bottom of the American League – whether it be the Central Division or the league as a whole.
While the season went south record-wise, 2023 and its subsequent offseason featured the team taking it upon themselves to turn the page and lay the foundation of what could be something special.

2023 Recap

The Royals finished 2023 with a record of 56-106. It was a mark that situated them in last place in the AL Central, and it became the sixth straight season that Kansas City had finished in 4th or 5th place in their division. They didn’t have a winning month until September/October, in which they went 15-12, but that stretch of games had enough momentum to carry some excitement into the next season. They were also big winners at the trade deadline, acquiring more pieces for their future.
With a record like the one they had, there weren’t a lot of things that they did particularly well; they finished in the bottom half of the MLB in home runs, RBIs, batting average, OPS, and team ERA. However, they did lead the American League in stolen bases, with a chunk of those coming from a popular name I’m about to mention.
Offence: When you think of the new-look Royals, SS Bobby Witt Jr. should be the name that comes to mind. In just his second season in the majors, Witt continued to climb the ladder of top shortstops in the game. He played 158 games and slashed .276/.319/.495 with an .813 OPS, 30 home runs, 96 RBIs, and 28 doubles. He also posted an MLB-best 11 triples and stole a fourth-best 49 bases.
The slash line for the entire season doesn’t jump off the page, but Witt offset a slow start to the season with an elite finish. He amounted an OPS of .979 and 1.015 in July and August, respectively, contributing to a second-half slash line of .301/.343/.563. His performance placed him 7th for American League MVP, and it probably goes without saying that he led the Royals in several offensive categories.
Another player just finishing his second year that figures to be a part of Kansas City’s future (although his 2022 season was only nine games long) was 3B Maikel Garcia. Garcia posted a .272/.323/.358 slash line with 4 homers, 50 RBIs, 20 doubles, and 23 stolen bases, with his OBP being the best on the team. He does have some glaring issues with striking out and putting the ball on the ground far more than in the air, but he also comes with his talents such as his defensive flexibility and standout glove (10th in Outs Above Average amongst all MLB infielders).
Unfortunately, 2023 was cut shorter than expected for another sophomore in 1B/DH Vinnie Pasquantino. Pasquantino suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder in early June and would subsequently miss the remainder of the season. While the slash line numbers were down, Pasquantino was well on his way to exceeding his ’22 figures in doubles, home runs, and RBIs prior to the injury.
Kansas City had the opportunity to evaluate several other young players last season; C Freddy Fermin (9 HR, .781 OPS), OF Dairon Blanco (14 XBH, .775 OPS), and #2 prospect INF Nick Loftin (.323/.435/.435 slash line) all showed flashes of talent in various sample sizes as they auditioned to be a part of the Royals’ future.
The last up-and-comer that I want to mention is OF Nelson Velazquez, a piece that Kansas City acquired from the Cubs last season at the trade deadline. Velazquez showed an impressive amount of power last season, slashing .235/.302/.586 with an .886 OPS, 17 home runs and 34 RBIs in 53 games between Chicago and Kansas City. The near-30% strikeout rate is a concern for sure, but at only 25 years old, Velazquez should 100% be an integral part of this team’s future going forward.
In the mix with a bunch of young players was veteran C Salvador Perez, who has now hit 20+ home runs in seven consecutive full seasons. His 80 RBIs placed second on the Royals, and he also earned his 8th All-Star nod last season.
Pitching: Last year’s pitching staff did not paint a pretty picture for the majority of the season, and that’s why they decided to spend in that department during the offseason.
Brady Singer was unable to build off of a good 2022 campaign, posting an 8-11 record, 5.52 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and a career-low 7.5 K/9 through 29 starts last year. An inflated ERA is something that Singer dealt with from the jump; he had two outings in April in which he gave up eight earned runs in a start, and two more in which he allowed five.
Veterans Jordan Lyles and Zack Greinke both did their part in being available, making a combined 58 starts and 61 total outings. However, that didn’t directly correlate to success, as the two also combined for a 8-32 record, posting a 6.28 and 5.06 ERA, respectively. Brad Keller made only 9 starts last season after dealing with multiple shoulder issues and wound up undergoing thoracic outlet syndrome surgery over the offseason, and Daniel Lynch also made only 9 starts after suffering rotator cuff and shoulder injuries himself.
Injuries and poor performance were just how the cookie crumbled for Kansas City’s rotation last year, but acquiring Cole Ragans at the trade deadline became a sight for sore eyes. Ragans was traded by the Rangers in exchange for Aroldis Chapman, and it didn’t seem like too big of a haul at first given Ragans’ numbers out of the bullpen last season. In 17 outings with Texas, the 6’4” lefty posted a 5.92 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and a 5.2 BB/9, but he was moved to the rotation once he landed in Kansas City, and his stats made a complete 180.
Ragans made 12 starts as a Royal, owning a 5-2 record, 2.64 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and a career-best 11.2 K/9. The Royals presumably signed Chapman last offseason in order to get some value for him at the trade deadline, and they turned that into a massive “W”.
Kansas City’s bullpen possessed a lot of high-strikeout savants between Scott Barlow (10.9 K/9), Chapman (16.3), Jose Cuas (11.2), and Carlos Hernandez (9.9), but they struggled keeping runs off the board, owning a 5.23 bullpen ERA (2nd worst in all of baseball).

