NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Royals have set out to acquire pitching in any way they can this offseason, and one way came Wednesday through the Rule 5 Draft, which gives teams the opportunity to make low-risk gambles on players not protected on 40-man rosters.
On the final day of the Winter Meetings, the Royals had the No. 2 pick -- the order is dictated by the reverse order of last season’s standings -- and selected right-hander Matt Sauer from the Yankees in the Major League phase. For a price of $100,000, Sauer has to stick on Kansas City’s 26-man roster for the full 2024 season or he will be offered back to his former team for $50,000.
Sauer, 24, was the Yankees’ 25th-ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 list, and while he has some injury history, he has the swing-and-miss stuff the Royals are searching for this offseason. A 2017 second-round MLB Draft pick, Sauer, who had Tommy John surgery in 2019, missed time with lower body injuries this past season but had an 11.3 K/9 and a 3.42 ERA in 68 1/3 innings at Double-A Somerset -- and he held hitters to a .189 batting average in 74 combined innings at three levels with a riding fastball that peaked at 95 mph and a tight slider.
In nine games during the Arizona Fall League, Sauer struck out 18 batters over 10 2/3 innings.
The Royals liked a handful of arms heading into Wednesday -- they debated the names of all the pitchers who were selected around their own pick -- but they landed on Sauer because of his potential as a starter; he struck out 134 across 109 innings with a 4.54 ERA pitching for High-A Hudson Valley and Double-A in ‘22, and he had a 9.3% and 7.6% walk rate in each league, respectively.
Similar to when the Royals took Brad Keller in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft, general manager J.J. Picollo could see Sauer pitching first out of the bullpen before getting a chance to start.
“Feeling like we were a little heavy on the stuff without the command [in the bullpen], we were trying to find somebody who we think is improving with their command and still has the stuff,” Picollo said. “You’re kind of diversifying the portfolio. … He’s a physical guy, good fastball, breaking ball. The strikeout numbers are good.”
To make the pick Wednesday, the Royals first had to clear a space on their 40-man roster. They found a trade partner with the Astros, sending reliever Dylan Coleman to Houston for Minor Leaguer Carlos Mateo. Mateo, who turns 20 on Dec. 16, appeared in seven games for the Rookie-level Florida Complex League Astros in 2023 and struck out 12 batters in 8 2/3 innings pitched.
Mateo made his professional debut with the Dominican Summer League Astros in 2022 and posted a 2-1 record with a 2.63 ERA (eight earned runs in 27 1/3 innings) and 33 strikeouts, while issuing just 13 walks.
Mateo sits at 89 to 93 mph with his fastball, and his best secondary pitch is his changeup.
While Coleman still has quite a bit of upside, the Royals felt it was time to move on from the 27-year-old. He couldn’t get back to his 2022 performance, when he posted a 2.78 ERA in 68 innings. Coleman lacked command in ‘23, allowing 19 runs (18 earned) in 18 1/3 big league innings, with 21 strikeouts and 19 walks.
“We appreciate what Dylan did, and there is upside there,” Picollo said. “It’s a big, power fastball. When we look at our roster, we have a lot of guys who have good stuff, and a lot of guys who are still trying to learn how to command the strike zone. 'How many of those guys do you carry on the 40-man roster?' is the question we asked ourselves.
“You’ve got to give a little bit somewhere. There was interest in Dylan with Houston, so getting to today, we felt like we needed to clear a spot, and we felt like that was our most efficient way to do it.”
The Royals did not lose anyone in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 Draft. In the Minor League phase, they selected outfielder Joe Gray from Milwaukee, lefty Keylan Kilgore from Philadelphia and second baseman Ryan Fitzgerald from Boston. Kansas City lost second baseman Clay Dungan (Padres), lefty TJ Sikkema (Reds) and right-hander Wander Arias (Nationals) to other clubs.