- Royals pitchers Tim Hill and Jorge Lopez have health concerns that could have led them to opt out of the 2020 season, but both players plan to take the field this year, Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com relays. Hill, a colon cancer survivor, told Flanagan: “I’m playing. I’m not opting out.” Of course, Hill noted he has be as careful as possible during the pandemic, and he’ll continue on that path. Lopez doesn’t have a preexisting condition of his own, meanwhile, but his young son lives with Familial Mediterranean Fever and Crohn’s disease. Hill informed Flanagan that Lopez will not opt out, though, calling Lopez “one incredible guy” for surviving the adversity he and his family have battled.
Today marks the deadline for teams to submit to Major League Baseball their initial spring training player pools, which can comprise up to 60 players. Players are not eligible to participate in either a spring training or regular season game until they are included in the pool. Teams are free to change the makeup of the pools as they see fit. However, players removed from a team’s 60-man (for reasons unrelated to injury, suspension, etc.) must be exposed to other organizations via trade or waivers.
Not all players within a team’s pool are ticketed for MLB playing time, of course. Most teams will include well-regarded but still far-off prospects as a means of getting them training reps with no intention of running them onto a major league diamond this season. A comprehensive review of 2020’s unique set of rules can be found here.
The Royals’ initial player pool consists of the following players…
- Chance Adams
- Scott Barlow
- Scott Blewett
- Heath Fillmyer
- Jesse Hahn
- Greg Holland
- Jakob Junis
- Brad Keller
- Ian Kennedy
- Jackson Kowar
- Jorge Lopez
- Kevin McCarthy
- Jake Newberry
- Trevor Rosenthal
- Braden Shipley
- Brady Singer
- Glenn Sparkman
- Josh Staumont
- Stephen Woods Jr.
- Kyle Zimmer
- Tyler Zuber
- Kris Bubic
- Austin Cox
- Danny Duffy
- Foster Griffin
- Tim Hill
- Richard Lovelady
- Daniel Lynch
- Mike Montgomery
- Randy Rosario
- Gabe Speier
- Daniel Tillo
- Humberto Arteaga
- Maikel Franco
- Kelvin Gutierrez
- Jeison Guzman
- Nicky Lopez
- Ryan McBroom
- Adalberto Mondesi
- Ryan O’Hearn
- Nick Pratto
- Matt Reynolds
- Bobby Witt Jr.
- Hunter Dozier
- Alex Gordon
- Nick Heath
- Kyle Isbel
- Khalil Lee
- Seuly Matias
- Erick Mejia
- Whit Merrifield
- Brett Phillips
- Jorge Soler
- Bubba Starling
The Royals announced that left-hander Eric Skoglund has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Triple-A Omaha. Skoglund has evidently spent the past three months in DFA limbo. He was designated for assignment on March 25 to create 40-man roster space for the addition of Trevor Rosenthal. Two days later, MLB instituted a league-wide transaction freeze that, until today, left Skoglund’s situation unresolved.
Skoglund has seen MLB action for Kansas City in each of the past three seasons. All told, he’s combined for 109 innings over 27 appearances (22 starts) with a cumulative 6.61 ERA and minuscule 13.8% strikeout rate. The 27-year-old will remain with the organization that selected him in the third round back in 2014.
7:09pm: Lacy signed for $6.67MM, Jim Callis of MLB.com tweets.
2:13pm: The Royals announced Tuesday that they’ve officially signed left-hander Asa Lacy. The former Texas A&M ace was the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft after compiling a career 2.07 ERA with 13.3 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9 in 152 total innings of college ball (21 starts, 21 relief appearances). He’s the highest pick to come to terms so far, and while his bonus figure wasn’t announced by the club, the No. 4 slot comes with a $6.664MM value.
The Kansas City organization didn’t stop there. It also added shortstop Nick Loftin on a $3MM bonus, Jim Callis of MLB.com reports on Twitter. That’s a far sight higher than the $2,257,300 allocation that came with the competitive balance round A selection with which he was chosen. Loftin decided to go pro rather than returning for another year at Baylor.
Righty Ben Hernandez, an Illinois high-schooler chosen in the second round, agreed to a $1.45MM bonus. (Via Callis; Twitter links.) That freed up nearly $400K to help cover the amount due to Loftin. The Royals also saved a bit on third-rounder Tyler Gentry, an outfielder out of the University of Alabama, who inked for $750K ($818,200 slot value). The Royals also agreed to as-yet-unreported bonuses with Christian Chamberlain, LHP, Oregon State (4th round) and Will Klein, RHP, Eastern Illinois (5th round).
