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Spring training battles: The bullpen

Who will be in Matheny’s circle of trust?

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Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Note: This article has been updated to reflect Mike Matheny’s rotation decision on Monday.

These are the final days to trim the roster down before the season opener on Thursday against Cleveland. The Royals trimmed the roster down to 34 on Saturday, then sent Angel Zerpa down after his start, leaving just 18 pitchers left in camp. We don’t know yet how many pitchers they will carry - expanded 28-man rosters to begin the year could allow them to carry up to 16 pitchers if they wanted to.

Mike Matheny said on Monday that he will have a five-man rotation with Zack Greinke, Brad Keller, Kris Bubic, and Carlos Hernández, and a battle for the last spot between Daniel Lynch and Brady Singer.

With that in mind, how might the bullpen be populated?

The locks

Scott Barlow

He was the eighth-best reliever in baseball last year, according to fWAR, with only six relievers better at making hitters miss pitches. He was one of the hardest relievers to homer off of and he had the 17th-highest swinging-strike rate among relievers. He led all Royals relievers in ERA (2.42), FIP (2.63), strikeouts (91), and saves (16), so expect Matheny to turn to him whenever he gets into a tight situation.

Jake Brentz

Brentz was a fantastic find by the Royals, breaking into the big leagues with his fourth organization after being released by the Pirates. The lefty brings a 97 mph fastball that struck out 76 hitters in 64 innings in his rookie campaign. He was nearly unhittable over his first 34 appearances with an opposing line of .153/.271/.234 against him. But hitters got to him in the second half and he posted a 5.46 ERA in his final 38 appearances. The Royals will hope he just wore down a bit and can rebound in 2022 and keep the walks down enough to have success.

Taylor Clarke

The Royals signed the 28-year old right-hander to a one-year, $975,000 contract, and he’s thrown six shutout innings this spring, so he seems like a good bet to make the roster. Clarke had a 4.98 ERA and 3.54 FIP with Arizona last year, striking out 39 hitters in 43 1⁄3 innings. He had a 3.74 ERA with a very good strikeout-to-walk ratio until he got hurt in June and missed two months with a shoulder injury, then finished poorly. The Royals are banking on him bouncing back with his 95 mph fastball and four-pitch mix.

Amir Garrett

Garrett is coming off a pretty awful 2021 season with a 6.04 ERA and 5.5 walks-per-nine innings. But he was pretty effective in the three seasons before that with a 3.60 ERA and 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings. The lefty brings a 95 mph fastball, and since 2018, he has had one of the best sliders in baseball. He’s a decent gamble for a bounceback season, but he’ll have to prove he can throw strikes to get into Matheny’s circle of trust.

Josh Staumont

Staumont struggled to throw strikes as a minor leaguer, but his walk rate was right around league average last year, while his strikeout rate remained above league average. He pitched in a career-high 65 13 innings with a 2.88 ERA, and he was 15th among Americnan League relievers in fWAR. Staumont admits he was still recovering from COVID-19 last year, and feels he is 90 percent healthy now, which could be bad news for opposing hitters.

On the bubble

Dylan Coleman

In what could be a bullpen full of flamethrowers, Coleman may throw the hardest of them all. The righty from Potosi, Missouri averaged 98.3 mph on his fastball - the 17th-fastest pitch in baseball - and he has been known to hit triple digits on occasion. He posted a 3.28 ERA with 14.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings across Double-A and Triple-A last year with a solid walk rate before getting into a handful of innings with the Royals. He got a late start this spring, so the Royals may send him to Omaha to get prepared to help the bullpen out later this year.

Joel Payamps

The Royals purchased Payamps from the Blue Jays mid-season to add another body to the pen, and he was serviceable, with a 4.43 ERA and a very impressive 1.3 walks-per-nine innings. In 50 13 innings between Toronto and Kansas City he had a 3.40 ERA, but his 6.9 strikeouts-per-nine inning were the eighth-lowest by any reliever with 50 innings pitched. Payamps induced one of the lowest rates of hard contact last year, and he’ll have to continue that if he can’t miss bats. Payamps is out of options and would have to clear waivers to be assigned to the minors.

Collin Snider

Snider struggled in Omaha to start the year, but gained his confidence back with a demotion to Double-A Northwest Arkansas. He posted a 2.97 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 36 13 innings for Double-A Northwest Arkansas, then finished strong with a 3.32 ERA in 19 innings back in Omaha. The Royals added him to the 40-man roster and the 26-year old right-hander has given up just four hits and one run in 6 13 innings in spring training. Snider throws a fastball in the high-90s with great sinking action, and could be a factor very soon.

Gabe Speier

With the Royals short on lefty bullpen relief options, Speier has an opportunity to make the team. He has appeared briefly in parts of the last three seasons with the Royals, posting an ERA of 5.23 in 20 23 innings. He has been very effective against lefties, with an opponent’s line of .147/.256/.265 in 39 plate appearances. The 26-year old has a fastball that sits at 92-93 mph with a sinker and slider, but the trade for Garrett could leave him in Omaha for now.

Domingo Tapia

Armed with a high-90s fastball, Tapia pitched well after being acquired from the Mariners last year, with a 2.84 ERA in 31 23 innings for the Royals. Despite his heat, he didn’t strike out many hitters, his walk rate was high, and his BABIP was low, suggesting some reversion to the mean this year. Tapia relies on sinking action and inducing groundballs, but he walks a fine line, and has been very wild and ineffective in spring training.

Could end up in the bullpen if they don’t make the rotation

Jonathan Heasley

When the Royals were running out of bodies last September, Heasley came up to make three starts, holding his own with a 4.91 ERA. The 25-year old right-hander struck out 10.3 per-nine innings for Double-A Arkansas last year with a 3.33 ERA in 105 1⁄3 innings. Heasley has been pretty awful in spring training with seven walks in eight innings and an 11.25 ERA, but he has been working on a change up, and manager Mike Matheny has praised him for his aggressiveness.

12:46 update: Heasley has been optioned to Omaha.

Jackson Kowar

Kowar seemed star-struck when he made his Major League debut last year, despite a resume that included a College World Series and a season at Omaha that would eventually get him named Royals Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Moving to the bullpen could allow Kowar to take some pressure off himself and pitch in lower leverage innings. His lack of a breaking ball has also been an issue that could be papered over in the bullpen a bit.

Daniel Lynch

Lynch also struggled initially in the big leagues, but when he returned after a demotion he was sharp with a 4.35 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 60 innings over his final 12 starts. His slider was dominant last year, but his fastball was quite hittable despite clocking in at the mid-90s. Lynch seems like he would have a good shot a rotation spot, but he told reporters he would be willing to work out of the pen if that’s what it took to stick in the big leagues.

Brady Singer

Brady seemed like a lock for the rotation, but his failure to develop a third pitch may relegate him to the bullpen. Singer has held his own with a sinking fastball and frisbee slider, with a 4.62 ERA in 192 2/3 innings, but a 4.05 FIP and a strikeout-per-inning. The 25-year old had some encouraging results with a change up last year, so perhaps the Royals are challenging him to light a fire under his behind and to get him to throw a third pitch more often. If he doesn’t, he could be a pretty effective reliever on stand-by to rejoin the rotation if need be.

Who will be in Mike Matheny’s bullpen on Opening Day?