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Let’s sort out the Royals bullpen

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MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The bullpen has been the strength of the Royals during their championship run. But as they enter the 2018 season, the pen is in complete flux with unsettled roles. Ned Yost has perhaps his most confusing bullpen situation going into the season since he arrived in Kansas City in 2010. As he told Rustin Dodd of The Athletic recently:

“I got no idea,” Yost said. “I don’t think any of us have an idea.”

The Royals still don’t know if they will begin the season with seven or eight relievers, but with four off-days in the first four weeks, a large bullpen may not be as needed. While the Royals may still be looking to add some pieces to the bullpen, there are mostly just slim pickings left on the free agent market, other than former Royals closer Greg Holland. Most likely they will have to lean heavily on the options already in camp. Let’s take a look at how the bullpen might look coming Opening Day later this month.

The locks

Despite struggles in 2017, Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer are considered locks, although Maurer has a non-guaranteed contract and could be released if he has a poor spring, saving the Royals 75% of his contract or $2.1 million. The Royals will probably hang onto both for now, hoping for a bounceback, which could make both of them attractive trade pieces later this summer if they can improve.

Ned Yost has not committed to a closer yet, but Kelvin Herrera would seem to have the inside track. He struggled at times last year in the role, losing his job late in the year. However, he did convert 26 of 31 save opportunities overall. His problems last year are difficult to diagnose - his strikeout and walk rates actually improved in 2017. His fastball was down a tick from 2015, but the same as it was in 2016. He did suffer from a forearm strain late in the year, so perhaps rest from the off-season can allow the 28-year old fireballer to return to form.

The Royals will be banking on Maurer to rebound after he struggled mightily after being acquired from the Padres. Maurer posted the worst ERA in baseball for a reliever, and underperformed his 3.93 FIP by a huge margin. The Royals will hope his FIP - which evaluates a pitcher based on things he can control independent of defense - is a more accurate assessment of his value, and that he can allow fewer runs in 2018. If he can turn his career around, he could be a very valuable trade piece this summer since he has one more full year of club control after this season.

Favorites to make the bullpen

Wily Peralta has a guaranteed contract that will pay him $1.75 million this year if he makes the club or not. The former Brewers starter won 17 games in 2014, but has been a disaster since then. He still flashes a fastball in the mid-90s that has been very hittable, but could increase in velocity in short relief stints. Dayton Moore has been effective at taking former starters and getting useful relief innings out of them, and Peralta could be his next reclamation project.

Brian Flynn had a tough year in 2017, missing the start of the season with broken ribs after he fell through the roof his barn. He struggled in the minors after his return, but he may not have been fully healthy at that point. Flynn is versatile - he can be a spot starter, long reliever, lefty-specialist - and that could be very valuable for a rebuilding team looking to protect arms. Flynn is out of options and is 27 years-old, so this is the opportunity to see what he can do at the Major League level.

Kevin McCarthy doesn’t wow anyone with his low strikeout rate of 5.4 per-nine innings. However he was quietly effective down the stretch for the Royals last year, posting a 3.20 ERA and 3.98 FIP in 45 innings. He induces a lot of groundballs - a rate of 54% last year - and the Royals clearly seem to be moving in that direction philosophically. Jesse Hahn would also be in this category had he not suffered an injury to his ulnar collateral ligament, which will cause him to miss the first few months of the season, if not the entire year.

The veterans trying to make the team

Blaine Boyer has made 426 career relief appearances in the big leagues, which would seem to give him a decent shot at making the club if he still has anything left in the tank. The 36-year old right-hander has made at least 30 relief appearances in each of the last four seasons, and while has the third-lowest strikeout rate among all relievers during that time, he has been fairly effective with a 3.51 ERA and 3.71 FIP in those seasons.

