Adding pitching a top offseason priority for Royals

December 5th, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- On Day 1 of the Winter Meetings, more behind-the-scenes work was happening than front-facing news and transaction rumors at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.

“Phone calls with clubs, gathering information, met with some agents, normal stuff for Day 1,” Royals general manager J.J. Picollo said. “Overall, it’s been kind of slow.”

The slow pace could change in an instant, because the Royals’ priorities fall in line with the high demand this winter: pitching, pitching and more pitching. With a few starters signing, such as Wade Miley with the Brewers on Monday and Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn with the Cardinals before Thanksgiving, the bottleneck has begun to break.

“The free-agent market is still very competitive,” Picollo said. “There are so many guys out there, and it’s starting to be established what the market is going to be, so it’s given us a good idea.”

The Royals have two options when it comes to acquiring pitching: through free agency or the trade market. The former remains the most likely right now, even though the Royals will not be increasing payroll significantly in 2024. They still have the flexibility to bring in a starter, and their preference -- at least right now -- would be to not lose the depth they’d have to give away in a trade.

“There’s some context that that could happen, but it hasn’t evolved that way just yet,” Picollo said without naming any trade candidates. “We have the ideas. I also think sometimes it just takes a little bit of time. The free agents we might be looking at, other teams are looking at, and when you don’t get them, that’s when things like that become your next best idea. The advantage of the free-agent market is that you’re not giving up players to get someone. 

“From where we are, we still have a lot of players with years of control and options, and you want that depth, so if we can go through free agency, that’s better. But when it’s all said and done, if we have to give up something to get something that makes our team better, we’re going to do it.”

So far this offseason, the Royals signed utility man Garrett Hampson to a one-year, $2 million deal and acquired pitchers Nick Anderson and Kyle Wright in two separate trades with the Braves. Wright, a starter, won’t pitch until 2025 due to a shoulder surgery. Anderson adds an experienced reliever to the Royals’ bullpen.

Now, Picollo and his front office still want to bring in two starters who can pitch in 2024 and one or two more relievers. The free-agent reliever market, sources say, is extremely high right now because of the few signings that have already happened. The Royals are unlikely to be in the mix for top-end relievers, but they’re interested in bringing in pitchers who have experience in the back-end of games to help out Anderson, James McArthur, Carlos Hernández and Taylor Clarke.

“We’re actively trying to find guys that are quality relievers,” manager Matt Quatraro said Monday. “I wouldn’t say we have [a closer] right now. Putting players in the best position to succeed means putting them in spots where the matchups are good. If there’s somebody that emerges that we think that’s the best role for him and us, we would be open to it, but otherwise more by committee.”

Lower down on the list of to-dos for the Royals is finding a veteran outfielder who can slot into the middle of the lineup alongside Salvador Perez and Vinnie Pasquantino, as well as protection for Bobby Witt Jr. The outfielder market isn’t necessarily a strength of this free-agent class, but there are still intriguing possibilities who wouldn’t cost a ton, such as former D-backs outfielders Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Tommy Pham.

The Royals are also interested in Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill, according to sources, but talks haven’t been engaging so far. St. Louis is exploring trade offers for the 28-year-old outfielder who will be a free agent in 2025.

“There are a lot of outfielders out there [in free agency] who fit in our context,” Picollo said. “So we feel like we don’t have to go trade for that. Doesn’t mean we won’t. If there’s something that makes sense, we’ll look at it. If we could trade someone to get a bat, we’ve got to look at it.”

Once again, though, Picollo came back to the pitching.

“We still got to put value on the starters,” he said. “If we’re able to add starting pitching and keep some of it for depth, we’ll be better off.”