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The Royals bullpen is a big question mark this year

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HDH, no more.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Royals have one game in the books, a disappointing 7-1 loss to the Twins. It is always tempting to make much of one result, but baseball is, of course, a marathon, with 161 more of these contests to go, so it would be folly to make too much of one ballgame.

However, the first game did expose what already looked to be a major question mark heading into this season - the bullpen. The Royals themselves have privately acknowledged that the bullpen is among their biggest worries this season. Fangraphs recently projected the Royals bullpen to be the third-worst in baseball. I highly question whether that will be true, however, it does illustrate just what an unknown the Royals bullpen is going into this year.

If there are unknowns heading into this season, the Royals deserve the benefit of the doubt. Even the most ardent critic of Dayton Moore would admit that he has always been able to put together an effective bullpen - even when the team was losing.

But this year, Dayton and manager Ned Yost have their work cut out for them. The Royals bullpen is still a work in progress. The Royals won two pennants and a championship in large part to a dominant bullpen headlined by the fearsome trio of "HDH" - Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. Only one of that threesome - Herrera - remains, and the Royals have surrounded him with unknown quantities.

The issues for Joakim Soria last year are very well documented. He took a tie or lead 13 times last year and handed a lead to the opponent. He had a career-high in ERA and walk rates. Soria has never been a flamethrower, his success has stemmed from excellent command and hitting his spots. Last year, that command was greatly off. The Royals will need Soria to bounce back and become the effective reliever he was for nearly a decade if they want anything close to a good bullpen.

Matt Strahm was the young power arm many Royals fans were counting on, hoping he would get the "eighth-inning role" that continues to go to Soria. But he has pitched all of 23 innings in the big league. To show how little experience he has, after his poor outing on Opening Day, his career Major League ERA jumped from 1.23 to 2.82. Strahm still has a lot of potential and terrific stuff, but to thrust him into an "HDH"-type role is asking a lot of a rookie.

Travis Wood has been an excellent left-handed specialist the last few years, allowing them to hit just .128 against him last year. However, right-handers hit .265/.344/.521 against him last season. To put that in context, all hitters hit .271/.343/.457 against Joakim Soria last year. Opening Day was just further evidence that Wood is one of the worst left-handed pitchers facing right-handers.

Ned Yost does not have a lot of experience with the Royals with lefty specialists, as many years they have not carried one. But he has done a decent job limiting their exposure to right-handers in the past.

Lefty Relievers OPS vs.RHP OPS vs.LHP %PA vs.RHP %PA vs. LHP
Jose Mijares, 2012 .789 .586 43% 57%
Scott Downs, 2014 .813 .650 47% 53%
Franklin Morales, 2015 .779 .558 59% 41%

Last year, just 48% of the hitters Joe Maddon allowed Travis Wood to face were right-handers. Yesterday, Ned Yost allowed Wood to face right-handed slugger Miguel Sanó with the bases loaded. That shouldn’t happen. Hopefully we won't see Yost leaving Wood out to face righties much this year.

Peter Moylan is a nice veteran groundball artist with a career ERA of 2.91 and a terrific bargain as a minor league free agent. However despite a decent 3.44 ERA in 44 1/3 innings for the Royals last year, his FIP was 4.00, and his strikeout-to-walk numbers were quite lackluster at 2.1. Moylan is fine if used mostly in lower leverage, mop-up situations. If the Royals have to bring him into bases loaded situations in the seventh inning, they are in some trouble.

Mike Minor has made one career relief appearance and did not pitch in the Major League last year after recovering from labrum surgery. He is the epitome of pitching question mark. He also does not have much of a career split against lefties, so don't expect him to be a lefty-specialist (particularly with Wood already in that role). Minor will likely be eased into action in mop-up duty. As will Chris Young, who struggled mightily with the long ball last year, giving up 28 home runs in 88 2/3 innings. If he doesn't show signs of improvement he could be a candidate to be designated for assignment by May.

Even Herrera is a pretty big drop-off from what the Royals are used to getting from Wade Davis - as pretty much anyone would be. Davis put up historic numbers - he is the only reliever in the history of baseball to put up back-to-back ERAs of 1.00 or less with at least 50 innings pitched. Simply being very, very good would be a disappointment compared to the automatic, robotic efficiency of Davis.

2014-2016 ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WAR
Wade Davis 1.18 1.86 182.2 11.5 2.9 0.2 6.3
Kelvin Herrera 2.30 2.86 211.2 8.9 2.7 0.5 3.9

Ned Yost will have to find the most suitable roles for his personnel, and as the Royals try out numerous options both in the Majors and minors, the learning process could cost them games. Al Alburquerque, Seth Maness, and Chris Withrow are some veteran options that could come up from the minors and be useful, as Ryan Madson and Joe Blanton were in the past. Brian Flynn, when healthy, could be a versatile relief option. Josh Staumont, Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, and Andrew Edwards are all power arms in the minors who could contribute in the pen, but also have major red flags to their game. This is not necessarily a bad bullpen. It could be quite good by the end of the year. But we just don't know what we have anymore.

The old formula of success of holding onto slim leads with a shutdown bullpen may be over. Over the past three seasons, when leading after six innings, the Royals have won 90% of their games. That dominance may not continue. The Royals can still be successful, but they may have to find other ways to win ballgames.