In 2014 and 2015 Dayton Moore and Ned Yost showed the world that a great bullpen could be a game-changing tool, especially in the playoffs. From 2000 to 2015, starters were averaging just under six innings per start every year except 2011 when the average was slightly over six, but after 2015 that started to drop off precipitously. This was not a coincidence.
Right now, 14 teams in baseball are still in the playoff hunt, 16 if you include the Orioles and White Sox. Of those 14, 11 are in the top half in baseball in bullpen ERA. Only the Twins (17th), Padres (18th), and Phillies (21st) are not. The Phillies and Padres are likely going to be the last two Wild Card spots in the National League. The Twins are only even in the playoff picture because they happen to be in the American League Central. They are six games back in the Wild Card having two teams to pass, so Fangraphs has them at 0.9% to get a Wild Card spot, so if they make it it will have more to do with happenstance than team quality.
All of the good teams have good bullpens. I cannot say for certain that this will be true every year going forward, but it has become much more common. In 2021 every playoff team had a bullpen in the top half of the league in ERA. If the Royals truly want to compete, they are going to need to be better at closing out games. This year they are 30th in ERA, and only slightly better at basically a tie for 29th if you go by bullpen WAR per Fangraphs.
The 2022 Royals bullpen has very few bright spots. The most obvious is Scott Barlow who has posted a 2.53 ERA and 21 saves with only 3 blown opportunities. His peripherals are not quite as good, but they are not saying he is getting incredibly lucky. We would assume that he will be the closer next year as well. The only other player that has had a good season that looks repeatable is Taylor Clarke who has a 4.02 ERA, but his FIP/xFIP/xERA all suggest he is better than that, mostly due to his walk rate being much better this season. After those two it is slim pickings with a lot of mediocrity and luck, or lack thereof.
Amir Garrett - At times Garrett has been quite good this year in some ways, but when he blows up it tends to be for multiple runs. For instance, over his last 13 appearances he has had 11 where he did not give up any runs. In the other two he gave up 2 runs without recording an out and 4 runs with just one out. He has been an effective reliever for entire seasons in recent memory, so it is probably not time to write him off yet.
Jose Cuas - Cuas has been a nice surprise this year, but expecting his outcomes (3.48 ERA) to continue could be fool’s gold. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 1.6, and anybody walking 5.35 per nine is concerning even if they do have swing and miss stuff, which he does not.
Dylan Coleman - See Jose Cuas...if one of these two can actually repeat what they have done this year it would be helpful, but I would not be counting on it. Both should get a shot, but they should also both be on pretty short leashes.
Daniel Mengden - Talk about making the most of an opportunity, Mengden has looked like a different pitcher so far in the big leagues. It is only 7 innings, but he has struck out 10.29 per nine while walking only 1.29, so he has been great. Literally nothing in his track record suggests this is what he actually is. Again, he should get a chance to prove it through the rest of the year and spring training, but don’t count on him.
Brad Keller - Early bullpen returns have been rough, but the velocity and strikeout rate improvements make me think he can turn it around. As long as he is not in the rotation next year I will call it a win.
Luke Weaver - Based on peripherals he deserves a shot, but he has not been good at the Major League level since 2019. Does a .432 BABIP suggest he has been incredibly unlucky this season, sure, but the 55.3% LOB and 4% HR/FB rates are lucky in the other direction.
Josh Staumont - Something is broken, but he is too talented with too recent a track record of success to throw out. He has to get the walk rate back down, which is of course the Achilles’ heel of Royals pitching development.
Others in the mix for next year should include Kris Bubic, Max Castillo, Angel Zerpa, Wyatt Mills, Jonathan Heasley, Carlos Hernandez, Foster Griffin, and Jake Brentz coming back from injury along with a handful of AA and AAA guys like Andres Sotillet or Patrick Halligan who have shown something at the minors this year, though none of them are very exciting in my opinion. The Royals are going to have to make some decisions on who are still starters and who needs to try out the bullpen. If out of all of this they can piece together a solid bullpen I will be very surprised. It seems like a lot of wish casting.
Even the middle-of-the-road bullpens tend to have four or five solid options, but you can only get away with four if you have some elite eighth and ninth inning guys. The Royals have no elite bullpen arms right now, so they need to find three or four answers to the solid but unspectacular category.
Free agency has some possibilities that I think the Royals should consider, though I would prefer they get a good starter to a reliever, they have the money for both. I am ignoring the ones that will require long contracts like Edwin Diaz because I don’t think the Royals can risk long-term dollars on relief pitchers. I am also ignoring huge injury risks since I think the Royals need to be safe in this arena, well as safe as you can be with relief pitchers. These are all solid options that should be short enough deals to make sense.
Rafael Montero - This is a little risky as Montero has not had a long track record of success, but he has had a very good 2022. He is almost 32, so that coupled with a spotty record in years before 2022 could create an opportunity for a one-year contract. He would not necessarily be my choice, but it’s an option.
Craig Kimbrel - After a rough couple of years in Chicago, Kimbrel has returned to form. Not sure how long of a contract he will get offered, and he may want to focus on contending teams that need a closer since that is his preferred role.
Kenley Jansen - Another big name toward the end of his career, Jansen might cost a lot, but if it is for one year it might be worth it. He is about as consistent as a reliever can be, though again might want to focus on contenders.
David Phelps - He showed that he is not done yet this year. He will be more expensive than last year for sure, but should be a one- or two-year deal going into his age-37-season. He has never been a full-time closer, which might keep him from being very expensive. I kind of like him as a target.
Michael Fulmer - If you want to go younger Fulmer is an option, though he has yet to put up more than a fine season as a bullpen pitcher. Might want a longer-term deal, which I would avoid unless he is willing to sacrifice AAV for it.
Jesse Chavez - He will be 40 next year, but has been quite good the last two years. This only makes sense on a fairly cheap one-year deal.
Adam Ottavino - He is having a nice bounce back this season. Another solid middle reliever in his mid-30s to look at. I would definitely be looking at Ottavino if I were the Royals.
Erasmo Ramirez - I am not sure he is actually good enough to count, but he has put up some good ERA numbers. The peripherals don’t back it up, and the strikeout rate is very low for this day and age, though 70 innings in 50 appearances is solid. I would not go this route, but he is an option.
Seth Lugo - The last guy who is good enough to even consider in my mind. He has been consistently fine, but not dominant since 2019. He is 33, so a little younger than some of the options, but not young. Depends on the deal.
The bullpen needs help, that is clear, but the nice thing about bullpens is that they can be turned around a little easier and cheaper than rotations and lineups. What we need to see is the Royals actively doing something to accomplish this turnaround in the very near future if they would like to contend, as they always say they do. Money is one way they can do that, and the other is converting some of their starters who are marginal to try and add some more options to push out the bottom end of the pen this off-season.