The bullpen is the fifth in a series of articles on the 2014 Kansas City Royals as they prepare for Spring Training in Surprise, AZ.
The Royals 2013 relief corps proved once again they are among the cream of Major League baseball. They led both leagues in walks and hits to innings pitched (WHIP) while finishing second behind only Atlanta in earned run average (ERA) and runs per nine innings (R/9). They failed to lead in strikeouts like 2012 only because they threw 100 fewer innings thanks to an improved starting staff.
Failures in 2013 proved rare as only one pitcher exceeded a 4.00 ERA (Luis Mendoza) while J. C. Gutierrez became the only one released. Compare that to 2012 when no less than six pitchers found themselves on other teams between April and October.
Greg Holland was the bullpen king, saving 47 games while compiling a miniscule 1.21 ERA, amazing 13.8 strike outs per nine innings (SO/9)and mind boggling 342 ERA+ (more than three times better than the average major league pitcher). Failed starter Luke Hochevar also found success out of the pen with a 1.92 ERA, 215 ERA+ and 10.5 SO/9.
Other relievers heavily relied upon included righty Aaron Crow with 3.38 ERA and 123 ERA+ in 57 games and lefty Tim Collins with 3.54 EA and 117 ERA+ in 66 games. Louis Coleman also made a dramatic impact after arriving from Omaha at mid-season, compiling an even more astounding 0.61 ERA and ludicrous 686 ERA+ in 27 appearances. The only down side among the regulars was Kelvin Herrera who again struggled early and spent multiple stints in AAA before righting his ship after the all-star break to finish with a respectable 3.86 ERA, 107 ERA+ and 11.4 SO/9.
The biggest problem facing General Manager Dayton Moore and Manager Ned Yost in 2014 is who to keep and who to send back to the minors. Besides those listed above, the Royals also have lefties Donnie Joseph, Francisco Bueno, Everett Teaford and Chris Dwyer and righties Michael Mariot, potential starter Yordano Ventura and probable reliever Wade Davis also vying for a spot on the ML roster.
Yost will no doubt carry 12 pitchers on his staff this year, partly due to just four off days in April, meaning most of the names listed will find themselves back in AAA to start the 2014 campaign.
So who is in, who is out, and how will decisions be made? Here is a rundown on each reliever and their likelihood of making the parent club when the Royals head to Detroit on 30 March.
Greg Holland – Holland is a lock as the closer barring injury or another team making Moore an offer he can’t refuse (unlikely). Actually, Holland has generated excitement this winter but not about his role on the team.
Many Royals writers and bloggers throughout the winter have questioned whether Holland should be traded now while his value is high; knowing he could soon become too expensive for Kansas City’s small market budget. It doesn’t help that Holland’s contract is not settled with less than a week to spring training and an arbitration hearing drawing close. Dayton Moore has never gone to an arbitration hearing but Holland could break that string. The Royals and Holland are $1.1M apart with Holland filing for $5.2M and the Royals countering with $4.1M.
Chances are an agreement will be reached and potentially for more than just 2014 as Moore tries to tie up Holland for all three arbitration years rather than do this all over again in 2015.
Aaron Crow – A former number one draft pick, Crow has settled in as a reliable bullpen middle reliever, his two pitch repertoire just not enough to be effective over several innings as a starter. Crow has his ups and downs but overall has been a solid reliever the past three seasons and even made the all-star team in 2011. He can be assured of a chair beyond the left field wall at Kaufman Stadium for 2014.
Tim Collins – Another obvious choice partly because his power defies his diminutive frame and partly because he is still the best lefty in the pen at present.
Like Crow, Collins is a three year veteran in KC, his best season coming in 2012 when he pitched to a 3.36 ERA with 1.28 WHIP and 12 SO/9 in 72 games. While 2013 didn’t match 2012 with higher walk rate and lower strikeout rate, Collins still proved effective giving him the inside track for a spot in 2014.
Kelvin Herrera – Herrera has had ugly starts the past two seasons before getting it going the right direction in the second half. One of several in the KC 100 mph club, Herrera has the stuff to be a nasty reliever late in games. However, his control has been his biggest nemesis, either walking hitters at critical times or leaving his fastball up and over the middle of the plate where good hitters don’t miss.
Still, like Crow and Collins, Herrera is considered one of the mainstays and barring a horrific spring or injury, he will head to Detroit with the club.
Louis Coleman – Coleman should also be a lock based on his near perfect second half in 2013 and better overall stats than Crow or Collins. For some reason though, Yost has not shown the same faith in Louis that he has the others meaning it is possible Coleman could find himself back in AAA to start 2014.
That happened last year as well when Coleman looked all spring like the best man to fill out the squad only to be demoted in favor of free agent J. C. Gutierrez due to Coleman having options remaining. Coleman still has options in 2014 meaning his future could again depend on who comes and goes in the next six weeks leading up to the opener in Detroit on 31 March.
Luke Hochevar – Unless Hochevar starts the season in the number five starting spot he will be back in the bullpen where he excelled so well in 2013. Jim Morris of The Rookie movie fame may have explained it best in his book, The Oldest Rookie. He said some pitchers just can’t handle the pressure that builds in the days between starts. However, put them in the bullpen where they have no time to think before being called and they do fine. Hochevar may be one of those pitchers.
