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Spring training battles: The bullpen

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Does Wade Davis have anything left in the tank?

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

We are already in the last week of spring training games, with the Royals scheduled to open the season on April 1 against the Texas Rangers. The bench battle has become a bit clearer with players like Bobby Witt, Jr., Edward Olivares, and Meibrys Viloria optioned to the minors. Mike Matheny set his rotation with Brad Keller to start Opening Day, followed by Mike Minor, Brady Singer, and Danny Duffy. Kris Bubic was optioned down, but he seems likely to return in mid-April when the Royals will need a fifth starter.

That leaves the bullpen with a few spots left to be won in camp. If the Royals begin with a four-man rotation, that means they’ll likely have enough room for nine relievers. There are six pitchers that are locks to make the team, barring injury - Scott Barlow, Jesse Hahn, Greg Holland, Jakob Junis, Josh Staumont, and Kyle Zimmer. Staumont is probably the iffiest, as he had a recent battle with COVID-19 that caused him to lose some weight, and he may need to begin the year on the Injured List if he’s not ready for the start of the season.

Assuming he is healthy, that would leave three spots left to be won. Here are the candidates:

Brad Brach - The 34-year old veteran was signed to a minor league deal at the beginning of camp after the Mets let him go. The right-hander throws from a lower arm angle with a good change up and, as manager Mike Matheny described, “funky stuff.” Brach has a career 3.39 ERA in 496 relief appearances, but had a 5.84 ERA in 2020, although he battled COVID-19 at the beginning of the season. This year, he was off to a good start with three shutout innings to start, but he has given up seven runs and recorded just four outs in his last two outings. He is not on the 40-man roster, so the Royals could stash him at the Alternate Site to begin the season to give him more time as he tries to re-work his delivery.

Jake Brentz - The St. Louis kid has bounced around the minors and is in his fourth organization, so you wouldn’t expect him to be a candidate to make the team. But the 26-year old lefty has opened eyes since signing with the Royals in 2019, increasing his velocity and hitting triple digits on the radar gun in camp. He has also worked on his slider, and Matheny has said he is “a potential weapon that could be a lot of fun to watch.” Brentz has seven strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings this spring with a 3.18 ERA, but walks have always hampered him in the past. He is also not on the 40-man roster and would have to be added if the Royals carried him.

Wade Davis - The Royals probably don’t expect peak Wade Davis, the cyborg that destroyed the souls of American League hitters from 2014 to 2016 with the Royals. But if they can get some sort of rebooted version that can get hitters out and serve as a mentor, the way Greg Holland did last year, they would take it. Davis has given up 52 runs in 47 innings over the last two seasons, but he seems to have worked out all the bugs and has thrown six shutout innings this spring. The 35-year old right-hander isn’t a lock yet, but based on his health and performance, he seems like a good bet to be added to the 40-man roster.

Carlos Hernández - The Royals aggressively promoted the right-hander to the big leagues last year, despite having never pitched above Low-A ball. But the Venezuelan-born Hernández held his own with a 4.91 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 14 23 innings. He has given up a few home runs this spring, but continues to miss bats with 10 strikeouts in 7 23 innings. The Royals may want to send him to the minors to get more innings as a starter, but he may be able to contribute now with his mid-90s fastball.

Jake Kalish - An organizational veteran, the lefty was originally a 32nd round pick in 2015 out of George Mason University. He has posted decent numbers at each level, spending parts of three seasons at Triple-A Omaha. He’s a strike-thrower, walking just 4 percent of the batters he faced in 2018-2019, but he doesn’t get many whiffs. At age 29, he’s a bit of a long-shot to make the club and is a non-roster player, but there is an opening for a lefty, and he hasn’t been demoted yet, so you never know.

Richard Lovelady - The lefty has an impressive résumé, with a 2.63 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 99 1/3 innings at the Triple-A level. But he didn’t pitch well in 20 innings with the Royals at the end of the 2019 season, although he may have been nursing an injury, as he required knee surgery after the season. He only pitched in one inning for the Royals last year, so he may not be in high standing with the club, but he has performed well in camp and should be deserving of an opportunity.

Jake Newberry - The right-hander has become familiar with I-29 between Kansas City and Omaha, spending the last three seasons shuttling back and forth between the two cities. He has a 4.07 ERA in 66 13 big league innings over that time, but with a 5.62 FIP and a high walk rate of 5.0 per-nine-innings. He still has options, so he could be splitting his time between the big leagues and minors once again.

Ervin Santana - The 15-year MLB veteran is back with the Royals, the team he won nine games for in 2013. He didn’t pitch last year, and hasn’t been a solid pitcher since 2017, but he has flashed a 97 mph fastball in camp with hopes of hanging on a bit longer at age 38. He was perhaps a candidate for the rotation, but Matheny had a discussion with him this week about pitching out of the pen, possibly in a hybrid role. He hasn’t been great this camp, giving up eight runs and three home runs in 11 innings, but the Royals may add him to the 40-man roster just to see if his fastball can translate into results early in the season.

Who do you think will make this bullpen?