In the final days of the baseball season, Royals general manager Dayton Moore found relief pitcher Mike Minor inside Kauffman Stadium. He sought to deliver a brief message.
Minor, a 29-year-old left-hander, had come to the Royals in the spring of 2016, his career in jeopardy after years of shoulder problems. Two seasons later, he had returned to full health, converted to the bullpen and positioned himself for a life-changing trip to free agency.
Moore understood the reality, of course, that Minor may have performed his way out of the Royals’ plans and price range by posting a 2.55 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings . Yet he felt a sense of pleasure in seeing the transformation.
“I told him I was happy for him,” Moore said. “He deserves this opportunity for his family.”
Minor officially became a free agent this week after declining his side of a mutual-option year in his contract, a procedural move that was expected after he concluded the two guaranteed years of a $7.25 million deal signed before the 2016 season. He is expected to be one of the most coveted relievers on the free-agent market, the leading member of a second tier behind former Royals closers Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
The relief pitching market has exploded in recent years, in part because the Royals showcased the value of a dominant bullpen across two Octobers. Case in point: Last offseason, closer Aroldis Chapman signed a five-year deal worth $86 million with the New York Yankees, while Kenley Jansen inked a five-year, $80 million deal to return to the Los Angeles Dodgers. So while Davis and Holland could be in line for substantial pay days, Minor could benefit from the rising tide of reliever salaries.
Minor’s performance and arsenal — including a mid-90s fastball from the left side — will position him for a multi-year deal. The market competition could translate into a three-year contract that could approach $30 million.
By the numbers, Minor, a former starter with the Atlanta Braves, was one of the most effective non-closers in 2017. In addition, he increased his value by recording six saves while serving as the Royals’ closer in late September.
“I thought all season that I could do any part of the pen,” Minor said then. “And this just kind of showcases it. Maybe I could (close) with another team … or this team.”
The Royals remain interested in a reunion with Minor. Yet the decision could hinge on the price point and the direction of the franchise. If the club loses out in free agency and elects to embrace a rebuild, spending considerable money on a free-agent reliever would make little sense. In that case, the goal might be finding the next Minor, a reclamation project who rejuvenated his career in Kansas City.
For now, however, Moore can point to Minor as another success story, even after Minor suffered through a lost season in 2016. A first-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2009, Minor started 110 games for the Braves from 2010 to 2014 before shoulder issues derailed his career. He underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in 2015 before becoming a free agent that winter.
Minor went searching for an organization that would prioritize his health first. He found that in the Royals, who sold him on their medical staff and track record for rehabbing injured arms.
The Royals hoped Minor would rehab for most of 2016 and be an option for their starting rotation the following year. But that plan was scuttled when Minor hit a roadblock while on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues. His shoulder did not possess the necessary health and stamina to pitch deep into games. So the Royals looked for an alternative way to net value from the two-year deal. The answer? The bullpen.
At first unsure of the new role, Minor eventually embraced the move, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Luke Hochevar and Davis. By the middle of this season, he came to understand the value of the switch. By early October, he had made a career-high 65 appearances as his fastball averaged 94.9 mph, 3 mph harder than his days as a starter. By then, scouts around baseball had taken notice.
His career at a crossroads, Minor headed to the bullpen. He’s set to cash in this winter.