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Spring training battles: The bullpen

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MLB: Spring Training-Chicago Cubs at Kansas City Royals Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals’ bullpen was once a mighty strength, as opponents would tremble at the mere though of facing Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland - “HDH” - late in games. Those days are long gone. The bullpen was a big mess last year, finishing with the worst ERA in the American League. The terrible trio of Brandon Maurer, Blaine Boyer, and Justin Grimm alone gave up a total of 81 runs in just 65 23 innings.

With nowhere to go but up, you figure the Royals’ bullpen will improve simply by getting rid of their worst pitchers. Dayton Moore brought in some veterans at the outset of camp which could provide more stability. Ned Yost says he won’t necessarily adhere to strict roles as he has done in the past, but you can still expect to see either Brad Boxberger or Wily Peralta closing out most games. Veteran Jake Diekman should also be a lock to make the team, and lefty specialist Tim Hill seems like a good bet to make the team after leading the team in appearances last year. You may also see some of the pitchers vying for a starting job - Jorge Lopez, Heath Fillmyer, and Homer Bailey - to end up in the pen, although the shoulder issues for Danny Duffy may allow more room in the rotation.

If we assume Boxberger, Peralta, Diekman, and Hill are locks, that the Royals will likely begin the first week with a four-man rotation, and that the Royals plan to keep 12 pitchers, that would leave four bullpen spots up for grabs. Here are the candidates:

The Holdovers From Last Year

Heath Fillmyer is still up for a rotation spot, but he could begin the year in the pen first, or even get bumped to a relief role by veteran Homer Bailey. The Royals should probably allow Fillmyer a chance to lose a starting job before sending him to the pen, but perhaps they see him unlocking some potential as a reliever. Jorge Lopez is in the same boat, although out of options, so if he doesn’t make the rotation, he will be sent to the bullpen. Homer Bailey is also working for a rotation spot, and the team has said so far they don’t consider him an option for the bullpen.

Brian Flynn was a versatile, serviceable arm for the Royals last year, tossing 75 23 innings for a 4.04 ERA and a 4.28 FIP. He was usually a long man to sop up innings, and he finished 12th among relievers last year in lowest Leverage Index, meaning the games he was being called upon were not very close ones. His peripherals were also quite poor, and he had the second-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio among all relievers. Flynn has been pounded this spring, giving up 11 runs in just three innings. The Royals though enough of him to sign him to an $800,000 deal last fall, but they could conceivably cut him this spring and owe just a quarter of that salary. Flynn is out of options, so he would have to clear waivers to be sent to Omaha, but the 28-year old lefty is not likely to be in high demand.

Kevin McCarthy seems most likely to have a spot on opening day, after he put up a 3.25 ERA in 72 innings last year serving as one of the more reliable arms to turn to. McCarthy doesn’t have a very good strikeout rate - it was eighth-worst among relivers last year, and he had a FIP of 4.06. McCarthy does a great job keeping the ball on the ground though - he was fourth in the league in groundball rate at 64.3%. McCarthy does have an option year left, but he seems like a good bet to be in Kansas City to start the year.

The Veterans Fighting For a Job

Drew Storen is the most experience out of any of these candidates, closing out 99 saves in eight seasons with the Nationals in Reds. When healthy, he had one of the best sliders in the game, but he missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has tossed just 2 13 innings so far this spring, and could begin the season in extended spring training, according to Jeffrey Flanagan.

Michael Ynoa was once a hot enough prospect to get a $4 million bonus from the Athletics, but his pro career has failed to live up to that hype. He is also a Tommy John surgery survivor, and has pitched just 59 innings at the big league level. Ynoa seems like a long-shot to make this team, but he has impressed Yost with his slider. The 27-year old right-hander is not on the 40-man roster and seems more likely to begin the year in Omaha with a chance to move up if he impresses.

The Rule 5 Guys

Chris Ellis came from the Cardinals organization where Royals pitching coach once tutored minor league pitchers. Eldred may have some insight on Ellis, but so far the spring training stats have been pretty ugly with nine runs allowed in seven innings. He seems to be a bit of a project that could be a good reliever with some instruction, but the Royals may not have the luxury to be able to carry him on the roster all season.

Sam McWilliams has also struggled a bit this spring with four runs in 4 13 innings, but some observers think he has looked better than the numbers suggest. McWilliams has a tall 6’7’’ frame that the Royals can work with and a low-90s fastball with a decent slider. The Royals carried two Rule 5 pitchers last year, but seem unlikely to do so this year. If they choose just one, McWilliams would be the most likely candidate, if they carry any at all this year.

The Arms with Upside

Kyle Zimmer has been the subject of a lot of buzz in camp. The former first-round pick seems to have benefited from his work with the Driveline Baseball facility. He hitting 96 on the radar gun, and most importantly, staying on the mound. He has thrown 7 23 innings without allowing a run, striking out five, and he has done it against top competition.

Zimmer is on the 40-man roster, but has an option year, so he could begin the year in Omaha just to get his feet wet. But he has a lot of time to make up for, so the Royals may just throw him out in the big league bullpen to see what he can do. At age 27, Zimmer is not a young pup anymore, and this may be his last best opportunity to reach the big leagues.

Richard Lovelady is quite possibly the best Royals reliever right now, at least according to ZIPS projections. The 23-year old lefty had a 2.47 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 73 innings for Omaha last year. He has added a change up to his repertoire, and the results have been impressive this spring with 10 strikeouts in eight innings. The numbers are working against Lovelady however. He’s not on the 40-man roster, and the Royals already have two lefties - Jake Diekman and Tim Hill - that are locks for the bullpen with a third lefty - Brian Flynn - also a possibility to make the team. Lovelady could be sent back to Omaha for now, but it likely won’t be long before we see him in Kansas City.

The Long Shots

Jason Adam came back to the Royals with a big bump in velocity, but ran into trouble with the long ball and put up a 6.12 ERA in 32 13 innings. He did show the ability to miss bats with 37 strikeouts, but his walk rate was pretty high. He came back to the Royals as a non-roster invitee, so if he did make the team, they would have to clear a 40-man roster spot for him. He has pitched well this spring with 4 13 shutout innings, but still seems like a long shot to make the club initially.

Scott Barlow traveled with the MLB All-Stars to Japan, but his season seems likely to begin in the Omaha rotation. The 26-year old had a strong strikeout rate in the minors, but had trouble preventing runs, and will likely serve as starting depth if the rotation gets thin.

Glenn Sparkman has looked pretty good this spring with seven strikeouts and no walks in eight innings, and has shown himself to be versatile enough to start or relieve. He seems likely to begin the year in Omaha but could be an option if the Royals suffer some injuries or ineffectiveness.

Who do you think makes this bullpen?