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Royals signing SP Seth Lugo to three-year, $45 million deal

Kansas City has made a rare foray into free agency as they look to finally pull out of a long and painful rebuild.

Seth Lugo of the San Diego Padres pitches during the first inning of a game against the Colorado Rockies at PETCO Park on September 20, 2023 in San Diego, California. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

With all eyes on the top remaining pitchers available, Tuesday gave us some action from an unexpected source. Per Jon Heyman, the Kansas City Royals are signing former Padres righty Seth Lugo to a three-year, $45 million deal. The contract also gives Lugo the option to opt out after the 2025 season.

The move represents a rare loosening of the purse strings from the small-market Royals. This is the third-largest contract the team has handed out in its history, trailing only a five-year, $55 million deal for Gil Meche back in 2006 and the Ian Kennedy (five years, $70 million) and Alex Gordon (four years, $72 million) signings from January 2016. But after eight straight seasons at or below .500 — including four campaigns of 97 losses or more — GM J.J. Picollo has evidently decided that it’s time to start pulling our of this long, painful rebuild, and that starts with bolstering what was a dismal starting rotation in 2023 (27th in starter’s ERA).

Picollo chose wisely in Lugo, even if he had to include the opt-out to get a deal done. The righty spent the first seven years of his career with the Mets, most of which came as a reliever. But injuries up and down the Padres rotation last season finally thrust him into the rotation full-time, and he put up a breakout season, with a 3.57 ERA (115 ERA+), 1.20 WHIP and nearly a strikeout per inning across 26 appearances and 146.1 innings. With a three-pitch mix highlighted by a truly dynamite curveball, he’s a perfectly adequate mid-rotation starter, the kind of guy who can regularly turn over a lineup multiple times and give you five or six above-average innings every fifth day.

That’s a valuable commodity, and it’s a bit surprising that the many other pitching-needy teams around the league — many of whom have more realistic designs on contention in 2024 than Kansas City — didn’t match or exceed this deal. Yes, plenty of bigger fish still remain, most notably reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and it’s likely that most of the big-market clubs are keeping their powder dry until those pitchers make their decisions. But Yoshinobu and Snell can only sign with one team, and you can truly never have enough pitching. A legitimate No. 3 or 4 at $15 million a year (a number that is right at or even, frankly, below market rate) is hard to come by, and it seems odd that a team like the Red Sox — which needs not one but multiple starters for next season, but which apparently was reluctant to guarantee a third year — wouldn’t take this opportunity to pounce.

The Royals never had much hope of shopping in the high-rent district, and they were wise to jump the market and lock Lugo in. Kansas City might have an ace on its hands after what Cole Ragans did down the stretch last year, but there’s precious little in the way of certainty beyond that — mainly just the hope that Brady Singer bounces back from a miserable 2023 and regains something closer to his 2022 form. Lugo provides some much-needed stability, and more broadly signals a franchise finally willing to get serious after years of bottom-barrel payrolls and accumulating draft picks. Bobby Witt Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino, Maikel Garcia, Freddy Fermin and Nick Loftin represent a reasonably promising offensive core to build around, and at a certain point you have to put a winning structure around your young players — something that tells both them and your fans that this is a place committed to winning. (Witt Jr. is under team control through 2028, but if Kansas City wants him in a Royals uniform for the long haul, they need to start engendering good will now.)

With less than $75 million committed to their 2024 payroll, Picollo had some money to spend, and it’s hard to imagine putting it to better use. Now who knows, maybe they can also make good on their reported interest in Marcus Stroman and/or Lucas Giolito and get something really cooking.