Royals send Taylor to Twins for pitching prospects

January 24th, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- The Royals opened up the center-field competition awaiting them this spring, shed payroll for other moves and acquired two intriguing relief prospects in an intra-division trade.

Kansas City acquired Minor League pitchers Steven Cruz and Evan Sisk from the Twins for Gold Glove outfielder , the clubs announced on Monday night.

Royals get: RHP Steven Cruz, LHP Evan Sisk
Twins get: OF Michael A. Taylor

Neither Cruz nor Sisk was added to the 40-man roster. Sisk was assigned to Triple-A Omaha, while Cruz was assigned to Double-A Northwest Arkansas. With the Royals' roster now at 39 players, a spot opened up for reliever Aroldis Chapman, whose deal with the Royals has yet to become official.

It’s been a busy week so far for executive vice president/general manager J.J. Picollo, who first sent Taylor to the Twins on Monday night and then infielder Adalberto Mondesi to the Red Sox on Tuesday afternoon, acquiring reliever Josh Taylor.

One deal didn’t hinge on the other, but they both help the Royals meet objectives for 2023: pave the way for younger players to get everyday playing time and add depth and different looks to their bullpen for this season and beyond.

“Clearly, we’re giving up some experience in Michael A. Taylor and Mondesi, but it was a direction we thought was important for us to go for a couple reasons,” Picollo said Tuesday. “One is that we want to see Bobby Witt Jr. play shortstop as much as he possibly can. … Bobby is clearly our shortstop. And this paves the way for him to play as much as he can at shortstop.

“One of the other objectives was to pave the way for Kyle Isbel and Drew Waters to get as much time as they can in the outfield. We make a lot out of how difficult it is to play Kauffman Stadium center field. But with Kyle Isbel, if you look at all the data and metrics, he is an elite defender when it comes to jumps, leads, breaks. He’s not the elite runner that Michael Taylor or Lorenzo Cain have been in the past. So we’ll get a chance to evaluate how he plays center field. Same with Drew Waters.”

The Royals are losing a Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder in Taylor but gaining clarity about their future by giving more at-bats to Isbel and Waters -- as well as Edward Olivares, Nate Eaton and others. Taylor won the award in '21 and was a finalist last season with 19 defensive runs saved, per FanGraphs. The 31-year-old slashed .254/.313/.257 with nine home runs last season, getting off to a hot start but struggling in the second half.

Isbel made his debut in 2021 and spent most of last season in the Majors, but he has only 361 career plate appearances and a .642 career OPS. The Royals would not only like to see how he plays center defensively, but also if his bat can improve with more playing time. The same goes for Waters, whom the Royals acquired in a trade with Atlanta last year. The 24-year-old has less big league experience than Isbel but posted an .803 OPS in 109 plate appearances last year. How he and Isbel fare over the entire season will be crucial to how the Royals approach their long-term plan in center.

“When a guy gets two to three years in the Majors, it becomes more clear to us what that player is going to be in the long run and allows us to play for the future years,” Picollo said. “By trading Michael, by trading Mondesi, it gives young guys an opportunity to play and clear space for them.”

The Royals weren’t in a rush to trade either player, though; they liked how both trades gave them depth in the bullpen for this season and the future.

Cruz, 23, was ranked as the Twins’ No. 28 prospect by MLB Pipeline and will slot in as the Royals’ No. 30 prospect. The 6-foot-7 righty has impressive stuff, including an upper-90s fastball with riding life and a hard slider that misses bats. Cruz posted a 5.14 ERA across 56 innings (46 games) at Double-A last season, but he has big strikeout numbers with a 28% strikeout rate.

Finding the strike zone consistently has been the biggest thing holding Cruz back since he signed with Minnesota in 2017, but his walk rate has improved each year, dropping to 13.6% last season.

Sisk, 25, went to the Twins in the 2021 deal that sent J.A. Happ to the Cardinals. He’s not ranked by MLB Pipeline, but he’s an intriguing prospect who should see time in Kansas City’s bullpen this season if he remains on track. The side-arming lefty had a 1.57 ERA across 63 innings (50 appearances) at Double-A and Triple-A last season with an eye-popping 29.9% strikeout rate. Left-handers hit just .080 off Sisk -- who has an extreme crossfire delivery -- last season.

Both Cruz and Sisk have command issues to sort through, but they both miss bats with their stuff -- a quality the Royals have been targeting in the pitchers they’ve acquired in the past year.

Taylor is entering the final year of a two-year extension he signed with the Royals at the end of the ’21 season. Moving his $4.5 million salary off the 2023 payroll gives the Royals that much more to work with as the offseason winds down, with the club still targeting starting pitching or a right-handed bat. Veteran starter is still a free agent, and the Royals are optimistic about their chances of re-signing him.

“We had an opportunity here, secondary to the players that we acquired, to free up some money,” Picollo said. “That’s OK. I think we can use that money in other areas to help finish this roster off.”