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Building a better bullpen

The bullpen was a mess last year, do you feel better about this group?

Kyle Zimmer #45 of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch in the spring training game against the Oakland Athletics at HoHoKam Stadium on February 24, 2019 in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

To use a football metaphor, this year’s Royals bullpen is the backup quarterback of the club. It looks good, promising even on some level, because we’ve yet to see everything it has to offer. Or, we don’t have enough data to make an informed judgment about its effectiveness. It looks fine on paper, but a recipe for haggis would look better than the 2018 Royals bullpen.

Last year’s Royals bullpen was dreadful. That’s being kind. Royals relievers punched out 7.3 batters-per-nine innings last summer, worst among all Major League bullpens. They posted a 4.2 walks-per-nine innings, the sixth-worst rate in baseball. Their collective ERA was 5.04 and their ERA- was 116. None of these numbers are good. None of these numbers inspire confidence. An overhaul was absolutely in order. Thus, the lone holdover from last year’s Opening Day bullpen at this point appears to be Tim Hill. (Brad Keller, of course, is the Opening Day starter.)

Of course it’s not a complete overhaul. Last year’s second half closer, Wily Peralta, returns and appears primed to at least share ninth inning duties. Kevin McCarthy, who pitched the second-most innings of any Royals reliever last year, is also likely back. Last year’s innings leader out of the bullpen, Brian Flynn, is still around but he last pitched on March 1, was shelled in two spring outings and is out of options. He’s a lock to open the year on the injured list.

One of the themes of camp has been the openness of Ned Yost to not having set roles for his bullpen. The sixth inning belongs to who? Forget about it. Mix and match is the way to go, baby. It’s a new dawn.

Color me skeptical this freewheeling style of bullpenning lasts long. Meanwhile, the Royals will set their 25 man roster for the opener on Wednesday. As of right now, there are still several candidates for what figures to be eight spots in the Royals bullpen.

They are listed here in descending order of my own personal interest.

Kyle Zimmer

He exists! And he’s been really, really strong this spring. The dude touched 97 mph in his final exhibition outing. He gave up a single run in over 12 innings of work in the Cactus League. This Driveline stuff vibes legit. He has the stuff. Does he finally have the health? At this point, who would be surprised if he was the closer by May?

Jake Diekman

Left-handed? Check. Hard thrower? Check. Smells like an eighth inning guy to me.

Brad Boxberger

He gets the whiffs (11.7 K/9 for his career), but issues plenty of free passes (a lifetime 4.6 BB/9). Boxberger has lost a tick off his fastball and averaged just under 92 mph on his heater last year. He still manages to miss bats around a league average rate. He’s not truly closer material, but on a rebuilding team, give him a few ninth inning opportunities and spin him into a prospect at the trade deadline.

Wily Peralta

The Closer In Residence has a tenuous hold on the job. His 9.2 SO/9 from last year is good, not great, for a ninth inning guy. The real concern would be his 6 BB/9. That’s… quite awful, no matter what inning eventually belongs to him. He fought the control in the Cactus League with five free passes in just under nine innings.

Tim Hill

The LOOGY may be dying, but don’t tell Hill that. The lone leftover from last year’s Opening Day bullpen returns and, if used to his strengths, can be a weapon. Last year, he limited lefties to .230/.288/.284. Right-handed batters added nearly 200 points to their OPS. If used properly, he qualifies as a legit relief weapon.

Kevin McCarthy

If you need a double play, McCarthy is your guy. Nothing flashy. Just solid. That works.

Michael Ynoa

He’s faced soft spring training competition, with a 6.9 OppQual per Baseball-Reference, but he’s dominated. That’s something, particularly for a reliever who didn’t register a pitch in organized ball last year. The one time former top prospect from the Dominican could yet still have something in the tank. Could be worth it to find out.

Ian Kennedy

Maybe the stuff plays up in relief. Maybe he can stay healthy coming out of the bullpen. The temptation will be to hang a Wade Davis comp on Kennedy. Don’t. Just don’t.

Chris Ellis

When camp opened, the smart money was on fellow Rule 5 selection Sam McWilliams sticking with the club, while Ellis was probably the one who would be returned to his former team. Six weeks later, McWilliams is back in Tampa and Ellis is still around.

Scott Barlow

Serviceable, but he’s always faced an uphill climb on the bullpen depth chart. I believe he’s still technically in camp. Although we never really hear about him, so who actually knows. We will see him at some point in Kansas City.

Brian Flynn

As mentioned, he’s headed for the Injured List. He’s out of options, so the Royals will manage his return carefully.

There aren’t a lot of power arms in the inventory and this lot comes with plenty of question marks. The upside exists for a solid, if unspectacular, back end. The downside is definitely in play, but we all know how bullpens are fungible creatures in their own right.

At least on the surface this year’s version should be an improvement over last year. Every little bit helps.