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How will the Royals use their bullpen in 2020?

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Can they avoid the late-inning blunders?

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A few weeks back, the Royals signed Greg Holland to a $1.25 million deal with an invite to spring training, hoping to bolster a fractured bullpen at a cheap cost, a recurring theme of the past two off-seasons. For what its worth, Holland’s WHIP of 1.374 in 2019 would’ve been third-best in the Royals’ bullpen behind Tim Hill and Ian Kennedy. His 2020 projection of 9.4 SO/9 ranks second-best (behind Scott Barlow’s 10.2) among all Royals’ relievers on staff. Take that for what you will, but Holland is an upgrade for whatever Kansas City had planned in the latter innings.

The Royals’ pitching staff accumulated a 5.20 ERA in 1425 innings with a .273 opponents batting average last season. That total ranked 13th in the American League and 27th in all of baseball, requiring an upgrade from Dayton Moore. During the 2019 Winter Meetings, Moore touched on that topic with the team’s plan for the bullpen this offseason.

“We’re trying to add to our bullpen, not detract from our bullpen,” Moore told reporters.

Since that statement, Moore has added Trevor Rosenthal to a minor league deal, former top-100 prospect Chance Adams in a trade with the Yankees, selected Stephen Woods Jr. in the Rule-5 draft, re-signed Jesse Hahn, and signed Holland.

The aforementioned arms, excluding Woods Jr. (yet to make his debut), combined for a 10.01 ERA and -0.55 WAR in 81 innings last season. However, as poor as the numbers may be, all of those pitchers have a legitimate shot to crack the big league bullpen.

If the season started today, here is a projection (per Baseball Reference) of who the Kansas City pitching staff would include.

SP Brad Keller (Age: 24)

2020 Projections: (8-9, 3.95 ERA, 148 IP, 121 SO, 1.31 WHIP)

SP Danny Duffy (Age: 31)

2020 Projections: (8-8, 4.53 ERA, 141 IP, 129 SO, 1.36 WHIP)

SP Jakob Junis (Age: 27)

2020 Projections: (9-11, 4.83 ERA, 164 IP, 157 SO, 1.35 WHIP)

SP Mike Montgomery (Age: 30)

2020 Projections: (4-7, 4.45 ERA, 97 IP, 79 SO, 1.43 WHIP)

SP Brady Singer (Age: 23)

2019 Numbers in A+/AA: (12-5, 2.85 ERA, 148 13 IP, 138 SO, 1.18 WHIP)

Bullpen:

RHP Jorge López (Age: 26)

2020 Projections: (5.50 ERA, 108 IP, 99 SO, 39 BB, 8.3 SO/9)

RHP Kevin McCarthy (Age: 27)

2020 Projections: (4.21 ERA, 62 IP, 50 SO, 21 BB, 7.3 SO/9)

LHP Tim Hill (Age: 29)

2020 Projections: (4.41 ERA, 49 IP, 49 SO, 17 BB, 1.29 WHIP)

LHP Randy Rosario (Age: 25)

2020 Projections: (4.38 ERA, 37 IP, 34 SO, 14 BB, 1.35 WHIP)

RHP Josh Staumont (Age: 26)

2020 Projections: (4.37 ERA, 35 IP, 34 SO, 14 BB, 1.37 WHIP)

RHP Greg Holland (Age: 34)

2020 Projections: (4.60 ERA, 47 IP, 49 SO, 24 BB, 9.4 SO/9)

SU Scott Barlow (Age: 27)

2020 Projections: (4.35 ERA, 62 IP, 70 SO, 26 BB, 10.2 SO/9)

CP Ian Kennedy (Age: 35)

2020 Projections: (4.62 ERA, 78 IP, 75 SO, 28 BB, 1.37 WHIP)

Just missed the cut: (LHP Richard Lovelady, RHP Chance Adams, RHP Stephen Woods Jr., RHP Glenn Sparkman, RHP Trevor Rosenthal)

With the incorporation of the new rule of facing a minimum of three batters, the “LOOGY” role slowly dissipates. Due to this change, the Royals may be hesitant to carry three lefties in their bullpen. Hill presumes to be a lock as he returns to be one of Kansas City’s top situational relievers. Therefore, that leaves Lovelady and Rosario battling it out for the final spot. With Rosario out of options and just one year older than Lovelady, the Royals may give the edge to the former Chicago Cub when the club breaks camp. Though Lovelady is likely the first to make the trip from Omaha when the Kansas City bullpen begins to crack.

Barlow, in my opinion, makes a jump to elite status in the American League as the Royals’ top bullpen arm. At times, the right-hander was dominant. Other times, he wavered. But in the final two months of the season, Barlow posted a 1.96 ERA with 30 strikeouts and a .208 OBA in 27 23 innings.

Hot Take: Starting the season in the set-up role for Kennedy, Barlow earns his way to his first-ever All-Star appearance. Once Kennedy is dealt at the deadline, he takes over as full-time closer.

In Matheny’s first season in Kansas City, one of his biggest tests will be his utilization of the bullpen. Poor bullpen management was one of many gripes the St. Louis fan base had in his time leading the Cardinals. And he’s taking over a relief core that possesses one All-Star (Holland in 2013, 2014, and 2017). Matheny managed Holland for a brief stint in 2018 with the Cardinals. During that season, Holland posted a 7.92 ERA in 25 innings before he was DFA’d in July.

It’s bound to see its fair share of changes over the course of the 2020 campaign, but when the Royals open up in Chicago on March 26th, the pitching roles could look like this.

Long-relief, inning-eaters: Jorge López, Josh Staumont

Unless a strong spring catapults López into the back-end of the bullpen, the 26-year-old will find himself coming in during blowouts or filling in for spot starts. The Royals’ voiced their intentions to keep Lopez in relief last May as they envisioned him as a strong late-inning arm for the future. Staumont has the arsenal to become a flame-throwing closer - breaking radar guns with his fastball, but his command has restrained him. If he can locate, look out.

Situational: Kevin McCarthy, Randy Rosario, Tim Hill

The trio will no longer be allowed to make a living off manufacturing one or two outs. Instead, they’ll have to find a way to work their way through a full inning. McCarthy posted a OBA of .264 against righties and .291 against lefties. Rosario, on other hand, might have a tougher time adjusting. In 2019 versus lefties, he held hitters to a .172 OBA opposed to his .338 against righties. Like Rosario, Hill struggled against righties, though not as drastically. He limited right-handers to a .259 OBA with seven home runs in comparison to lefties hitting .211 with only one home run.

Set-up: Greg Holland, Scott Barlow

The return of Holland gives Royals’ fans a sense of nostalgia, but the “Dirty South” won’t be reprising his role as the “Saveman” in 2020. Most outings, Holland will handle the 7th or 8th inning depending when Barlow comes on. In Barlow’s case, if Kansas City holds a one-run lead late, expect him to be given the ball. Despite Holland’s track record, Barlow had a similar job for the Royals’ last season in tight games when available. Barring a brutal spring, it’s tough to imagine Barlow being removed from that spot.

Closer: Ian Kennedy

Notching 30 saves in his first season as a closer, Kennedy was the most consistent reliever for Kansas City in 2019. His performance had contending teams calling for the 35-year-old, but Dayton Moore decided the club needed his veteran presence around. If that same opportunity presents itself again, expect Moore to pull that trigger with Kennedy’s contract nearly off the books.