Seth Maness pitched just 9 23 innings for the Royals last year in his first full season recovering from an injury to his ulnar collateral ligament. He struggled in the minors with a 6.13 ERA, but he was a very useful reliever for four seasons with the Cardinals, posting a 3.19 ERA in 244 appearances. Maness induces a lot of groundballs too, which could make him attractive to the Royals, and if he is healthy, he could have a good shot at making the team.

Ricky Nolasco was signed to a minor league deal last week that will pay him $1.5 million if h makes the club. Nolasco has been a starter, making 312 starts in his twelve-year MLB career, but with the Royals’ rotation fairly set, he is likely competing for a role as a long-reliever. Nolasco was pretty awful with the Angels last year, but might be rejuvenated by a move to the bullpen. Nolasco, like Boyer and Maness, would have to be added to the 40-man roster to make the club.

Mike Broadway has brief Major League experience, but is 30 years old and is likely headed to Omaha to serve as depth. He was disastrous last year in AAA with the Nationals, but put up some eye-popping numbers once he moved on to the Rays organization, although in very limited time. Sam Gaviglio started a few games for the Royals last September, but is probably on the outside looking in, and has options remaining which would allow the Royals to stash him in the minors.

The youngsters

Burch Smith and Brad Keller were both acquired in the Rule 5 draft, so they either need to be carried on the Major League roster all season, be offered back to their original clubs, or the Royals would need to work out a trade to keep them. Smith isn’t actually that young - he’s 27 and made his Major League debut in 2013 with the Padres. But he has had some setbacks due to injuries and impressed scouts last fall in the Arizona Fall League with a fastball that touched 100 mph on the radar gun. He has been a bit erratic with his command in camp, but his fastball might keep him on the roster.

Keller is just 22 and may not be ready to make the jump from AA ball. He is a big right-hander, standing at 6’5’’, 230 pounds, who had a solid strikeout rate in the Diamondbacks organization last year. The Royals may find it difficult to stash two Rule 5 players on their roster, and Keller could be the odd man out if the team doesn’t make a trade to keep him.

Miguel Almonte has been one of the more impressive arms in camp so far, pitching seven shutout innings with six strikeouts and no walks. Almonte has always had an electric arm with a plus changeup, but inconsistent results. A starter in the minors, Almonte might be ready for big league action as a reliever after posting a 1.72 ERA in 47 innings across AA and AAA last year.

Tim Hill has been a bit of a novelty in camp as the rare lefty submariner. A bit old for a minor leaguer at age 28, Hill has not put up eye-popping numbers in the minors, but his deceptive delivery could provide a different look for hitters, and working with Major League staff he could become a decent relief option. Richard Lovelady has drawn a lot of attention because of his name, but he could make a name for himself as a top reliever. The 22-year old left-hander had a 1.62 ERA with 77 strikeouts in 67 23 innings across High A and AA last year, and might be ready for a jump to the big leagues.

Kevin Lenik is another intriguing darkhorse, signed out of the independent leagues last year. The 26-year old right-hander pitched just 24 innings for Omaha, with 24 strikeouts and just 11 hits allowed, flashing a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s. Josh Staumont has been a starter with high hopes for his 100 mph fastball. However serious command issues may lead the Royals to move him to the bullpen. He struck out 138 hitters in 124 23 innings in the minors last year, but walked 97, prompting the Royals to have him work from the stretch to simplify his mechanics.

Trevor Oaks was a starting pitcher acquired from the Dodgers in the Scott Alexander trade, but might be ready to break into the big leagues as a reliever after he posted a 3.64 ERA in 16 games in AAA last season. Glenn Sparkman got a taste of big league action last year with the Blue Jays, giving up nine runs in one inning, but he may be a bit more ready this year. Like Lovelady, Lenik, and Staumont, Sparkman would have be added to the 40-man roster to join the club. Kyle Zimmer, Eric Stout, Andres Machado, Heath Fillmyer, and Scott Barlow might have been candidates as well, but they were all shipped to minor league camp this week.

Which relievers do you think will end up breaking north with the Royals?