Wacha, Royals finalize deal: 'The potential is here with this team'

December 19th, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- remembers what it was like to pitch at Kauffman Stadium during the Royals’ pennant years not too long ago, when he was a young starter for the Cardinals and Kansas City won back-to-back American League titles in 2014-15, with a World Series trophy in '15.

Now, Wacha is hoping to help the Royals get back to those roaring crowds and winning ways. 

Kansas City officially signed the right-handed starter to a one-year contract with a player option in 2025, the team announced on Monday. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but a source told MLB.com that it’s worth $32 million -- $16 million next season and a $16 million player option.

“Just saw the atmosphere here and what it could be,” Wacha said. “The potential is here with this team. Just a lot of excitement here. Couldn’t be more pumped to put on this uniform.”

The Royals have already created buzz this offseason with a whirlwind week of additions. The team has committed $105 million in free-agent dollars (including player options) -- the most in franchise history.

Kansas City signed utilityman Garrett Hampson to a one-year, $2 million contract in late November then added five players to their Major League team in the last week: Relievers Will Smith and Chris Stratton, starters Wacha and Seth Lugo and outfielder Hunter Renfroe, whose deal became official on Tuesday.

In trades last month, the Royals added Nick Anderson to their bullpen and starter Kyle Wright, who is recovering from right shoulder surgery, to their 2025 rotation.

Kansas City entered the offseason wanting to significantly upgrade its pitching staff while surrounding its young core with veteran players. Every free-agent addition so far has at least six years of Major League experience; Smith and Wacha top the list at 11 years apiece.

And all of them have postseason experience.

“Seeing the young core that’s been coming up shows a lot of great potential,” Wacha said. “And then after getting on the phone with [general manager] J.J. [Picollo] and discussing the type of vision that he sees here, what he’s trying to build here, seeing those moves coming in… [there’s] a lot of excitement.”

Wacha, 32, became a free agent after the Padres turned down his two-year club option and he subsequently declined his 2024 player option.

He proved to be a strong pickup for San Diego, posting a 3.22 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP with 124 strikeouts and 43 walks over 134 1/3 innings in 2023. That followed Wacha’s 3.32 ERA over 23 starts for the Red Sox in 2022, as he got back on track following three down seasons; he posted a 5.11 ERA in 66 appearances (54 starts) for the Cardinals, Mets and Rays across 2019-21.

“When we talk about adding to our clubhouse, winners and people that have been there, Michael certainly represents that,” Picollo said. “And then you look at what he’s done the last two years: 25-6. Last year, top 10 in the National League in ERA, opponents batting average and wins.”

Wacha spent his first seven seasons with St. Louis, making his MLB debut less than a year after being selected 19th overall in the 2012 MLB Draft. He made an immediate impact, posting a 2.78 ERA over 64 2/3 innings in the regular season before winning NLCS MVP honors with two wins and 13 2/3 scoreless innings against the Dodgers as the Cards reached the 2013 World Series.

Two years later, Wacha earned his only All-Star selection and finished with a 3.38 ERA over a career-high 181 1/3 innings.

Wacha hasn’t gotten back to that innings mark because of injuries, particularly with his right shoulder, which hurt his performance from 2017-21. The Royals will have to manage that, but they still view him as a strong piece to the rotation because of his low walk rate -- 6 percent in 2022 and 7.8 percent in '23 -- as the team pursues strike-throwers to add to its staff.

Wacha’s best pitch is his changeup, which he throws for strikes, but hitters rarely square it up. He threw the pitch 34.5 percent of the time last year as his most-used pitch, and opponents hit .207 on it with a .346 slugging percentage, while the average exit velocity against it was 84.6 mph. It also registered a 35.9 percent whiff rate.

Wacha pairs his changeup with a four-seam fastball, and despite the velocity being down on that pitch last year, it produced better results. Batters hit just .188 off it with a .323 slugging percentage. Wacha also has a sinker, cutter and curveball, the latter of which he used only 11 percent of the time last year though it induced a 27 percent whiff rate. The Royals love pitchers who spin the ball, and they may have some plans for Wacha with that pitch.

Wacha and Lugo add innings and veteran presences to a rotation that also includes Cole Ragans, Brady Singer and Jordan Lyles.

When Wacha first visited The K as an opposing starter, he was a young pitcher. He was leaning on advice from veterans like Adam Wainwright, John Lackey and Lance Lynn. Now, Wacha will be that presence for Ragans, Singer and others.

“A lot of the really good teams I’ve played on has had that mix of the young studs and the veteran presences, where they just bounce off each other, they mesh well, and you’ve got all your bases covered,” Wacha said.