Lugo brings 'special gift' to Royals' rotation

December 14th, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- The Royals’ interest in dates back to last offseason, when he first became a free agent after seven seasons with the Mets -- the final five primarily as a reliever. In free agency, Lugo stated his intention to be a starter, even though that came with uncertainty about how his stuff and body would transition back in that role.

Ultimately, Lugo bet on himself and signed a one-year deal with the Padres. The Royals kept their eye on the right-hander -- and all he did was prove he could be a valuable starter.

Come this winter, there was little doubt Lugo was at the top of the Royals’ targets for starting pitchers once he declined his player option with the Padres.

On Thursday, the 34-year-old curveball specialist officially became a Royal, inking a two-year deal with a player option for 2026. Terms of the deal were not disclosed by the club, but Lugo will make $15 million the next two seasons and has the player option worth $15 million in '26, a source told In a corresponding 40-man roster move, the Royals traded reliever Taylor Clarke to the Brewers for two Minor Leaguers.

“He’s got exceptional command,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “We know he’s got one of the best curveballs in the game. He’s always been able to spin the breaking ball, and it’s a pretty special gift. You combine that with his other pitches and command, and it’s a really nice addition to our rotation.”

Lugo, who put himself on the map with his high-spin curveball when he debuted with the Mets in 2016, had some starting experience prior to this past season. However, his results were mixed, as he recorded a 4.35 ERA in 38 career starts before 2023. Lugo made 26 of those 38 starts in his first two seasons before spending 2018-22 pitching almost exclusively in relief for New York. He had a 2.91 ERA as a reliever with the Mets.

Through it all, he never lost sight of his goal: Starting.

“In my mind, if I proved myself over and over in the bullpen, I could have a chance to start.” Lugo said. “A lot of relievers go through that. … Some  people tend to lose that goal. And speaking with guys who have been in the league for 10-15 years, it’s easy to be OK where you’re at. I was proud of myself for not letting my mind get to that point.”

Every offseason, he prepared as if he were a starter, knowing it’s easier to back off workload than quickly add to it. The Padres gave him the chance to pitch full time in their rotation, and he posted a 3.57 ERA across 26 starts and 146 1/3 innings. Despite having never thrown more than 101 1/3 innings in a season prior to 2023, Lugo got stronger down the stretch, pitching to a 2.50 ERA over his final nine starts.

“There were some doubts, but you put that aside and push forward with what my goal was,” Lugo said. “Throw a lot of innings as often as possible -- really be out there as long as I can each night to take the ball.”

Lugo now slots in near the top of the Royals’ rotation, with Cole Ragans and Brady Singer. Jordan Lyles will also return, and the Royals continue to search for at least one more starter in free agency. 

“The other thing I think is worth noting is we talk a lot about the experience, or lack of, on our current Major League roster,” Picollo said. “With Seth, you got somebody who’s pitched on the big stage in New York and San Diego, pitched in the playoffs. … Then you do your homework on him -- great teammate, team-first guy. We’re just really happy to have Seth on board.”

Kansas City entered this offseason needing to upgrade its pitching staff after it ranked third-worst in ERA (5.17), 10th-worst in walk rate (9%) and fifth-worst in strikeout rate (20.7%). The Royals have targeted strike-throwers in their pitching pursuit this offseason, adding Will Smith and Nick Anderson to the bullpen, as well as agreeing to a deal with Chris Stratton that likely will be official on Friday.

Lugo fits in well with that group. He ranked ninth among NL starters last year with a 6% walk rate (minimum 25 starts).

“You’ve got to make people beat you,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “The more decisions hitters have to make, the tougher it is for them. You’ve got Will Smith, Nick Anderson, Seth -- guys who throw strikes. It’s not only going to make it tougher for the opponent, it's going to challenge our own guys on the staff to keep up with them. That’s that healthy competition we’re talking about.”