Off-season Moves

This section should really be an article on its own.
We’ll start with the biggest and most encouraging offseason move, which was Kansas City signing their star SS Bobby Witt Jr. to an 11-year, $288.8 million deal. This was a lot more than a team simply extending one of their young talents; only two years into his career and only 23 years old, the Royals are investing a lot of their future into his hands and building the team around him. They are also working to construct a new stadium at some point, and putting a contending team on the field will only accelerate that process.
Witt’s buy-in to the team could also be a result of Kansas City’s work that they put in this offseason. Whether it was by trade or free agent signing, the Royals remained active throughout the entire winter. They acquired veterans OF Hunter Renfroe and 2B Adam Frazier to one-year deals, and both should be in the lineup on Opening Day.
Excluding 2020, Renfroe has been walking 20+ home run hitter in each of the past six full seasons. Last season, a very poor August and September brought a lot of his numbers down, however, as he was a .233/.297/.416 hitter across 140 games with the Angels and the Reds. His underlying metrics, such as Hard-Hit percentage, Barrel percentage, and Expected Slugging Percentage, also took a dip, but that doesn’t mean he’s washed as a player yet. Renfroe is still a veteran bat with a talented arm in the outfield that makes this team better. His home run history cannot be ignored, and neither can his knack for all extra-base hits on top of that.
Frazier will be entering his ninth major league season, and he’s coming off a so-so year with the Baltimore Orioles. He slashed .240/.300/.396 with 21 doubles, 13 homers, and 60 RBIs, with the latter two of those stats being career-bests. After signing with the Royals, Frazier said that he’ll be expected to move around the diamond just like he has been in the past. Despite posting his highest strikeout rate since 2020 last year, Frazier has proven his ability to put the ball in play more often than not, and his addition provides a left-handed bat to Kansas City’s growing depth.
The Royals also directed their attention to their starting rotation, adding Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo through free agency. Wacha has put together back-to-back high-yielding seasons, most recently posting a 14-4 record, 3.22 ERA, and 1.16 WHIP last season with the Padres. Like Frazier and Renfroe, Wacha is signed to a one-year deal with a player/mutual option, but even the $16 million he’s getting this year is really nice value if he can replicate the output he’s shown in the last two years. His changeup generated a 35.9% whiff rate last season, and his fly ball rate, despite taking a jump from ’22 to ’23, should die down some while pitching in Kauffman Stadium.
After several years out of the bullpen with the New York Mets, Lugo spent 2023 as a starter for the Padres, posting an 8-7 record across 26 starts with a 3.47 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. He set career-highs in starts and innings pitched, and his “per 9” stats all stayed extremely consistent with his numbers as a reliever, which is a good sign considering he was always a solid arm out of the ‘pen. He was given a two-year, $30 million deal, with a player option for 2026.
Kansas City added a pair of veterans to their bullpen in Will Smith and Chris Stratton. Smith is entering his 12th MLB season and will be pitching for the team with which he opened his career. Smith endured an up-and-down stint with the Rangers last season. Although he had some stellar months in April and June, brutal outings in August and September ended his season ERA at 4.40 through 60 outings. Despite this, Smith still had tremendous effectiveness with his slider, generating an opponent’s batting average of .120 and a 39.6% whiff rate. Furthermore, Smith has been a reliever for the last three World Series champions, so if you’re into that kind of thing, go ahead and pencil the Royals in as 2024 champs.
