MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays

Building the Super Pen

After Joakim Soria and Kelvin Herrera gave up game losing home runs on back to back nights a few days back, you might not be in the mood to talk about bullpens. In particular, you may not want to hear about the Royals and their ‘super pen’ that was so key to the organization’s resurgence the past four years. With Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar injured, it does not feel like Kansas City has that great, dominant bullpen this year, and maybe they don’t. However, that this year’s pen is viewed as weak, it should be pointed out that by almost any statistical measure it is still one of the top ten in baseball. That is a testament to how good the Royals’ relievers have been that being merely in the top ten is viewed as a disappointment.

How did we get here? How did we get from Joe Nelson closing games at the end of the Dayton Moore’s first season to where our third (or fourth?) choice to close is Kelvin Herrera? Let’s go back to June of 2006 and take a little journey.

Among many bad things that Dayton Moore inherited when he took over was one of the worst bullpens in the game. Ambiriox Burgos was the closer. A failing Andrew Sisco pitched in 65 games and Jimmy Gobble threw in 60. Elmer Dessens threw 43 games and was joined by now failed starters in Jeremy Affeldt and Mike Wood. The most consistent pitcher out of the pen was Joel Peralta.

Moore’s very first move was to sign Todd Wellemeyer off waivers and he went on to pitch in 28 games that year for the Royals. The new GM traded the likes of J.P. Howell, Mike MacDougal, Dessens, Affeldt and Denny Bautista in search of young starters, one journeyman starter, a speedy center fielder and a slugging first baseman. (Name the last three and more than one of the young starters, there will be a quiz). The Royals, as mentioned above, ended the year with Joe Nelson saving 9 games. This was a bad bullpen on a bad baseball team.

Although Moore was supposedly not involved in the 2006 Draft, the Royals drafted Luke Hochevar, Blake Wood and Everett Teaford. In the scope of building a bullpen, we cannot give the Royals much credit for drafting Hochevar (or Wood for that matter) as he was certainly picked one-one with the idea of being a starter, not a set-up man. Still, some credit can be given to Moore & Company for at least giving Hochevar a try as a reliever once his failings as a starter became simply too much to take. More on that later.

What we certainly can give credit for is a 2006 off-season that saw the Royals nab Joakim Soria in the Rule 5 Draft and sign both Kelvin Herrera and Salvador Perez as amateur free agents. That is one good off-season in my opinion. Moore also signed Octavio Dotel to close and added free agent David Riske, who will be forever remembered as a key figure in the development of Zack Greinke, to the mix.

The 2007 pen was not good, frankly, but not the worst, either. Dotel was traded for Kyle Davies and Soria assumed the closer role. As you all remember, Greinke spent a fair portion of the summer in the pen. He was joined by Gobble (74 games), Riske (65 games), Peralta (62 games) and a cast of others that included John Bale, Ryan Braun (not that one, the other one) and Brandon Duckworth. In the heat of the summer, Moore drafted Greg Holland in the 12th round and here we must give Moore more credit. When Holland was drafted, the Royals immediately mentioned him as a pitcher with the upside to be a closer.

The Royals fielded a decent 2008 pen, headed by Soria as the closer and augmented by the signing of Ron Mahay, an early season trade for Ramon Ramirez and the return of Juan Carlos Oviedo (i.e. Leo Nunez). Peralta and Gobble were still there and they were joined by mid-season waiver pick up Robinson Tejeda. The highly publicized signing of Yash Yabuta was a bust and Hideo Nomo was a feel good story for about 13 days, but overall Moore built a solid pen. One that he would disassemble in the off-season.

That winter, flush off a fluky 18-8 September, Moore shipped Ramirez off for Coco Crisp and Oviedo for Mike Jacobs. Riske, Peralta and Gobble all left via free-agency and were replaced by Kyle Farnsworth, Ramon Colon and Juan Cruz.   Out of all of those guys and including Joakim Soria, Jamey Wright(!) pitched in 18 more games than anyone else on the roster. That does not sound like, did not sound like then and turned out not to be a good bullpen. Moore did draft Aaron Crow (again, not with the intention of him being a reliever) and Louis Coleman that summer, which would help down the road.