The Royals also announced seven undrafted player signings, rounding out a widely heralded incoming class of amateur talent:
- Saul Garza, C/1B, Louisiana State
- John McMillon, RHP, Texas Tech
- A.J. Block, LHP, Washington State
- Tucker Bradley, OF, Georgia
- Matt Schmidt, INF, Michigan
- Kale Emshoff, C, Arkansas-Little Rock
- Chase Wallace, RHP, Tennessee
While there’s plenty of promise from multiple new prospects, Lacy remains the crown jewel. He was the consensus top pitcher available, which made it rather surprising to see him fall to the Royals at the fourth selection. Virtually all draft pundits graded him as one of the three best prospects up for grabs in 2020.
The Royals will be especially excited with Lacy because of the team’s long-stated intention to engineer a quick rebuild. Having gone heavy on advanced college pitching prospects in recent drafts, with promising early returns, the K.C. club can now look forward to another fast-rising youngster. Lacy possesses and commands an impressive four-pitch arsenal and has already proven himself against top college competition.
Now that MLB’s abbreviated 2020 draft is in the books, we can move along to the next phase of this one-off amateur signing season. Undrafted amateur players will now be free to sign with any team of their choosing, though they are capped with a signing bonus of $20K. Thus, the setup here presents a fascinating situation for amateur ballplayers and for us, those interested in parsing the ins-and-outs of roster-building. Here we have a unique situation where money will not necessarily be the driving factor for players choosing their first professional team. As players start to sign, we’ll likely hear stories that shed light on player perspective, which could paint an interesting picture of how young players view different franchises around baseball. For now, we’re starting to hear from teams themselves about spending limits for this class of amateur free agents. We’ll use this post to update those strategies as they trickle in…
- The Giants have no apparent limits when it comes to signing amateur free agents now that the draft is completed. John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle provides a primer for this period of amateur free agents, writing, “The process starts at 6 a.m. Sunday, and the Giants will compete with the other 29 teams for the best available talent. But rather than outspending the others, all they can do is try to outsell them and offer appealing opportunities.” Given the Giants’ current position as a team looking to infuse as much young talent as possible, one would expect them to be aggressive in their attempts to add players from this pool. Obviously, more players than usual will be returning to college or committing to school as high school graduates, but given the volatility of the MLB draft under normal circumstances, it’s fair to expect a quality player or two to emerge from this pool of undrafted amateurs.
- The Marlins are planning on limiting their pool of undrafted amateur free agents to 10 signings or less, per Jordan McPherson of the Miami Herald (Twitter links). Along with their six drafted players, all of whom are expected to sign, the Marlins can expect an influx of 16 players max.
- Similarly, the Mariners don’t expect to go hog wild with this year’s class of undrafted amateur. Per MLB.com’s Corey Brock, the Mariners’ Scouting Director Scott Hunter said the Mariners will only be signing between five and ten amateur free agents.
- The Royals, meanwhile, are ready to shop, tweets Jeff Rosen of the Kansas City Star. The Royals could be big-time players in this sphere, as they’ve generated some goodwill recently because of their treatment of minor league players. Kansas City might not typically be a major free agent draw, but for amateur players, it’s a different story. The Royals have the opportunity and a long track record of highly valuing their own players. For players looking for their first professional contract, the Royals have a lot to offer. Among other things, they’re ready to be aggressive. GM Dayton Moore has the green light to “sign as many of those guys as we can,” per Lynn Worthy of the Kansas City Star.
With the MLB draft scheduled for next week, let’s take a look at each American League team’s most successful draft class in recent memory. Using Baseball Reference’s draft tracker, we can sum the combined career bWAR of each player selected by each team in a given year. It’s a simple shorthand, not a perfect measure, but it’ll give some insight into which teams have really hit in certain years.
First, a quick note on the methodology. For simplicity, we’re limiting this search to the 2006-2015 classes. A player’s value is only included if he signed with the club, although he needn’t have actually played for his drafting team in the majors. (So, the 2008 Yankees don’t get credit for drafting but failing to sign Gerrit Cole, while the 2007 Red Sox do get credit for drafting and signing Anthony Rizzo, even though he was traded before ever playing an MLB game for Boston). Of course, a player drafted in 2006 has had more time to rack up value than one drafted in 2015, so we’ll note in each team’s capsule if a more recent class is on the verge of taking over from an older class. On to the results…
- Angels: 2009 (109.3 bWAR) – Go figure. Picking one of the greatest players of all time is a heck of a way to kick off a draft class. But this 2009 class wasn’t just about Mike Trout, even if he’s accounted for about two-thirds of its cumulative value. That year, the Angels also selected Patrick Corbin, Randal Grichuk, Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs. Former MLBTR contributor Chuck Wassterstrom took a behind-the-scenes look at this class a few years ago.
