For those out there in the world who, for reasons unknown, took the Royals’ being a winning team the last four years personally, there is apparently no sample size too small for them to crow about this year’s team not being good. Whether the Royals are a 75-win team or a 91-win (gasp! 91!!?) team is an equation yet to be determined. What we know so far is that this team has played two good series, two bad ones and lost an 11 inning game on their way to a ‘hell-if-I-know-what-this-team-will-be’ 6-7 record.
Offensively, they are currently challenged. They are waiting for Gordon or Hosmer or Moss to get hot; hoping that Mondesi gets better or, more logically, planning on Jorge Soler and Whit Merrifield to be better (not to be confused with good) than Paulo Orlando and Raul Mondesi. They could be a decent offensive team, but they might not get there. They WILL average more than their current three runs per game, because it is just not possible to be that bad all season. Given that the top four starters are allowing less than two runs per start (another unsustainable number), a little more offense will come in handy when it does manage to come along.
I, and many others, thought the starting rotation had a chance to be better than last year. While they won’t be this good, I don’t believe it is a stretch to say the rotation could be above average all season long. So, if the rotation is solid and the offense scores a little more (because it pretty much statistically has to) that points us right back to where the Royals have pinned their success over the past seasons: the bullpen.
We lauded Ned Yost for his bullpen usage in 2014 and 2015 when he had set pitchers for each of the last three innings of any game and a couple of spare guys just lying around waiting for a chance to come in and get guys out with regularity. I don’t think it was necessarily autopilot for Yost, and I will still give him credit for how he utilized his team’s strength, but it was certainly not the toughest managerial test in history either. In 2016, Wade Davis had injury issues during the season, Joakim Soria fell victim to bad luck, bad timing and, yes it’s true, bad pitching and the eighth inning became a bit problematical. Luke Hochevar, one of those handy guys waiting for a chance, went down to injury as well and even the emergence of Matt Strahm late could not keep the bullpen from falling from dominant to ‘just okay.’
The new season dawned with a horrific three game set in Minnesota in which the bullpen was awful, but since then, that group has started to show signs of life. After giving up home runs in back to back outings (one of them a home run only in Houston and only in a very certain spot of Houston), Kelvin Herrera has had three perfect outings. Joakim Soria has allowed one inherited runner to score but has otherwise not allowed a run in six appearances and is striking out more than a batter per inning. Combined, the two seem to be providing Yost with certainty to his beloved bullpen roles.
In front of them, Peter Moylan has allowed ONE HIT in seven outings. I almost went down the ‘seventh inning should be Moylan’s’ road, but Yost seems to like to use Moylan at a variety of times and in a variety of roles. We have seen Moylan come on to get a single right-hander, but we have also seen him gobble up two innings at a stretch as well. Fun fact: Peter has inherited eight runners, not one has crossed the plate. Thus far (and frankly he has a track record when healthy of being quite good), Moylan had given the Royals a reliable third weapon out of the bullpen.
Now, in front of those three, we have seen Travis Wood struggle mightly and Matt Strahm be just awful, enough so, to get the quick demotion to Omaha. Mike Minor has given up a run in three of his six outings. Chris Young is out there to sit around for a week and then come in and throw some innings when there is not anyone else, and that’s fine, you need a Chris Young at the end of the bench.
The hope here would be that Strahm will shortly return from Triple-A and be the pitcher he was late last year. You know, the kid who struck out 30 in 22 innings and allowed just 13 hits. Plug that arm into the seventh inning with Moylan acting in a fireman-type role and hope that Yost gives into the idea that Travis Wood should really spend his time facing left-handed hitters only and suddenly you have a bullpen that begins to force teams to play a six-inning game against the Royals.
One can even add another lefty, Scott Alexander to the mix. Despite giving up the winning run Tuesday, Alexander has otherwise given every appearance of being a capable major league reliever. Do you count on him? Not yet, but that is another arm with a chance to help.
In the end, Kansas City’s hopes of having an elite bullpen might reside on a pitcher with less than 30 major league innings and a 38-year old journeyman from Australia. That may make this theory more whimsy than logical. That said, the pieces needed to make the bullpen a major winning factor are far less than those that make the offense a top level unit in the league. I don’t know that the Royals need both to be a winning team, but they do need one of them. My money is on the bullpen.