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J.J. Picollo says bullpen to be “big focus” for Royals this off-season

The Royals may pass on adding starting pitching though.

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MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Teams can now sign free agents from other clubs, and the early indication is that if the Royals look at free agency, they will target relievers. General Manager J.J. Picollo supported that position in a discussion with Josh Vernier last night on 610 Sports, saying that the bullpen would be “a big focus” for the Royals this off-season.

Picollo elaborated to Anne Rogers of from the General Manager’s meetings in California this week.

“Big time,” Picollo said of the priority on the bullpen. “We like a lot of our position players. Defensively, they were really sound. We’ve got a lot of promising starting pitchers that need to take that next step. But the bullpen is going to be what protects them.”

Club president Dayton Moore seemed to be on the same page, also putting emphasis on the bullpen in comments to Rogers a few weeks ago.

“Do we build the best bullpen we can and support the young starters?” Moore said last week. “The one thing we have to be mindful of always is, you don’t want to put the young starters in a position where you have to leave him out there a little too long. You don’t want to put (manager Mike Matheny) in that position, either.”

Royals relievers had a 4.65 ERA last year, fourth-highest in the American League, as well as the highest walk rate. Royals relievers also had the third-most outings on zero day’s rest in the AL, an indication that they were running on fumes at times and could use more depth.

The team has a good core of hard-throwing young relievers in Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, and Jake Brentz. The three of them combined for 204 innings with 239 strikeouts and a 2.96 ERA. But the Royals will have to add more depth around them, to not only give Matheny more options, but to remove any temptation to overuse their valuable young relievers. Domingo Tapia showed some signs of effectiveness towards the end of last year, and Gabe Speier and Dylan Coleman could be interesting bullpen candidates. The Royals will need improvement from Kyle Zimmer and better health from Ronald Bolaños. Tyler Zuber and Joel Payamps could also be candidates for the pen, but Richard Lovelady will miss next year after Tommy John surgery, and the team let Jakob Junis go last week.

Relievers should be in demand all over the league as teams continue to de-emphasize starting pitching and look to protect pitchers as they ramp up their innings following the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The top tier of free agent relievers includes Raisel Iglesias, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon. Collin McHugh is an interesting versatile pitcher who could sop up innings as a multi-inning reliever.

There are “proven closers” who have either had ineffectiveness recently or injury concerns - Brad Hand, Hector Neris, Kendall Graveman, Archie Bradley, Corey Knebel, Sean Doolittle, and Trevor Rosenthal. Other interesting middle relief names include Joe Kelly, Brooke Raley, Ryan Tepera, Aaron Loup, Alex Colome, Mychal Givens, and Andrew Chafin. There are also some interesting pitchers that experienced success in Japan such as Nick Martinez and Robert Suárez. The Royals have also been rumored to be interested in bringing back 38-year old free agent Ervin Santana, who had a 4.68 ERA in 65 13 innings as a long reliever and spot starter.

As for starting pitching, Moore seemed to indicate the Royals would not be pursuing a top shelf name in comments to Alec Lewis of The Athletic.

“We’d love to get a top-of-the-rotation guy,” Moore said, “but when’s the last time we signed one?”

The Royals will have several rotation candidates for spring training, with Mike Minor, Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Carlos Hernández, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Jon Heasley, and Angel Zerpa all possibilities.

“Like always, what we’ll do in building our team is, we’ll look internally,” Moore said. “Then we’ll look to make trades. Then we’ll explore the free-agent market. … It’s going to be really difficult for us to sign a starting pitcher.”

With so much of the future dependent on the development of their young pitchers, the Royals will seek to protect them as much as they can. Adding some bullpen depth could not only aid in the long-term development of the pitching staff, it can help the Royals improve in the standings after losing 13 games when leading going into the sixth inning. They don’t have to be “HDH”, but an improved Royals bullpen could go a long way.