The Royals bullpen has received much acclaim and deservedly so. They were second in all of baseball in reliever ERA last season and were a big reason the Royals won 95 games and the championship. The dominant bullpen does lose All-Star closer Greg Holland and free agent Ryan Madson, but the pen could be arguably even stronger this season with the addition of Joakim Soria and the return of Luke Hochevar at full strength. Additionally, the Royals could have Danny Duffy in the pen, as well as possibly another reclamation projection like Dillon Gee.
The Royals figure to have five roster spots in the bullpen locked up. Wade Davis will serve as closer, with Joakim Soria and Kelvin Herrera setting him up. Luke Hochevar will be ready for a full season of work this year, and whoever does not claim the fifth spot in the rotation - either Chris Young, or more likely Danny Duffy - will also find a spot in the pen.
Non-roster invitee Dillon Gee looks like a strong candidate for the sixth spot in the bullpen. Tim Collins is likely going to start the season on the disabled list to return in May or June as he recovers from his Tommy John surgery from last year. The Royals have generally carried seven relievers the last few seasons, so this leaves one final spot in the pen open for competition. Let's look at the candidates.
With Danny Duffy likely heading to the bullpen, there is not a huge need for a second left-handed reliever. The Royals generally have not been big believers in the LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out GuY). Since Dayton Moore's first full season in 2007, there have been eight seasons where a Royals lefty has made 50 or more relief appearances. Three of those seasons were from Tim Collins, who has never operated like a situational lefty, and another by Ron Mahay who also was not used as a one-out lefty. Only Jimmy Gobble, Dusty Hughes, Jose Mijares, and Franklin Morales were used as lefty specialists, and all were cheap, freely available talent.
The Royals have some more freely available talent vying for a spot as a situational lefty this year. Brian Flynn, Brian Duensing, David Huff, Scott Alexander, John Lannan all throw from the left side, although Huff and Lannan have never had much of a career split. Most likely those two will be headed to Omaha to work as starting pitchers or swingmen to fill out the roster.
Brian Flynn was the front-runner for the lefty-specialist role heading into camp. The 25-year old missed nearly all of last season with a lat injury after the Royals acquired him from Miami for Aaron Crow. The Wichita State grad has a handful of innings at the Major League level and struck out 7.4 per-nine innings in the minor leagues, primarily as a starter. Flynn has been tough against lefties in the minors, but is not overpowering with his 90 mph fastball.
The Royals added some competition early in spring training when they signed former Twins reliever Brian Duensing to a minor league contract. The former Cornhusker has a career 4.13 ERA in 649 1/3 Major League innings, but lefties are hitting just .238/.289/.325 against him in his career. Duensing can opt-out of his contract if he is not on the Major League roster on March 29, while Flynn can be optioned to Omaha, giving Duensing the leg up.
Scott Alexander got a cup of coffee with the Royals last September after posting a 2.56 ERA in 63 1/3 innings for Omaha. He was untouchable against lefties last year in AAA, with an opponent's line of .152/.243/.163. Alexander has struggled with walks a bit more than the other candidates, but the 26-year old also throws harder, averaging 92 mph with his fastball.
The righties in camp challenging for a bullpen spot are all veteran non-roster invitees on a minor league contract. Chien Ming Wang has been getting some notoriety for his big spike in velocity after an awful season in AAA last year.
Chien-Ming Wang was hitting 94-95 mph on his fastball with good movement. Hmmm. Still in the bullpen mix. #Royals— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) March 14, 2016
Wang, a two-time 19-game winner, has not pitched in a Major League game since 2013, but the Royals got an effective season out of Ryan Madson after several years out of the big leagues. Wang can not opt out of his contract until May 1, giving the Royals more time to evaluate his velocity.
Peter Moylan is a sidearming Australian who was fantastic with the Braves early in his career, but has thrown just 39 big league innings the last five seasons combined due to injuries. The 37-year old Moylan has struggled mightily this spring with command and time may be running out of time on his career.
Ross Ohlendorf, like Moylan, pitched in a handful of big league innings last year, but has also been hit hard this spring. The 33-year old from Princeton has been a replacement-level swingman much of his career, but he has seen his velocity go up a tick the last few years pitching out of the pen. Ohlendorf has the chance to opt out of his contract if he wishes, but with the way he has looked this spring he would be wise to remain with the club. Most likely be sent to Omaha as emergency depth.
The Royals found some cheap bargains in Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales, and Joe Blanton last year. Will any of these options match up to that production? Who will make the team?