Royals make waves by spending big on big names

December 19th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers’ Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

KANSAS CITY -- What a week it’s been in Kansas City.

The last time you received a Tuesday newsletter, the Royals had just signed reliever Will Smith, and I was writing what might come next for the team looking to improve following a 106-loss season.

Well, then that team went out and signed four free agents, bringing their offseason spending up to $105 million, which includes player options and is more than 25 other teams this winter. Let’s recap:

After signing Lugo, the Royals had addressed a major need in the rotation, but the front office felt like the team needed one more veteran starter. Officials explored a few trades, including one for Marlins starter Jesús Luzardo, as The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal first pointed out, but the Royals felt the Marlins’ asking price of first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino was not one to act on, according to sources, and pivoted.

General manager J.J. Picollo went to ownership to find an alternative path forward.

John Sherman chose to spend more.

“Went to [majority owner] John Sherman and [president of business operations] Brooks Sherman, and talked to them about our needs and our possibilities and how we could acquire a starting pitcher,” Picollo said. “They were very open to how we can complete this team. I do want to thank them for working with us throughout this whole thing. …

“John was very clear all along: We’ll do what’s necessary when we feel like the time is right. With the moves we made last week, couple trades prior to that, I felt like it was appropriate to at least have the discussion.”

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Royals are looking around the American League Central and asking themselves, “Why not us?” The Twins are the team to beat, but they’re cutting back on payroll, as are the Guardians, according to reports. The Tigers are trying to make a revival but still have question marks. The White Sox changed leadership and have no untouchables in the trade market.

The Royals haven’t had a winning season since 2015. Sherman wants to change that.

“All the divisions are tough, but I feel like our division right now is a little bit jumbled,” Picollo said. “Minnesota clearly had a great year last year, and they’re going to be the team to beat, but there’s other things going on, transitions. We’re at a place in our timeline where we felt like if we added the right people, we can make a significant jump. Guys are getting into their second, third, fourth years as Major League players. That’s sort of getting into your prime years. 

“So it was the right time for us to add to this club, and the big part was adding the right people talent-wise and also just their makeup and experience.”

With the go-ahead from Sherman, the Royals worked quickly on Wacha’s deal. That meant a final pitch and offer to the 32-year-old starter who has played for five other teams across an 11-year career and pitched in the postseason for two of them.

So why come to Kansas City instead of seeking a contract with a sure contender?

Much like Lugo, Wacha is impressed by the Royals’ position player core, led by shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.  Picollo shared his vision of bringing in veteran players to help. And, more importantly, to win.

“I’ve played against the Royals for the past few years, and seeing the young core that’s been coming up shows a lot of great potential, for sure,” Wacha said. “And then after getting on the phone with J.J. and discussing the type of vision that he sees here, what he’s trying to build here, seeing those moves coming in… with really, really high-caliber players, [there’s] a lot of excitement. 

“Seeing his vision, I immediately bought into it and was really excited to be able to get a deal done here.”

The Royals are not perfect. These moves look good on paper, but the team has a long way to go to even compete in the division. Several of their young players will need to play better for this team to take as significant a step forward as Picollo hopes. To go from 106 losses to a winning team is a lot to ask.

But the plan is for the Royals’ new additions to lessen the burden on those young players -- for Wacha and Lugo to shoulder innings, along with Jordan Lyles, and for Smith, Stratton and Nick Anderson, whom the Royals acquired in a trade with the Braves, to take on larger roles as young relievers develop.

“We coined last year as a season of evaluation,” Picollo said. “When those evaluations were complete, we realized where the holes were. And we just attacked those holes. Couple starting pitchers, the bullpen, a bat. We’ve met those goals or objectives. The message is, we’re committed to putting a competitive team on the field that our fans can be proud of.”