- Astros: 2009 (53.2 bWAR) – Not a single one of the Astros’ top five rounders in 2009 reached the majors. The late rounds, though, were a smashing success with J.D. Martinez (20th), Dallas Keuchel (7th) and Kiké Hernández (6th) accounting for the class’ value. Of course, Martinez did his damage elsewhere after the Astros released him.
- A’s: 2012 (37.7 bWAR) – The A’s 2012 class produced seven big leaguers, most notably Matt Olson. He leads a group that also included Addison Russell and Max Muncy, who have played most or all of their MLB careers elsewhere.
- Blue Jays: 2009 (39.2 bWAR) – They won’t get credit for selecting James Paxton in supplemental round one here, but Yan Gomes was a nice find in the tenth round, though he would play only briefly in Toronto before being dealt to Cleveland. Outside of Gomes, the Blue Jays found a few nice role players, including Jake Marisnick, Aaron Loup, Ryan Goins, and others.
- Indians: 2011 (38.7 bWAR) – Selecting Francisco Lindor eighth overall in 2011 was a key to Cleveland’s 2016 AL pennant. So too was then-closer Cody Allen, whom they grabbed in the 23rd round. With Lindor mid-prime, the class’ value should just continue to grow.
- Mariners: 2006 (40.2 bWAR) – Doug Fister and Chris Tillman went on to become mid-rotation starters for a time (Fister arguably even a bit more than that), albeit with other clubs. Fifth overall pick Brandon Morrow disappointed as a starter but had a late-career renaissance as a quality reliever before various injuries derailed him.
- Orioles: 2007 (43.2 bWAR) – Although only four players from this class would wind up making the Majors, the combination of Jake Arrieta and Matt Wieters makes the 2007 draft a pretty solid one for the O’s. While Wieters, the fifth overall pick, maybe didn’t turn out to be the franchise cornerstone he was hailed to be, he has nonetheless had a nice career. Arrieta had a slow start in Baltimore, but would of course earn a Cy Young with the Cubs. It’s worth noting that this spot will be taken by the 2010 class before too long, almost entirely on the back of Manny Machado.
- Rangers: 2008 (33.3 bWAR) – Despite garnering only a 25th-round selection, Tanner Roark has turned out to be the most productive player in this class. First-round choice Justin Smoak deserves a mention too, though his career didn’t really take off until he’d been traded out of Texas. The 2011 class, headed by Kyle Hendricks, is not far behind and could claim this title in the near future.
- Rays: 2006 (81.5 bWAR) – Franchise legend Evan Longoria does a lot of the heavy lifting for this class, having amassed 56 total WAR by age 34. Even so, there are some other quality players here: Desmond Jennings and Alex Cobb are the other notables, with Jennings carving out a solid MLB career as a tenth-round pick.
- Red Sox: 2011 (70.2 bWAR) – This is far and away the best Sox draft class in recent memory, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone. Mookie Betts, one of the finest players in baseball, established himself as Boston’s franchise player after he was selected in the fifth round. Even outside of Betts, this class yielded a few key members of the Red Sox 2018 World Series team, with Jackie Bradley Jr. and relief ace Matt Barnes also coming out of that draft.
- Royals: 2007 (47.1 bWAR) – Speaking of drafting World Series contributors, the Royals in 2007 added both Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland, both of whom turned out to be central in the Royals’ playoff runs in 2014 and 2015. And that’s before mentioning third-rounder Danny Duffy, who’s still with Kansas City and inked a nice extension prior to 2017.
- Tigers: 2007 (20.6 bWAR) – With just 20.6 WAR, the Tigers’ best draft in recent memory doesn’t compare favorably to the rest of the AL, and that partly illuminates the franchise’s current standing in baseball. The notable player from the 2007 class is Rick Porcello, who had some nice years to begin his career with the Tigers and would later win a Cy Young. Maybe they get bonus points for discovering high-schooler D.J. LeMahieu, who wouldn’t sign with the team, in round 41?
