The Royals have used the bullpen as a warm blanket the last few years, riding the dominance of "HDH" - Kelvin Herrera/Wade Davis/Greg Holland" - all the way to a pennant in 2014 and again in 2015. Gone now are Davis and Holland, leaving Kelvin Herrera to serve as the backbone to a new batch of bullpen arms.
Can the Royals continue to have a dominant pen, or even a good bullpen? Herrera should be able to slide into the closer's role without too much issue, as he did when Davis served two stints on the disabled list last season. But who will replace Herrera as the setup man? Joakim Soria, fresh off signing a three-year, $25 million contract, was a disaster in his first year back with the Royals, and will likely have to pitch in lower leverage situations this year. Rookie Matt Strahm, who impressed in a short outing with the Royals last season, could very well serve as the late-inning setup man for Herrera.
Joining those three in the bullpen will be Chris Young, the former starter who struggled mightily in 2016 and will serve as a long-reliever. Oft-injured lefty Mike Minor will be ticketed to the pen to try to keep him on the field. Travis Wood is battling Nathan Karns for a starting rotation spot, but with Karns seemingly having the inside edge, Wood could be sent to the pen to be a dominant lefty-specialist, as he was with the Cubs last year.
That likely leaves one spot left in the bullpen. Let's look at the candidates left in camp.
Players on the 40-man roster
Scott Alexander - The 27-year old lefty has had a couple of stints with the Royals, with decent results. He had a 3.32 ERA in 19 innings last year, albeit in low leverage situations. He has struck out 6.8 per-nine-innings in his Major League career, but will need to keep his walks down. In a small sample size, lefties have hit Alexander quite well at the Major League level, so he may not fit as a traditional lefty specialist. With Wood, Minor, and Strahm all ticketed for the pen, there may not be room for another lefty, but Alexander has pitched well this spring with 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball and has "wowed" in camp.
Andrew Edwards - The hard-throwing Edwards was added to the 40-man roster last winter after an All-Star season in AAA. He was shelled in his last few outings, skewing his numbers a bit, ending with a 5.40 ERA, but he struck out 10.6 hitters-per-nine innings with a fastball that hits the upper 90s. Edwards has struck out seven hitters in 5 1/3 innings this spring, allowing just one run, but will need to cut down on his walks to be a useful reliever at the big league level.
Minor league non-roster invitees
Yender Caramo - Caramo has been garnering a lot of attention in camp, but faces an uphill battle in making the roster, much like all non-roster invitees. The Royals have a full 40-man roster and would need to clear a roster spot for any of these candidates. The 25-year old right-hander has wowed Ned Yost with a heavy sinker that yields ground balls. The native Venezuelan does not have eye-popping strikeout numbers in the minors, but is a strike-thrower, walking just 1.2 hitters-per-nine innings. He may not be on prospect lists, but Caramo has quietly put up solid results at each level, and could find himself in a Royals uniform by Opening Day.
Jonathan Dziedzic - The 26-year old lefty has pitched well in camp, throwing four shutout innings. He was left off the 40-man roster last winter but went unselected in the Rule 5 draft. His 4.05 ERA in Omaha came with unimpressive peripherals as a starter, but he could profile better as a reliever.
Luke Farrell - Farrell is the son of the Red Sox manager and has a pretty courageous tale of overcoming cancer to make it to professional baseball. The 25-year old Northwestern grad had a 3.76 ERA as a starter for Omaha last year, but with a high walk rate and mediocre strikeout rates. He can get his fastball up to 95 mph and could benefit from a move to the bullpen to become a useful reliever. He has had a solid camp, but is probably a long-shot at best to make the roster.
Eric Stout - Originally a 13th round pick in 2014 out of Butler, Stout pitched just 72 innings over his first two pro seasons. But he made 42 relief appearances for AA Northwest Arkansas, impressing with a 3.86 ERA and nearly a strikeout-per-inning. Lefties hit just .181 against him last year, so the 23-year old could profile as a solid lefty specialist. He was solid in the Arizona Fall League last year and has yet to allow a run in camp.
Veteran non-roster inviteees
Al Alburquerque - During his prime with the Detroit Tigers, Alburquerque had one of the best strikeout rates among all relievers. He misses bats with a filthy slider, a pitch that was rated one of the best in baseball. His trouble has been a lack of command at times, and he has suffered from high walk rates in his career. He posted a 2.51 ERA for the Tigers in 2014 as a setup man, but struggled in 2015, and spent most of 2016 in the minors with the Angels. Alburquerque seems like one of the better bets to make the roster, but the Royals may stash him in Omaha as insurance to protect their inventory.
Brandon League - League has the most experience as a closer out of the non-roster invitees, but did not pitch anywhere last year and was largely a bust after signing a three-year deal with the Dodgers in 2013. He is still just 33 and trying to work his way back from a shoulder injury. League has never overpowered hitters with his stuff, instead relying on terrific sinking stuff to induce groundballs. He has had mixed results this spring, with four walks in four innings and two runs allowed.
Seth Maness - Maness was a solid reliever for the Cardinals the last few seasons with a 3.19 ERA since coming up in 2013. He injured his elbow last year, an injury that would typically mean Tommy John surgery, but he opted for an experimental surgery that will have him ready by the start of the season. Maness is another groundball pitcher who won't rack up a ton of strikeouts.He has not pitched in a game this spring, so the Royals will probably take it slow with him and have him on the disabled list to start the season. Maness can opt out of his deal on June 1.
Peter Moylan - Moylan is likely the favorite to make the roster after a strong showing last year where he posted a 3.43 ERA in 44 2/3 innings for the Royals last year. The 38-year old Australian sidearmer pitched mostly in lower-leverage situations last year. Moylan can opt out of his deal on March 28.
Bobby Parnell - Once the closer for the Mets, Parnell had Tommy John surgery in 2014 and hasn't been the same pitcher since. He is a ground ball pitcher as well, but struggled in the Tigers organization last year. Parnell was shelled against the Indians this spring, giving up six runs in one inning, and has given up nine overall in camp.
Jonathan Sanchez - Royals fans may have rolled their eyes when they saw Sanchez returning to the Royals on a minor league deal, but Royals scouts thought he may have something left in the tank as a reliever. Sanchez did not pitch in affiliated baseball last year, but caught the eye of the Royals by throwing 95 in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, Sanchez has always struggled with control, and his issues have reared their head in camp. Sanchez has faced 20 hitters this spring and has retired just eight of them, likely keeping him off the Major League roster.
Chris Withrow - Withrow is a former Dodgers first round pick who was useful for the Braves last year with a 3.58 ERA in 37 2/3 innings. He is one of the younger non-roster invitees at age 27. Withrow suffered an elbow injury late in the year, but had no structural damage, and returned by September. He is a Tommy John survivor and can opt out of his deal on June 1. The right-hander has given up one run in 3 1/3 innings of work with four strikeouts.