Mike Minor Returns to Kansas City

Ah, the introductory paragraph of a free agency signing piece. Normally, this is a space to let loose and spend a while thinking up a pun about the team and the player linking up. I must sadly tell you, however, that I can’t bring myself to do it. The degree of difficulty is the fun, and Mike Minor’s name is too easy, so you’ll just have to settle for the facts: the Kansas City Royals signed Minor to a two-year deal over the weekend, as Ken Rosenthal first reported.

When Minor left the Royals after a dominant 2017 season of relief work, he looked like a classic conversion arm. He’d been workmanlike over parts of five seasons with the Braves, never overwhelming but also never disastrous. After a brutal series of injuries ending in shoulder surgery, however, Atlanta cut him loose, and he landed with the Royals on a two-year deal. Kansas City turned him into a reliever, and he promptly annihilated the AL Central — his 2.55 ERA and 2.62 FIP represented a new level of performance, and he looked like a relief ace created out of whole cloth.

As he returns to Kansas City three years later, the situation feels both familiar and strange. Familiar, in that he’s spent the last three years putting in a performance that was, in aggregate, a little bit better than average. His run prevention numbers look slightly worse for having played two years in an extreme hitter’s park, but even then, a 4.07 ERA and 4.37 FIP will play, and that works out to an 85 ERA- and 95 FIP- after park adjustments. Even including a rough 2020, Minor looks like a workmanlike pitcher again.

Is he heading back to Kansas City to relieve? Almost certainly not. You see, Minor’s 2019 raises hope that there’s a little bit more there than meets the eye. He started the season strong, with a 2.54 ERA and 3.78 FIP, which led to his first All-Star nod. He faded down the stretch, though he still finished with 4.1 WAR and did even better (6.4 WAR) if you focus on runs allowed rather than FIP.

Even if you want to disregard the half-by-half split and focus on the aggregate, something stood out: Minor threw 208.1 innings, a career high. He followed that up with another 11 starts in 2020, essentially a full season of work. A starter who can put up decent rate statistics over a full workload is a valuable commodity in today’s game, particularly given the fact that essentially every pitcher in baseball will throw many more innings next year than they did this year, which likely increases the chance of injury.

Of course, if 2019 showcased Minor’s potential ceiling, 2020 reminded us what might go wrong. Minor gave up a bushelful of home runs despite making 10 of his 11 starts in homer-suppressing stadiums. He struck out more batters, but the peripherals don’t look promising; he got fewer chases and fewer swinging strikes, batters swung at just as many pitches in the zone as they had in 2019, and he lost a tick and a half on his fastball, which dipped dangerously close to 90 mph.

You can read as much as you’d like in tea leaves these days, and Minor’s are a mixed bag. He allowed more hard contact and barrels in 2020 than he did in 2019, which isn’t great. On the other hand, his fastball popped in September; his 31.4% whiff-per-swing rate was the highest such number he’s ever posted as a starter, and he leaned into it by throwing more fastballs than he had in years. Maybe he found something in Oakland that brought back his old form.

On the other hand, his changeup lost effectiveness over that same span. He also posted a 4.22 FIP and 4.32 xFIP, so it’s not like he suddenly turned into Max Scherzer. The fact of the matter is that you can generally see whatever you want to see in a pitcher like Minor.

Steamer thinks that Minor will post a 4.64 ERA next year and be worth 2.1 WAR. That’s acceptable innings-eating, and to be honest, the margin of error around that projection doesn’t mean much to the Royals. If he instead posts a 4-flat ERA, that’s roughly 12 fewer runs over his projected 175 innings. That might amount to an extra win or two, but frankly, that’s not why the Royals signed him. As Tony Wolfe pointed out last week, the marginal return of a win or two isn’t great given the Royals’ starting point.

Kansas City might not be a true playoff contender just yet, but when they become one, it will likely be on the back of their young pitching core. Kris Bubic, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and 2020 draft pick Asa Lacy all look like potential future difference-makers. Bubic and Singer pitched in the majors in 2020, but the rest have yet to debut, and filling the rotation with enough innings that the team isn’t compelled to force a prospect up before they’re ready seems like a wise investment.

By adding Minor to their existing veteran group of Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, and Jakob Junis, the Royals hope they can get those innings. Anything else he provides is a bonus. If Lacy or Kowar pushes the Royals to the playoffs in 2023 and credits the veteran leadership that Minor provided them in their formative years, well, that’s the kind of payoff the team would be happy with. If the young core forces their way to the majors this year, no big deal — the Royals have sent Minor to the bullpen before, and they can do it again.

The details of the signing haven’t yet been announced, but assuming they fall somewhere in the range estimated in our Top 50 Free Agents post — Craig Edwards forecasted 2/$14 million and the median crowdsource came in at 2/$20 million — this feels like a good use of payroll for Kansas City. You can’t turn your young team into a contender in a single day, but signings like this accomplish several goals at once without much downside. It won’t be the signing of the offseason or propel the Royals atop the AL Central, but short of those unrealistic goals, it checks every box.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Six Ten
1 year ago

I’m a bit baffled. I like Minor, I’ll be happy to see the Royals have more quality pitching. But if you believe—as Moore insists—that this team is on the verge of contention, is this really the most efficient way to add to that? They have multiple glaring position player holes with nobody to plug them. They do not have huge starting pitching holes, and they have lots of minor league talent there to compete for those spots. They have multiple current starters (Duffy, Junis) who profile pretty well as relievers (a dominant best pitch, an acceptable-to-good secondary pitch, and a mess after that) if those young guys make it to the team in 2021.

And even if you are doing this because TINSTAAPP and all, a two-year deal doesn’t seem like enough. But I guess that’s just Moore and I differing on how close the team is. Or maybe this ends with me pleasantly surprised by a good position player signing, but multiple semi-pricey deals in one free agent window seems unlikely.