The numbers game playing out in the Royals’ bullpen doesn’t look great for Royals fans or farmhands. Not great for the farmhands because it may mean a trip back to AAA. Not great for the fans because it may mean another season watching horrid relief pitching cost the team wins.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that the Royals could start 2018 with a better bullpen in Omaha than the one they’ll have in Kansas City by virtue of decisions meant to delay service time, build inventory, and give Rule 5 picks a chance.
Usually, teams carry seven relief pitchers on the 25-man roster. The Royals are pretty much locked in on Wily Peralta after a season in which he had a decent ERA (3.67), if weak peripherals (6.03 BB/9, 1.49 WHIP), and a 4.73 FIP. Plus, they’re paying him $3.25 million, not a huge sum but more than they want to throw away.
That leaves six spots. The Royals also chose two Rule 5 pitchers this year, Sam McWilliams and Chris Ellis, and both seem like bullpen options at least to start the year. After the success of Brad Keller last season, I imagine they’ll give those two every chance to stick around. They kept Burch Smith all of last year despite his 6.92 ERA and -0.6 fWAR. Organizationally, it’s probably wise to keep McWilliams and Ellis around. They’re free players; it cost nothing to get them. If they could be pieces of a future winner, it’s worth some struggles this year to have them around in 2022.
That leaves four spots. It seems likely that two of the remaining four will go to Kevin McCarthy and Brian Flynn. McCarthy was probably the team’s best reliever last season. As a ground ball specialist with average stuff at best, McCarthy’s the type of pitcher who should really be the last guy to make it, but he’s the cream of this particularly cream-less crop. Flynn will probably make it because he’s out of options, and the Royals like his versatility. He’s their de facto swingman/long reliever.
That leaves two spots. This is where a prospect might get in, but there’s a good chance one of these two spots goes to Tim Hill. Ned Yost loves him a LOOGY (left-handed, one out guy), and Hill is a good one. He was used as a general reliever last year (more against righties than lefties, actually), and his ERA wasn’t great (4.53), but his peripherals were good (8.28 K/9, 2.76 BB/9) and his FIP was solid (3.51). His numbers against lefties were even better (9.15 K/9, 2.75 BB/9, 2.70 FIP). Dislodging Hill will be tough, especially for a manager like Yost who always seems inclined to stick with guys he knows (and a general manager like Dayton Moore who always seems inclined to delay service time). The biggest hurdle for Hill is the fact that he has options, which means he may end up in AAA as an inventory move.
If Hill does make it, that leaves one spot. Just one for guys like Richard Lovelady, Josh Staumont, Jake Newberry, Kevin Lenik, and yes, the mythical Kyle Zimmer. Add on pitchers who don’t make the starting rotation like Heath Fillmyer, Jorge Lopez, Jesse Hahn, and Glenn Sparkman, it gets super crowded in that bullpen. Lopez and Hahn have the inside track on all of them because they have no options remaining.
This numbers game means it’s quite possible that Hahn or Lopez take the last bullpen spot, and the Storm Chasers start the year with Lovelady, Staumont, Newberry, Lenik, and Zimmer out of the pen. At that point, it would be safe to wonder which of the two bullpens is better.
There’s a convincing argument to be made that Lovelady and Staumont are the organization’s two best relievers right now. Lovelady put up good numbers in 2018 (8.75 K/9, 2.59 BB/9, 3.28 FIP), and it was considered a down year for him. Opponents hit all of .200 off of him. Staumont had trouble with walks (6.30 BB/9), as always, but still put up a 12.47 K/9 and a 3.85 FIP.
Zimmer still has plenty to prove, but no one’s ever questioned his stuff. His issue is health. If he stays on the field, he could be better than Lovelady or Staumont.
Newberry looked decent with the big club last year in a small sample size (13.1 IP). His walk numbers were inflated due to the small sample size (6.08 BB/9), as were his home run numbers (2.03 HR/9), but it seems likely that he’s capable of being an average big league reliever. Lenik had a rough 2018, but the strikeout numbers were there. If he gets the command under control, he should slide beside Newberry as an average big league reliever. Taken as a duo, Newberry and Lenik are probably better relief options than McWilliams and Ellis at this point. In fact, McWilliams has never pitched above AA and didn’t have a ton of success there.
That’s five relief pitchers in Omaha who are capable of being major league average, three of whom may be better than all the relief pitchers in Kansas City if healthy.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the Storm Chasers’ bullpen being better than the Royals’ bullpen. This isn’t an argument for Lovelady, Staumont, Zimmer, Newberry, and Lenik to start in the majors. It makes complete sense for a rebuilding, small market team to take advantage of Rule 5 picks and service time rules to stack the cupboard. It just always strikes me as odd when this sort of thing happens.
Of course, this could all change at any time. Injuries will happen. Unexpected breakouts and busts will happen. That’s baseball. And in all likelihood, Lovelady, Staumont, Zimmer, and Newberry will all see major league time this year if they’re healthy (Lenik too if he bounces back from a mediocre 2018).
But for now, the numbers don’t look great for the Royals organization’s best relievers to actually play for the Royals.
Photo Credits: Ken Inness—MiLB.com