- Twins: 2009 (32.4 bWAR) – Between Kyle Gibson and Brian Dozier, the Twins drafted a pair of staples on the Minnesota teams of the mid-2010s. But with both playing elsewhere now, keep an eye on the 2012 draft class, which features a trio of young centerpieces for a new era of Twins baseball: Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, and Taylor Rogers are up-and-comers who could rack up a lot of value as they enter their primes.
- White Sox: 2010 (55.3 bWAR) – Chris Sale carries the 2010 class for the South Siders, by far the best draftee in an otherwise mediocre string of years for Chicago. That said, 2010 yielded a couple of other role players for the White Sox, with Addison Reed, Jake Petricka, and Tyler Saladino all making nice MLB contributions.
- Yankees: 2006 (69.4 bWAR) – Whereas many teams’ success in a given year is determined by one standout player, the Yankees’ installment on this list displays a surprising breadth of quality players, without a single superstar. Evidently, the 2006 Yankees cornered the market on MLB relievers: Ian Kennedy, David Robertson, Dellin Betances, Mark Melancon, and Joba Chamberlain are the five most productive players from the Bombers’ draft that year (granted, Kennedy didn’t transition to the bullpen until last year).
The first round of the 2020 amateur draft begins on June 10, and the growing feeling is that the Tigers will take Spencer Torkelson with the first overall pick. Torkelson comes into the draft on the heels of an outstanding college career, which Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill notes could have reached historic proportions had Torkelson’s 2020 campaign not been cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. The young slugger had a shot at breaking the NCAA record for walks in a season, and Torkelson sat just two home runs away from setting a new Arizona State school record for career homers (a record held by longtime Braves third baseman Bob Horner). Though Torkelson will miss out on these individual accomplishments and a shot at being part of a potential national championship contender, his Arizona State tenure has already been the stuff of legend, especially considering that Torkelson came to the program on a relatively low profile after not being drafted by a Major League team when coming out of high school.
Some more on the draft…
- The NCAA’s decision to give an extra year of eligibility to spring sports will give at least some players extra signing leverage in this abbreviated five-round draft. As The Athletic’s David O’Brien (subscription required) writes, right-hander Cole Wilcox has the option of returning to the University of Georgia for a do-over of his sophomore year if doesn’t receive a signing bonus to his liking, which “some in the industry believe” is a “top-half-of-first-round” asking price. (So, in the neighborhood of $4MM, based on the recommended slot prices.) It isn’t out of the question that the hard-throwing Wilcox is selected within the top 15 anyway based on his strong track record at Georgia, though many prognosticators have the righty in the bottom half of the first round.
- Speaking of prognostication, let’s give into some mock draft action! The latest projections are up from The Athletic’s Keith Law (subscription required), Baseball America’s Carlos Collazo, and MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis, and all have identical top threes: Torkelson to the Tigers, Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin to the Orioles with the second overall pick, and Texas A&M southpaw Asa Lacy to the Marlins third overall. Assuming Detroit does take Torkelson, the O’s are favored to select Martin or at least another position player — Collazo and Callis note that Baltimore could opt to take New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales, while Law has heard “rumblings” that Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad could be the pick if the Orioles wanted to spread around their draft pool money.
- All three mock drafts are well worth a read, as Law, Collazo, and Callis share some reports and rumors about which prospects could be on various teams’ radars, and what particular teams may or may not be targeting on their draft boards. For instance, the Royals (who pick fourth overall) seem to be leaning towards picking a position player this after focusing on adding pitchers in recent drafts, which could lead them to Gonzales or Florida high school outfielder Zac Veen. Callis has K.C. taking Gonzales while Collazo and Law have the Royals taking Veen, with Law adding that he has “heard they’re cool on Gonzales.” Then again, a pitcher might not be out of the question either for Kansas City, as Collazo writes “lately, we’ve also heard Minnesota right-hander Max Meyer linked to this pick.” As for Wilcox’s placement, Callis projects the Mets (19th overall), Law projects the Nationals (22nd), and Collazo projects the Yankees (28th).
3:14pm: The Astros will also pay their minor leaguers through August, Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle tweets. The Red Sox will do the same, Julian McWilliams and Alex Speier of the Boston Globe write. The Reds will pay theirs through Sept. 7, the end of the scheduled minor league season, per C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic.
2:16pm: As teams throughout the league make sweeping releases at the minor league level, neither the Twins nor the Royals plan on cutting any players, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman (Twitter links). The Twins and Royals will also commit to paying all of their minor league player the current $400 weekly stipend through Aug. 31 — the would-be end of the minor league season — while providing full benefits. The Twins are also committing to front-office and baseball ops staff through at least the end of June, Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com tweets.
