The Kansas City Royals continue to throw a wrench into this year’s starting pitching market. A few days after landing Seth Lugo with a three-year, $45 million deal, Kansas City continues to bolster its starting rotation — and they’ve gone back to the former Padres well to do it. Per multiple reports, the Royals have reached an agreement with former San Diego righty Michael Wacha on a two-year, $32 million deal that also gives Wacha the right to opt out next winter.
Much like with Lugo, the inclusion of an opt-out takes a little but of the luster off of this deal. Still, much like with Lugo, it’s hard not to like this for the Royals — if for no other reason than it signals that new GM J.J. Picollo is serious about trying to win games after years of sitting out free agency. It appears that eight straight seasons at or below .500 — including four campaigns of 97 losses or more — has convinced Picollo that now is the time to start building, and that starts with bolstering what was a dismal starting rotation in 2023 (27th in starter’s ERA).
Targeting Wacha makes plenty of sense, especially at this price. The righty is coming off a very solid season with the Padres in which he pitched to a 3.22 ERA and 3.89 FIP across 24 starts. Batters simply could not figure out his Bugs Bunny changeup (.207 BA against, 35.9% whiff rate), and he should thrive as he moves to spacious Kauffman Stadium and the offensively challenged (to be polite) AL Central. Wacha won’t set the world on fire or compete for Cy Young votes, but 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 — in other words, exactly what the Royals need to try and raise their pitching floor after years of terrible starting pitching results.
Both Wacha and Lugo are valuable commodities — we had them within the top 40 of our overall free agent rankings, and inside the top 15 starters — and it remains a bit of a surprise that Kansas City was able to pry them away from other would-be contenders who need pitching. (We’re looking at you, Red Sox, Cardinals and Cubs.) Granted, there are still some big names out there, including the very biggest names of all in Blake Snell and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. But only two teams will be able to win those sweepstakes, and the Royals did well to jump the market will the big-market teams were looking elsewhere.
Wacha and Lugo will slot in very nicely behind 2023 breakout lefty Cole Ragans, combining with Brady Singer — hopefully back to his 2022 form after a disappointing season — to form a pretty decent starting staff. Wacha and new outfielder Hunter Renfroe can bolt next offseason, while Lugo can leave after 2025. Kansas City didn’t sign them as long-term solutions; they signed them with eyes on winning right away, and given the state of the Central division right now, that’s a bet worth making — especially given that it doesn’t hamper their long-term vision much at all.
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.