April 24, 2024

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Rosenthal: The Royals' new additions offer a unique vision — competing in the AL Central

Rosenthal: The Royals' new additions offer a unique vision — competing in the AL Central

SURPRISE, Ariz. — The first question Seth Lugo asked Will Smith wasn't the kind of question a free agent often asks a potential new teammate:

Does anyone else on the team have children?

Smith, 34, was recruiting Lugo, also 34, to join him with the Kansas City Royals. Lugo's wife, Amanda, knew the team was small, and said to him in near panic: “We're going to have only children!”

Lugo's children are 3 and 1 year old. Smith sent quick text messages to Lugo as the two families tried to get their children to sleep, conveying that he understood Amanda's anxiety.

“You don't want to be the only wife with a child,” Smith said. “I said: Yes, I am married. Yes, we have a son (less than a year old). Your wife will not be there alone.”

However, the Royals' offseason began to accelerate, as Smith, a respected and popular veteran who played for three consecutive World Series champions, emerged as a major recruit.

The Royals ended up spending $109.5 million on seven free agents, then signing Bobby Witt Jr. to an 11-year, $288.8 million extension and adding reliever John Schreiber from the Red Sox on Saturday in a trade. Projection systems are so far unaffected. Graphs The Royals have won 76 games, Picuta 70. But the club's new additions offer a unique vision, saying they expect the team to be competitive.

Playing on a weak Central team, who can say he's dreaming?

“It's important for the team to set goals,” right-hander Michael Wacha said. “That starts with winning the division. I think it's very possible.”

If the Royals do engineer a turnaround from last season's 56-106 nightmare, at least some of the credit will go to Smith, who signed a one-year, $5 million free agent contract on Dec. 10 and eagerly accepted the Royals' offer. To return to the late relief role.

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The deal was barely complete when Smith began asking general manager JJ Piccolo a series of questions.

“Now what are we going to do?” Piccolo remembers Smith saying. “Who do we need to talk to? Who should we go to?”

Piccolo, full of ideas, asked Smith for help.

That night, Smith called teammate Chris Stratton, his former teammate with the Rangers last season and the San Francisco Giants from 2016-18.

“Come on, let's do this,” Smith recalled telling Stratton. “I know how good you are. We can help turn this around.”

The Royals had traded the previous month for reliever Nick Anderson and signed free agent Garrett Hampson. But now their pressure has begun.

Two days after Smith's deal became official, Stratton finalized a two-year, $8 million pact, and Lugo signed a three-year, $45 million contract with an opt-out after two years.

Lugo told Piccolo that the first congratulatory letter he received was from Wacha, his San Diego Padres teammate last season. Piccolo then recruits Lugo to contact Washa, who is surprised that the royals are still interested in him. Wacha discovered that once the Royals signed Lugo, they were done adding the starting pitching.

No, Piccolo was still looking. He could sign Wacha to a two-year, $32 million contract with an opt-out after one year or trade first baseman/DH Vinnie Pasquantino to the Miami Marlins for left-hander Jesús Luzardo. Owner John Sherman allowed him to sign Wacha, enabling the Royals to retain one of their most promising young hitters.

The addition of Lugo actually made Picollo more comfortable dealing with Wacha after three days. Lugo threw 146 1/3 innings last season, his first as a full-time starter. He believes he will increase that number this season. The Royals, who also have veteran Jordan Lyles, rebounding candidate Brady Singer and second-half star Cole Ragans in their rotation, shouldn't need 180 innings from Wacha, who threw 134 1/3 innings last season, his highest total since 2017.

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On the day the Royals reached an agreement with Wacha, they also agreed to a two-year, $13 million contract with outfielder Hunter Renfroe. Here too communications made a difference. Renfrow and Stratton in early 2010 were one year apart at Mississippi State. Their wives are friendly, and Stratton said they stayed in constant contact throughout the free-agent process.

Wacha and Renfrew made five signings in five days. Piccolo then waited six and a half weeks to acquire his latest free agent, infielder/outfielder Adam Frazier, on a one-year, $4.5 million deal. Frazier was also a Mississippi State product. Renfro, his college roommate for three years, recommended him to Piccolo. The three new members of the Mississippi Family share the same agent, Beau McInnis.

Frazier sees the same potential in the Royals as his two previous clubs, the 2022 Seattle Mariners and 2023 Baltimore Orioles, both of whom reached the playoffs. His role must be determined. Some second base with Michael Massey, who also bats left-handed. Some corner of the field. In a three-way call with Piccolo and manager Matt Quatraro, Frazier said: “I just want to win.”

“All the signings they made before me, I was like, ‘OK, they’re committed,’” Frazier said. “I felt like we had a chance to be something.”

Spring training talk, for sure. The Royals face an uphill climb. The 70 wins PECOTA projects would represent an improvement of 14 games. But the AL Central consists of two teams, the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Guardians, that have been hampered by uncertainty about future local TV revenue this season. Another, the Detroit Tigers, who are trying to pull off the same kind of upset as the Royals; And one more, the Chicago White Sox, are starting over under GM Chris Getz in year one.

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The Royals went 15-12 after Sept. 1 last season, their only win month of 2023. And Smith, who returns to the organization that gave him his first major league shot 12 years ago, feels the momentum building.

“There's no indication that if September is the first month of the season, how well they're going to do the rest of the year,” Smith said. “They just needed two more pieces to put everything together. I think we did that in the offseason.”

Smith's use of the word “we” was appropriate, given the role he played in helping convince others to play for Kansas City. He has become accustomed to the title of “World Series Champion.” He had never experienced the role of “lead recruiter.” He enjoyed promoting the team's vision, alleviating parents' fears, and twisting each arm.

“There are no rules for recruiting in Major League Baseball,” Smith said with a broad smile. “It's not like we're in college anymore.”

(Top photo by Seth Lugo: Lindsey Wasson/The Associated Press)