To this point, no other clubs in the league have made such a commitment. The Marlins, Padres and Mariners all agreed to pay their minor leaguers through season’s end, although none of that bunch is known to be entirely avoiding minor league releases. Seattle, in fact, reportedly cut 50 minor league players this week already. The volume of players being released around the league is jarring — the D-backs cut a reported 64 players — although it should be noted that many of the releases would’ve come at the end of Spring Training under normal circumstances anyhow.
That doesn’t detract from the gesture made by the Twins or Royals, of course. It’s a stark contrast to an organization such as the Athletics, who informed minor league players earlier this week that they’ll no longer be paid after May 31. As MLB.com’s Jim Callis observes (on Twitter), the decision made by the Twins and Royals could quite likely prove beneficial in recruiting undrafted players who are selecting among teams while capped at a $20K signing bonus this summer.
For the most part, if one team trades you to another for cash considerations, odds are you aren’t going to amount to much in Major League Baseball. But it was four years ago today that the two Missouri-based franchises – the Royals and Cardinals – came together on a cash/player trade that made an impact in the ensuing couple years and could continue to have a long-term effect. On May 25, 2016, the Cardinals acquired outfielder Jose Martinez, whom the Royals had recently designated for assignment to clear roster space for a guy named Whit Merrifield, for money.
Back when the trade occurred, MLBTR’s Jeff Todd wrote of Martinez: “He’s a ten-year minor-league veteran who has yet to crack the majors. In parts of two seasons at Triple-A, Martinez owns a productive .359/.431/.525 batting line over 556 plate appearances. He hasn’t quite maintained the pace he set last year at Omaha, but will nevertheless provide the Cards some outfield depth in the upper levels of their system.”
Indeed, Martinez didn’t look as if he’d make a mark in the majors when the Cardinals got him. After all, along with the Royals, the White Sox and Braves gave up on Martinez earlier in his career. But following a couple months in the Cardinals’ system, the club recalled him Sept. 6, 2016, for his long-awaited major league debut. Martinez has defied the odds and gone on to a pretty successful offensive career since then.
In 2017, his first extensive action in the bigs, Martinez batted a hearty .309/.379/.518 (136 wRC+) with 14 home runs in 307 plate appearances. The good times continued the next season in an even larger role, as Martinez hit .305/.364/.457 (127 wRC+) and put up 17 HRs over 590 trips to the plate. As solid as Martinez was as a hitter then, though, defensive questions have consistently dogged him. He posted minus-13 Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-5.3 Ultimate Zone Rating as a corner outfielder from 2017-18, preventing him from maxing out his value as a hitter. By fWAR, Martinez was roughly an average contributor during that span, though he was passable as a first baseman in 675 innings in ’18 (minus-1 DRS, minus-3.2 UZR).
If you struggle as a defender, you have to hit in order to be of much use to your team, but Martinez even had difficulty doing that last year. On the heels of two impressive seasons in a row, he stumbled to a low-power line of .269/.340/.410 (101 wRC+) and managed just 10 homers in 373 PA. Between that and more subpar outfield defense (minus-10 DRS, minus-4.6 UZR), Martinez was close to a replacement-level player.
Despite his underwhelming output in 2019, as someone whom they gave up almost nothing to acquire, Martinez provided St. Louis more value than it could have realistically expected when it landed him. However, the Cardinals bid goodbye to Martinez last offseason, sending him, outfielder Randy Arozarena and a Competitive Balance Round A draft pick to the Rays in a deal that netted the Redbirds left-hander Matthew Liberatore, Tampa Bay’s Competitive Balance Round B selection and catcher Edgardo Rodriguez.
In the 31-year-old Martinez, the Rays got a player who, as mentioned, has typically fared well at the plate. Plus Martinez is under affordable control for the next three seasons, which is important for a low-budget club. It remains to be seen whether any of the younger talent in the swap will pan out, but it seems Liberatore stands the best chance. The 20-year-old currently ranks as the game’s 42nd-best prospect at Baseball America, which contends that he has “mid-rotation or better” upside.