The best thing about the following year (2010) was that Greg Holland got his feet wet in the majors. To be fair, Holland was not very good in 15 relief appearances. Not good, however, fit right in with a bullpen led by Dusty Hughes, Robinson Tejeda, Blake Wood and Farnsworth – none of whom ever was able to consistently get the game to Soria. Dayton did work a little magic that summer and got the Braves to take on Farnsworth and the distributor of joy, Rick Ankiel, in return for Tim Collins, Jesse Chavez and Gregor Blanco. He also drafted some serviceable pieces in Kevin Chapman, Scott Alexander and Michael Mariot. Hey, you can’t draft a closer in the 12th round every year.

The 2011 pen still had Soria closing, but the crew leading up to him was now Collins, Crow, Wood, Coleman and Holland. This was still not a bullpen that struck fear into the opposition, but there were real signs of progress. These were all Dayton Moore guys at this point, drafted and developed by the organization. You might have a sour taste in your mouth when it comes to the likes of Crow and Collins, but they had their moments and would both throw in more than 200 games.

Jonathan Broxton was signed to be the closer for 2012 and did so with mixed results. Holland would inherit that role at mid-season and Kelvin Herrera threw in 76 games as he took Blake Wood’s spot from 2011. Crow, Collins and Coleman were all back and this unit was, quite frankly, among the best in the game. I would hesitate to use the term ‘dominant’ for this group, but they were on their way.

Of course, the winter following the 2012 season was the Shields/Davis trade. Almost universally, the consensus was that Wade Davis was the key to the Royals ‘winning’ that trade. No one believed that he could do that by pitching in relief.

Davis was a starter for most of 2013 and not a good one. The bullpen, despite some early season troubles by Herrera, was very good. Holland was now one of the best closers in the game, with the usual crew of Herrera, Crow and Collins augmented by Luke Hochevar capably getting the game to him. Hochevar, who was eased into the relief role over the course of the season, would end the year by being THE lock down eighth inning guy.

Spring of 2014 brought some good fortune/bad fortune to the Royals. Still undecided as what to do with Davis, the Royals were leveled by news that Luke Hochevar needed Tommy John surgery. Their hand forced, Davis was inserted into the bullpen and, well, you know what happened from there on out. The specter of HDH at the end of games effected other teams’ approach to the game. Aaron Crow and later Jason Frasor were out of front of the three headed monster (along with Coleman, Collins and Francisely Bueno). Drafted in June, Brandon Finnegan was part of the fun in September and October. If the Royals had managed a bit more magic in the bottom of the ninth of Game Seven, might the story have been less Bumgarner and more the six scoreless innings tossed by HDH?

As good as the 2014 pen was, the following year’s was probably even better.  Crow was traded, but a flyer on Ryan Madson turned into gold. Franklin Morales also was signed and suddenly the bullpen was Holland, Davis, Herrera, Madson, Morales, Hochevar, Frasor and Finnegan – that is almost obscene. Even losing Holland to injury barely caused a ripple and maybe, weirdly, even made the bullpen better yet. That group culminated a four year run that, taken as a whole, was almost certainly the best bullpen in baseball over that time period.

To date, the additions of Soria, Wang and Moylan (among others) has not been able to supplant the loss of Morales and Madson, nor overcome injuries to Davis (twice) and Hochevar, but as mentioned at the top of this journey through the past, the 2016 pen is still quite formidable. The 2017 pen, depending on numerous factors to be sure, could return to dominance quite easily. Would the resigning of a healthy Hochevar and Holland, teamed with a hopefully healthy Davis, get you a little interested?  Sure, that Soria contract looks dicey at best, but he could be the fifth best reliever in the group if all breaks right.  I’ll take my chances with that unit.

It was a journey for Dayton Moore to get to a super pen. It was equal parts saavy (Holland, Soria the first time, Herrera, Madson) and luck (Hochevar, Crow and Davis), but the results are undeniable. With this strong base, it is difficult to foresee Kansas City falling back to mediocre bullpens anytime soon and I think we can give Dayton Moore his due on this one.

Now about that 2006 off-season.  I bet most of you got Joey Gathright and Ryan Shealy and probably did not have to scratch your head too much before remembering Odalis Perez.  Who among you remembered the hope and eventual disappointment brought by the acquisitions of Daniel Cortes, Tyler Lumsden, Blake Johnson, Julio Cesar Pimentel and Scott Dohmann?

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