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Don’t neglect Kansas City’s bullpen prospects

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The Four Starters are a big deal, but the Royals need a lot of bullpen help, too.

Daniel Tillo #46 of the Kansas City Royals poses during Kansas City Royals Photo Day on February 20, 2020 in Surprise, Arizona.
Daniel Tillo #46 of the Kansas City Royals poses during Kansas City Royals Photo Day on February 20, 2020 in Surprise, Arizona.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Let’s be clear here: the 2020 Royals team will be bad. Very bad. Most pundits and projection systems predict somewhere between 65 and 70 wins next year. This, even though the Royals have a collection of starting pitching talent and a few intriguing position players that are poised to make their debuts.

That’s because the 2019 Royals were truly awful, having only won 59 games, and this year’s team is virtually identical. The main reason why the Royals were, and will be, so bad is because of a lack of depth. They’ve got a core group of nice position players—Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield, and Adalberto Mondesi combined for 11.9 WAR last season—but they also had 10 position players with at least 10 plate appearances generate negative WAR. On the pitching side, only four players—Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, and Homer Bailey—generated more than 1 WAR, and 11 pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched generated negative WAR.

So, yes, you’ve heard about Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic. They are a type of pitching talent that we haven’t seen in Kansas City for a while. But the Royals don’t just need better high-end players; they need more big league caliber players. They need to replace those 22 players who actively hurt the team when they stepped onto the field. And to do so, the Royals are going to have to turn to the overlooked prospects, the ones that don’t make prospect lists but those who are nevertheless necessary: bullpen arms.

Royals fans know much impact a great bullpen can have. From 2013 through 2015, the Royals had the best bullpen in baseball. They had the lowest ERA (2.85), the highest WAR (17.4), and were 0.04 points away from having the lowest FIP at 3.37 (they were third-best). These were their core pieces, all of whom were multi-year contributors with their own postseason moments:

  • Kelvin Herrera, 198 IP, 2.59 ERA, 4.1 WAR
  • Greg Holland, 174 IP, 1.97 ERA, 5.9 WAR
  • Wade Davis, 139.1 IP, 0.97 ERA, 7.2 WAR
  • Luke Hochevar, 121 IP, 2.68 ERA, 2.3 WAR

Herrera and Holland were relievers who never made a single top prospect list. Davis and Hochevar did both make prospect lists—as starters, not as relievers. By the time they were shifted to the bullpen full-time, both had been considered failures.

Some bullpen arms are highly regarded as top-shelf relievers and do make prospect lists. Josh Hader and Aroldis Chapman are great examples; both pitchers were relievers from day one, but that didn’t stop them from ascending the prospect list ladder (and rightly so). However, an awful lot of relievers just aren’t well-regarded by prospect evaluators. Kirby Yates, Steve Cishek, Seth Lugo, Corey Knebel, Will Harris, and Brandon Workman never made a single top 100 prospects list, and all have been effective relievers over the last few seasons. Others, like Felipe Vasquez and Kenley Jansesn, merely made the back end of one publication’s top 100.

There’s a reason for this, as you might expect. Relievers are volatile, both in terms of injury and performance. When there are thousands of players in the minor leagues, it makes sense to rank those who can produce more overall value. It’s rare to see a 3 or 4 WAR season out of a reliever, and even the best tend to accomplish the feat once or twice. The best starters can put up double-digit WAR in their best years, and good ones make 3 WAR all the time.

But I can’t help but be a little critical of prospect evaluators for this. While one reliever doesn’t move the needle a lot by themselves, relievers in aggregate matter, and they matter a lot. The median innings pitched by a big league bullpen last year was nearly 600, and the difference between the least run-stingy bullpen the most was 2.08 points of ERA (the teams were the Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles, and just take a look at the standings to find out which was which). This is to say nothing of the postseason, where great relievers are disproportionately valuable thanks to the additional rest days built into the schedule.

So, as a Royals fan, it would behoove you to take a look at some of the other guys who won’t make a top prospect list but are instrumental in providing depth and bullpen talent for a club that desperately needs it.

Daniel Tillo, LHP, turns 24 in June. His arsenal has been good enough to keep as a starter through last season, when he ascended to Double-A Northwest Arkansas and tossed a 3.47 ERA/3.62 FIP in 23.1 innings there. But the Royals might be moving Tillo to relief. In relief, Tillo has a mid-90s fastball and a hard breaking slider.

Tyler Zuber, RHP, turns 25 in June. The 180th overall selection in the 2017 draft, Zuber is overlooked among his shinier (and taller) peers, but he’s done nothing except eviscerate opposing hitters. Between High-A and Double-A last year, Zuber struck out 68 batters in only 55.1 innings with a 4.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.79 ERA.

One of the other starters. In the 2018 draft, Kansas City signed eight college arms within the first 212 overall selections and 21 college arms overall. The vast majority were starters and stayed as starters in the minor leagues. But there’s a catch: you can only have five big league starters at once.

There are obvious caveats to this: you want starting pitching depth—generally eight or so MLB-caliber starters in your organization at the same time—and standard attrition rate means that not every drafted starting pitcher will succeed. There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, they say (TINSTAAP). With that being said, though, there are always more bullpen roles than starting slots, and it’s easier to be a bullpen guy than a starter.

Somebody in the recent crop of collegiate arms is going to end up in the bullpen. Just look at Davis and Hochevar and Ian Kennedy: someone will fail as a starter at some point and become a good reliever. So, who’s it going to be? Austin Cox? Zach Haake? Jon Heasley? Alec Marsh? Could it even end up being Brady Singer, who right now might have the best two-pitch combo among the current big league bullpen options?

One of the biggest upsides to the amount of starting pitching talent is that it also happens to be simply pitching talent. Because of the attrition rate of starting pitching prospect and the need for bullpen arms in Kansas City, we’re entering a fascinating time. Everyone knows that starting pitchers are valuable. But the pieces might be here to assemble a bullpen from legitimate prospects. And if one emerges, it would be a big factor in determining whether or not the rebuild is successful.

A technical note: all position player WAR figures come from Fangraphs, and all pitcher WAR figures come from Baseball-Reference.