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The Royals bullpen depends on the young guys

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The upside is truly immense—can they achieve it?

Kansas City Royals Photo Day Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Matt Strahm came out of nowhere, and if you expected it I would strongly suggest that you stop time travelling for such trivial reasons as predicting baseball outcomes.

If at the beginning of last season you would have claimed that Strahm of all people would pitch 22 shutout, high-leverage bullpen innings and were not a time traveler, we would have released a chuckle from our bellies and patted you on the head for trying to create a Hot Take. Put it this way: not even The Lord of All Hot Takes himself, Maestro Skip “Tomylou” Bayless, would have dared suggest that Strahm would be the third most valuable bullpen piece for Kansas City in 2016.

Prior to last year, Strahm’s highest level of minor league performance was in high A Wilmington, in his age-23 season. Strahm was older, a 20 year-old from Neosho County Community College, and he missed the entire 2013 season due to injury. Over the next three minor league seasons, he worked more and more as a starter, making a combined 30 starts, with 18 of them coming in his 2016 AA Northwest Arkansas campaign.

Then the Royals called him up to the big leagues, but in the bullpen. It was havoc for batters. Strahm utilized a mid-90s fastball and a back-breaking curveball to carve opponents left and right:

Strahm pitched a career high in innings in 2016, and was shut down for much of the latter part of the year. But it was a successful season: Strahm’s strikeout to walk ratio in AA was 4.65, and then his leapfrog of AAA to the big leagues yielded a 1.23 ERA and a strikeout rate per nine innings north of 12.

For the first time in forever I finally understand since the start of the 2010s, the Kansas City Royals are going to need significant production from their minor league farm system in order to make the next step. Danny Duffy’s extension, alongside trades of lame duck players Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson for players under more team control, have lessened the need somewhat. But it’s still there; the Royals won a World Series with a young and talented core, and the only way to do it in today’s baseball landscape is with another young and talented core.

The catch is that the Royals farm system now is somewhat less fantastic and deep compared to the Best Farm System in the History of Whatever. By ‘somewhat’ I mean ‘significantly.’ This farm system is the Thor: The Dark World of farm systems—people only care about it because it’s attached to something far more interesting and surrounded by better ones.

Let’s be realistic here. The Royals aren’t likely to get an above-average contributor at starting pitcher or any of the offensive positions. It could happen, sure. More improbable things have indeed happened—remember, the Kansas City Chiefs even won a playoff game once!—but it’s unlikely. There’s back door here, though, and it rhymes with ‘bullpen.’

This year’s bullpen could be something special, and that’s because of the bubbling emergence of two names who could be this year’s Matt Strahm (alongside Matt Strahm, this year). Those names are Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer.

Ahem. The Zimmer talk is serious. Zimmer has suffered a cavalcade of health issues, but there’s legitimate hope that his most recent surgery might be the root of the problem. For those of you unaware, Zimmer suffered from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS), and had surgery to correct it. I’ll quote a good article from Beyond the Boxscore to help explain (emphasis mine):

Thoracic outlet syndrome is an injury that involves the compression of blood vessels and nerves that extend from the neck to the shoulder. It can result in continued pain and numbness in the shoulder and throughout the arm, and it is often difficult to diagnose. The most common surgical procedure for this injury involves the removal of an upper rib near the shoulder. This operation lessens the pressure on the nerve bundle by giving it a wider area to pass.

Zimmer’s had varying problems, and nothing has really worked to keep him on the field. Pitching is a motion where everything is connected, and a toe injury can end up modifying a delivery and result in an elbow injury. If TOS is the core reason behind his funk, then a corrective surgery will basically be a health reset.

This is important because Zimmer is a top-of-the-rotation talent when he’s on the field. Despite on again off again injuries, recovery time, and a lack of consistent playing time, Zimmer has effortlessly put up good numbers at every single stop of his pro career, exclusively as a starter. Zimmer has a mid-90s fastball, a decent changeup and slider, and a devastating curveball.

Honestly, Zimmer reminds me of a young Joakim Soria: a pitcher with a full starter’s repertoire whose injury history forced a move to the bullpen. Now, if healthy, the Royals would ostensibly like to keep Zimmer as a starter, where he has the most value. Of course, they would have ostensibly liked to keep Zimmer in the general direction of baseball in general as opposed to bumping into injuries as often as you bump into wannabe hipsters in Westport. But Kansas City isn’t above easing a prospect in as a bullpen piece, like they did with Strahm, and like they are doing with another of their top prospects:

When spring training begins in February, Staumont, 22, will emerge as one of the most intriguing figures in the Royals’ camp, a power right-hander in an organization that must round out its starting rotation and fortify its bullpen. Staumont, club officials say, could offer a potential solution in either role...

...For Staumont, the learning process continued in the Arizona Fall League, which concluded earlier this month. The next step comes in spring training. The Royals view Staumont as a starter in the long term. But his stuff could also slot into the bullpen.

Staumont’s minor league statistics are rather hilarious. In his first year as a 21 year-old, Staumont rather nonchalantly struck out 13 batters per nine innings (for comparison, only nine Major Leaguers had a strikeout rate of 13 or more last year). Unfortunately, Staumont walked 7.2 batters per nine innings as well (for comparison, zero Major Leaguers had a walk rate of 7.2 or higher last season). Regardless, his composite ERA was 2.48, which is pretty good.

As an age-22 player, Staumont exclusively started between A+ Wilmington and AA Northwest Arkansas. His K/BB rate declined a bit, but he still struck out 12.2 batters per nine innings. As a starter, that is historically impressive. Since 2000, only three players have posted a K rate at the Major League level of 12.2 or higher: Randy Johnson, Hall of Famer; Pedro Martinez, Hall of Famer; and Jose Fernandez, whose searing brilliance and Hall of Fame track career died along with him in a tragic boating accident last year.

Now, there are caveats all over the place here. Minor league statistics do not translate directly to the Major Leagues. Walk rates of 6, 7, and 8 aren’t often something that can magically be fixed and usually speak to a larger mechanical problem. Furthermore, Major League hitters can crush the 100 MPH fastballs that Minor League hitters swing through so easily.

But the last caveat is a big one: Staumont improved as last season went on. When he graduated to AA Northwest Arkansas, Staumont posted a 13.1 strikeout rate and a 6.6 walk rate, alongside an ERA of 3.04. Though he’s started and seen as a starter, the Royals could utilize him as a reliever to maximize his impact on the team.

I could see Staumont’s emergence be somewhat like 1999 National League Rookie of the Year winner Scott Williamson. From his age 23 to 28 seasons, Williamson pitched in 269 games, in relief for all but 10. He struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings and walked 5.0 batters per nine innings, pitching by the seat of his pants (or something). That K/BB ratio was good enough, though, and Williamson achieved a 2.98 ERA—a 2.98 ERA in the time of inflated offense.

The point is: A 6.6 walk rate as a starter is a terrifying proposition, one that only works if you’re also striking out a bazillion people. However, the bullpen has forever been a place where guys with iffy command could just let it fly and live in the middle of the plate with ridiculous stuff. Williamson did it. Staumont could do it. It’ll only work if Staumont curbs his enthusiasm for walking dudes; even Williamson only walked five per nine innings during his prime success years, a feat Staumont has yet to do in any of his four minor league stops. But we’ve seen what true flamethrowers look like—Yordano Ventura, Kelvin Herrera, Aroldis Chapman, even Greg Holland—and their upside is immense.

That’s a good phrase for this group in general: their upside is immense. The Royals are going to need some upside. Upside is what won them a pennant and a ring. That, and Royals Devil Magic.