Stratton was also a part of Texas’ World Series run last season. He was dealt to the Rangers from the Cardinals at the trade deadline, and he pitched to a 3.92 ERA across 64 total outings.
The Royals weren’t active solely in free agency, but they also bolstered their major and minor league rosters with depth by way of trade. They acquired John Schreiber from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for pitching prospect David Sandlin, a highly-touted arm with a high-90s fastball. Schreiber likely earns a high-leverage spot in Kansas City’s ‘pen from the jump as he is coming off of two career-altering seasons with the Boston Red Sox. After holding an ERA north of 6 in two seasons in Detroit and pitching in only one game in 2021, Schreiber posted a 2.22 ERA in 64 appearances in 2022. A right trees major strain limited him to only 46 games last season, but he still posted a respectable 3.86 ERA with a 10.2 K/9.
The Royals became compatible with the Braves on a pair of trades in November, acquiring RP Nick Anderson in exchange for cash, and also acquiring SP Kyle Wright in exchange for RP Jackson Kowar.
Anderson has proved very effective albeit in a very young, injury-riddled career. He boasts a 2.93 career ERA across four years and three different teams, including a 0.55 ERA in 2020 with the Rays in 19 games. Most recently, he posted a 3.06 ERA with the Braves a year ago. However, he did endure a stint on the 60-day IL with a shoulder strain. Staying healthy is the wild card for Anderson, but he absolutely makes Kansas City’s bullpen better when he is in it.
Speaking of staying healthy, it’s a status that the Royals are hoping Wright can get to in 2025 as he will miss the entirety of this season after having shoulder surgery last October. Wright had pitched with the Atlanta Braves for six seasons, but only one of those contained a starts count higher than 10. That season (2022) has some appeal to it, though, as Wright posted a 21-5 record, 3.19 ERA, and placed 10th in NL Cy Young voting. Obviously, there is no promise that Wright will return to his ’22 form, but this will become an extremely under-the-radar success if he can provide valuable contributions to Kansas City’s rotation between his return and his free agency, which starts in 2027.
The Royals also traded away RPs Dylan Coleman, Taylor Clarke, and Jonathan Heasley and OF Edward Olivares in exchange for three pitching prospects and two infield prospects. None of those prospects cracked MLB.com’s Top 30 for Kansas City, but a little depth never hurt anybody.
Lastly, the Royals inked several veterans to minor league deals – UTIL Garrett Hampson, RP Luis Cessa, 3B Mike Brosseau, RP Tyler Duffey, C Sandy Leon – with a majority of those names having good probability of seeing major league time at some point this season.

My take on Kansas City’s 2024 outlook

The Royals are one of the trendy picks to win the AL Central this season. Even if they don’t, this is an extremely encouraging sign to see the team extending the face of the franchise long-term and building around him. It will be good to get Pasquantino back in the lineup, especially now that there’s a really nice stretch of power in there with Perez and Velazquez. Not only is their lineup balanced in terms of capability, but they also have a good mix of lefties and righties.
I really liked the additions they made to their pitching rotation and bullpen, and I think Singer is a noteworthy bounce-back candidate who can take this rotation from good to really good. The same goes for Nick Anderson out of the bullpen; it’s hard to ignore how effective he has been in his young career when healthy.
Of course, this is all speculation and “what ifs”, and the Royals will have some proving to do. But this reminds me a lot of the 2020 Blue Jays; surround the kids with some vets and watch them grow. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Royals have “expectations” yet, but losing 106 games needs to be a thing of the past if they want to be taken seriously. Again, they’re the fun pick, but it’s a very winnable division for them, and they have a superstar in the making at shortstop who can help get them there.


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