'Heck yeah I do': Ragans ready to take ball for Royals on Opening Day

March 18th, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Royals are putting their budding ace on the mound for Opening Day.

will be the Royals’ Opening Day starter on March 28 against the Twins at Kauffman Stadium, the team announced Sunday after Ragans pitched 4 2/3 innings in the Royals’ 6-4 loss to the Brewers at Surprise Stadium.

It’s the 26-year-old’s first Opening Day nod. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Ragans’ 21 career starts will be the fourth-fewest by an Opening Day starting pitcher in Royals history, behind Brad Keller (20, 2019), Runelvys Hernandez (12, '03) and Steve Busby (five, '73).

“We felt like we had a lot of good choices,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “But based on what he did here last year and how we feel about him and his future, and the pure stuff, we feel like this is the right decision for us to match up the best we can over the whole series with the Twins.”

Royals pitching coach Brian Sweeney called Ragans into Quatraro’s office Saturday, where Quatraro and general manager J.J. Picollo were sitting. Nervousness washed over Ragans. He had no idea what was coming.

Quatraro asked what Ragans was doing on March 28 -- and if he’d like to pitch for Kansas City.

“Obviously, heck yeah I do,” Ragans said with a smile. “... Definitely honored, excited. Hard to put everything into words. You kind of dream about it. Opening Day, it’s a big deal.”

The Royals acquired Ragans on June 30, 2023, in a deal that sent reliever Aroldis Chapman to the Rangers ahead of the Trade Deadline. At the time, the Royals were excited to get a young starter with years of control. Ragans was drafted in the first round (No. 30 overall) in the 2016 Draft out of North Florida Christian (Fla.) High School and was thought of highly in Texas, even after going through two Tommy John surgeries on his left elbow.

That journey -- and the adversity along the way -- makes this Opening Day nod that much more special for Ragans.

“The hard work I’ve put in throughout the years, through the Tommy Johns, through the offseasons,” Ragans said. “This is what I’ve worked for, to be a big league starter, to be a guy the team believes in. That I can help win each and every day. It’s an honor.”

In 12 starts with the Royals last year, Ragans posted a 2.64 ERA across 71 2/3 innings with a 31.1% strikeout rate and a 9.4% walk rate. He made his Royals debut on July 15, 2023, allowing one run in five innings with three strikeouts. As the extra roster player in the Royals’ doubleheader that day, he was sent back to Triple-A Omaha following his team debut.

When he came back to the Majors nearly three weeks later, he would not leave again.

Ragans won American League Pitcher of the Month honors in August after going 3-1 in six starts with a Majors-best 1.72 ERA (seven earned runs in 36 2/3 innings) and 53 strikeouts.

Ragans’ 26-inning scoreless streak from Aug. 18-Sept. 10, 2023 ranks sixth-best by a Royals starting pitcher all-time. His stuff was electric, and at times, nearly unhittable. His fastball averaged 96.5 mph last year and occasionally hit triple digits, a massive difference from the 92.1 mph it averaged in ’22 with the Rangers. Ragans credits the jump in velocity to his offseason work with Tread Athletics.

After the trade, Ragans introduced a slider to his repertoire that produced immediate results. He threw it 10% of the time last year and registered a 40% whiff rate with it, but just as impressive was his curveball, changeup and cutter. The ability to mix his upper-90s fastball, breaking stuff and offspeed pitches made him one of the best pitchers in the second half.

And the Royals wanted to recognize that to begin 2024, a season in which they hope to take huge steps toward contention. They could have gone with free agent acquisitions or .

“There was a feeling from the get-go that Cole had deserved this based on what he did last year,” Picollo said. “… The veteran guys are well respected, but I think it says something that you’re giving it to the guy that really took the ball and was one of the best pitchers in the league last year.

“It’s pretty clear the expectations are there for him to lead this pitching staff.”

And Ragans is more than ready to meet those expectations.

“To get to start in the big leagues, to have that opportunity, it’s what you dream of,” Ragans said. “To go out and compete every fifth day. To give your team a chance to win. All I want to do is win. That’s all I care about. I don’t care about anything else but winning.”