Unlike the original Martinez trade, which was a win for St. Louis, we don’t yet know how the Cardinals-Rays one will go. Regardless, the Royals-Cards trade from four seasons ago is another sign that deals which may look insignificant at the time are capable of affecting teams for years.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
After selecting Joakim Soria out of the Padres’ farm system in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft, it could be argued that the Royals are still in the “playing with house money” honeymoon phase of the Rule 5 process. After all, even landing a Rule 5 player who can stick on a Major League roster for an entire season is a success, never mind landing a two-time All-Star like Soria through his 2007-11 heyday as Kansas City’s closer.
Eleven years after drafting Soria, it seems like the Royals again struck gold via the Rule 5 process. While Brad Keller has yet to reach All-Star levels, the right-hander has already enjoyed enough success over his first two MLB seasons that he looks like a solid building block for a young K.C. team.
Keller was an eighth-round pick for the Diamondbacks in the 2013 draft, and through five pro seasons had compiled some decent but unspectacular numbers in the Arizona farm system. Over 130 1/3 innings for Double-A Jackson in 2017, Keller posted a 4.68 ERA, 7.6 K/9, and 1.95 K/BB rate, which wasn’t quite good enough for him to make the grade amidst something of a 40-man roster crunch for the D’Backs.
Coming off a 93-win season and a NLDS appearance in 2017, the Diamondbacks were focused on using much of their available 40-man spaces on players who could potentially provide immediate help in 2018, as GM Mike Hazen explained to the Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro two years ago. “Our scouts liked [Keller]. We liked him,” Hazen said. “We made the conscious decision not to add him because of where he was in proximity to the Major League team, where we were in the cycle, what we wanted to use our 40-man spots for, we wanted to be aggressive in the offseason in claiming guys…that were closer to the big leagues in our mind.”
So, the D’Backs left Keller unprotected in December 2017 draft, and it didn’t take long for another team to pounce on the right-hander. However, that other team wasn’t actually the Royals, whose spot in the Rule 5 draft order didn’t fall until the #18 spot that year. Instead it was the Reds who took Keller with the fifth pick, and then promptly dealt him to Kansas City for cash considerations. (The Royals swung a similar move just one pick later, acquiring sixth pick Burch Smith for cash from the Mets after New York selected Smith out of Tampa Bay’s farm system.)
Smith also ended up spending the entire 2018 season on the K.C. roster, though he was cut loose after posting a 6.92 ERA over 78 innings. Keller, on the other hand, was much more of an immediate success. After posting a 2.01 ERA over his first 22 1/3 frames of work out of Kansas City’s bullpen in 2018, Keller was promoted to the rotation and continued to succeed. The righty had a 3.28 ERA over his 20 starts, striking out 83 batters (against 43 walks) over 118 innings.
Keller’s sophomore year wasn’t quite as impressive, though he still managed a quite respectable 4.19 ERA, 1.74 K/BB, and 6.6 K/9 over 165 1/3 frames, all as a member of the Royals rotation. It could be argued that Keller was perhaps fortunate to manage that 4.19 mark, as some ERA predictors (4.94 xFIP, 5.23 SIERA) were significantly higher, and batters made much more solid contract off him in 2019 than in 2018. The Statcast metrics also took a dim view of Keller’s 2019 performance, with a whole lot of blue — as in, below-average — numbers for Keller in comparison to other pitchers in exit velocity, xwOBA, strikeout percentage, and several other categories.
That said, advanced metrics don’t tend to favor low-strikeout hurlers like Keller who specialize in keeping the ball on the ground. Among pitchers with at least 300 innings tossed over the last two seasons, Keller has the lowest (8.4%) home run rate in baseball, and the second-highest (52%) grounder rate. These outstanding numbers are particularly valuable in this era of the lively ball, and Keller could further benefit from some improved defense behind him, should Maikel Franco provide any sort of upgrade at third base.
All told, 4.8 fWAR over two seasons already represents a very nice return on the Royals’ initial minor cash outlay to Cincinnati. Keller doesn’t turn 25 until July, and he doesn’t reach arbitration eligibility until this coming offseason, putting him under the Royals’ control through the 2023 campaign. Under normal circumstances, Keller could be a player the Royals might have already locked up to a contract extension, and while all extension talks are halted under the current transactions freeze, it wouldn’t be a surprise if K.C. began some talks with Keller’s representatives once regular business gets back underway.
While truly major Rule 5 Draft success stories are relatively few and far between these days, a team only needs to hit on one pick to make the enterprise worthwhile. Finding a big league talent for virtually nothing is a win for any team, and if that talent is a mid-20’s starting pitcher who looks like he can hang in at least the middle of a big league rotation, the Royals got a valuable boost to their latest rebuilding effort.