The Royals made it to the World Series in back-to-back seasons pretty recently. You may not remember this, but 2014 and 2015 were very special seasons in Kansas City. The Royals rode a ridiculous defense along with an unreal back of the bullpen to two straight American League pennants and a World Series trophy. It was pretty fun.
The formula derailed a bit in 2016, mostly due to injuries. The vaunted HDH trio was no more. Greg Holland was recovering from Tommy John surgery while Wade Davis spent multiple stints on the disabled list for a strained forearm. Luke Hochevar’s season was also cut short with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome while Joakim Soria struggled in his return to the Royals.
The defense took a hit as well. Lorenzo Cain missed plenty of time as did Mike Moustakas. Alex Gordon missed a few weeks, too. And then there was the revolving door at second base. The 2016 season suffered for many reasons, but the strengths of the team was decimated by injuries, and that led to a lot of issues.
This season, the emphasis was a little different. You know how the offensive gameplan changed and we’ve seen that in action. This year’s team looked primed to have its best starting rotation in years and a bullpen that maybe wasn’t quite on par with what previous iterations had looked like. Davis was traded, leaving only Herrera from the great 2014 unit. Soria would need to bounce back and the Royals were counting heavily on a rookie with limited big league experience in Matt Strahm.
Before the season began, my evaluation of the bullpen was that I thought it could be a good unit, but not one of the two or three best in the league anymore. Luckily, it wouldn’t have to be because of the starting rotation. And with a very good lefty specialist in Travis Wood and a very good righty specialist in Peter Moylan to go along with the guys we’ve discussed and the hope of Mike Minor as a reliever, I believed the bullpen could definitely be good enough.
I’m not here to rehash how that all worked out, but I am here to tell you that it took some time and some tweaks, but the Royals are now prepared for the postseason after their trade on Monday. The back of the bullpen still isn’t on par with the 2014 team or even the 2015 team, but few bullpens are. Where they make up for that is in depth, and the depth of this bullpen is kind of crazy.
I imagine the eighth and ninth won’t change. That’ll still be Soria and Herrera, which I’m sure people have opinions about, but both are very good relievers and I would expect them to excel in their roles. Beyond that, the Royals have the ability to mix and match in ways most teams don’t. I’m assuming they continue on with an eight-man bullpen because Ned Yost doesn’t believe in a bench, so let’s take a look at what they have to offer beyond their main setup man and closer.
From the right side, they have some thunder. Admittedly, some of that thunder is from down under and not on the radar gun in Moylan who is just death to right-handed bats (.168/.258/.215). Then they can go to Neftali Feliz, who hasn’t been great on the whole this season, but has thrown some quality innings. Or there is their new acquisition, Brandon Maurer, who throws 97 and might be a small adjustment or two away from being a dominant reliever himself.
From the left side, this is where it gets special. With the addition of Ryan Buchter and the crazy spin rates on his fastball, they have three guys who can dominate a game. Scott Alexander has a 93-95 mph sinker that generates ground balls at a rate rarely seen. Minor has a great strikeout to walk ratio and a 2.69 ERA.
Minor is better against lefties than Moylan is against righties with a .123/.194/.158 line allowed, but he’s held righties to a .678 OPS too. Alexander has actually been hit hard by lefties, but handled righties quite well. And Buchter is excellent against lefties, and he holds his own against righties like Minor.
And let’s not forget the playoff X-factor here, Trevor Cahill. I think one of the added bonuses of acquiring him is the ability to put him in the bullpen come playoff time and let him do his work out there. Before returning to starting this season, Cahill put together a really nice season-plus run with the Cubs as a reliever. His ground ball rate and his ability to get strikeouts, along with being able to get multiple innings in a relief outing, could make him a huge key in a short playoff series.
So yes, the first mission is actually getting to the postseason. None of this matters a lick if they can’t do that, obviously. But once they do, picture the Royals being able to use their starters to get through the lineup twice before turning it over to a bullpen that features three options from the right side and four from the right side before unleashing the power back of their bullpen to close the game down.
Between the bullpen depth giving the Royals the ability to shorten games once again and the Royals finding themselves healthy in 2017, this team looks ready to go for the postseason. It’s a slight variation on a previous formula, but this one sure looks like it might be able to work and make the Royals a matchup nightmare in October.