There is some logic for Hochevar to get four or five starts in April 2014 to see if his relief success from 2013 can carry back to starting. It would also help justify the $5.21M he will be paid this year.
One other possibility is that another team values Hochevar as a reliever – and possible closer – enough to work a trade for his services before spring training closes. Most likely case though is Hochevar starts the season in KC’s bullpen as Holland’s setup man.
Danny Duffy – Duffy is the inside favorite for the last starting spot unless Hochevar is given another shot at starting. That would just mean Duffy taking Hoch’s relief spot. Yost recently mentioned that Duffy may be better off starting the season in relief following his Tommy John surgery some two years ago.
Duffy also adds value to the pen since the only lefty pretty much guaranteed a spot right now is Collins. Yost will definitely want another lefty and Duffy may just be that option.
Wade Davis – Davis wants to start and that is why the Royals requested him in the trade with Shields. However, Davis proved horrible as a starter last year before finally being demoted to the pen in late August.
No doubt, like Hochevar, Davis has shown more value out of the pen than as a starter. But, also like Hochevar, Davis is owed a steep $4.8M this year, a major factor when the Royals can easily fill his bullpen spot with a $500k league minimum fireballer from their AAA stable.
Davis may get a chance to start in spring training but if he does not wow the coaching staff and steal the job from Duffy or Hochevar then his next stop may be another team via a late spring trade.
Yordano Ventura – While Ventura is being groomed as a starter and will most likely begin the year in Omaha, he could still earn a relief role in KC if he proves unhittable in spring training and other dominos fall his way. Even then, he probably starts the season in the pen but move to starting as soon as an opening occurs.
Donnie Joseph – Joseph is another power arm from the left side that the Royals might select if Duffy wins the last starting spot. Donnie had a solid spring training in 2013 plus pitched 5 2/3 innings without giving up a run in two brief stints at KC during the season. However, unless Duffy is the starter and Davis or Hochevar is traded, expect Donnie to join a large group of hopefuls whiling away the nights in the Omaha pen for most of 2014.
Francisley Bueno – The Royals signed Bueno as a free agent back in 2011 as left handed insurance. However, the lack of injuries and success by others has forced him to spend most of the last two seasons in Omaha despite a 1.61 ERA, 406 ERA+ and 0.935 WHIP in 28 innings over 26 games in brief stints at KC.
Bueno’s advantage, like Joseph, is he pitches from the left side. However, also like Joseph, it will take several breaks for him to see more than a possible brief stint in KC for 2014.
Chris Dwyer – Another lefty prospect in the Royals system, Dwyer has been a starter in the minors, but did get a cup of coffee in KC late in 2013 where he gave up no runs over three innings of work.
However, barring a disaster of epic proportions, Dwyer will be in the starting rotation at Omaha along with Ventura and two more prospects: Kyle Zimmer and Jason Adam.
Michael Mariot – Yet another in the Royals bottomless pit of highly touted relievers coming through the system. Mariot had a solid 2013 season at Omaha, good enough to be added to the 40-man roster this winter. However, unlike Dwyer and Joseph, Mariot is right handed with Crow, Coleman, Holland, Hochevar and Herrera all in front of him at the major league level. So it will require serious luck for Mariot to see KC before September 2014 expanded roster time.
Others – Besides the names above, the Royals also signed several pitchers to minor league free agent contracts with an invite to spring training. These include former major leaguers Jon Rauch, Guillermo Mota and P. J. Walters. Any one of this group could put up a solid enough spring to earn a shot just as Gutierrez did in 2013 – although Gutierrez was already on a major league contract. However, reality says the current relief crew is even stronger this year and it will take something spectacular to steal a job from a core that is pretty much locked up.
Summary – The biggest question facing the Royals bullpen in 2014 is whether they can maintain their 2012-13 excellence. ZiPS predict a regression to 3.56 ERA and 3.83 runs per nine (R/9) versus 2013’s 2.55 ERA and 2.87 R/9. Course the 2014 numbers include Wade Davis as a part time starter and Luke Hochevar and Louis Coleman regressing by a full two points in ERA. In fact the only reliever to have a better prediction is Kelvin Herrera.
In this case, ZiPS has apparently swallowed some bad code because there is no way this bullpen can regress that far. Even if some are traded and others struggle early or suffer injury, the Royals system is so deep that other pitchers will step in and achieve the same success without skipping a beat.
The most likely staff includes Holland, Herrera, Crow, Collins and Coleman as the anchors with the final two spots going to either Duffy or Hochevar – depending who starts – and Davis or Joseph depending on Duffy and whether Davis is traded. Of course injury could change that assumption but even that is doubtful considering how little time the bullpen arms have spent on the DL the last two years.
Unlike the Royals starting rotation questions in 2014, the relief crew is about as solid a bet as can be made in the game of baseball.
Stay tuned for next week’s final article that bring together the previous individual analyses on catching, infield, outfield, starting rotation and bullpen in an overall summary of what to expect in the coming season.
Comments and questions on this article can be sent to Jack Pippenger at firstname.lastname@example.org.