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Spring training battles: The bullpen

Who will be in Q’s circle of trust?

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Spring training John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The days of HDH are a distant memory. Last year the Royals posted a bullpen ERA of 4.66, fourth-worst in baseball. Royals relievers had the most walks and the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio. But it wasn’t all bad for the bullpen. Royals relievers were above average in not allowing inherited runners to score, their FIP was significantly better than their ERA, and Royals relievers threw harder than any team other than the Yankees. There is some talent there for the new pitching coach staff to work with.

The Royals will likely be very flexible with the bullpen this year. General Manager J.J. Picollo has talked about shuttling guys up and down in anticipation of maximizing matchup potential against opponents. So expect a lot of movement up and down I-29 between Kansas City and Omaha. But there should be a few reliable arms in the pen new manager Matt Quatraro can count on. Who will be among the eight relievers the Royals will take north for the season opener?

The locks

Scott Barlow has been among the most valuable relievers in baseball the last few years and will likely be an attractive trade piece. I would expect the Royals to shop him around, and they may already be listening to offers from the Mets in the wake of the Edwin Diaz injury. He did have a concerning drop in velocity last year, he posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career, and he was very BABIP-lucky last year, so teams may be wary of him a bit until those numbers recover. But he did increase his groundball rate, likely due to throwing his curveball more, a pitch that was ranked the most effective among relievers last year.

Aroldis Chapman likely won’t be in Kansas City long - either he’ll be washed up and released, or he’ll be good and flipped at the trade deadline. The Royals are banking on the latter, with the hope they have identified a flaw in his delivery that led to a down season last year. Chapman’s velocity is down from his peak, but he’s still in the 96th percentile in MLB in velocity, averaging 97 mph with his fastball. He’ll have to keep the walk down, but he can still be an intimidating presence on the mound for late innings.

Dylan Coleman probably could have lost a bullpen spot with a poor performance this spring but he’s been very solid and should be with the team when they open the season. If you go by rWAR, Coleman was actually the most valuable Royals rookie last season with a 2.78 ERA and 9.4 strikeouts-per-nine-innings. If Chapman or Barlow is traded this summer, Coleman could slide into more late inning or high-leverage situations.

Amir Garrett didn’t seem impressive by his 4.96 ERA last year, but look past that and he was pretty solid. His 9.7 strikeouts-per-nine innings rate was second on the team only to Josh Staumont, he posted a solid FIP of 3.40, and opponents hit just .177/.332/.241 off him. He’ll have to bring the walks down, but he could another attractive trade asset. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets traded early on since it looks like the Royals appear to be have plenty of lefty options right now.

Josh Staumont had a frustrating 2022 season with a neck strain and bicep tendinitis limiting him to just 37 23 innings and a disappointing 6.45 ERA. When he’s healthy, he features one of the best fastballs in baseball with a devastating curve. If he gets back on track, the Royals could be fielding calls about him as well - he would have to years of club control after this year, making him very attractive. He’s already 29 years old, so the Royals will have to decide if he’s part of the future or if they should flip him for prospects.

Rotation candidates

Kris Bubic is likely headed to Omaha, in my opinion. He has looked pretty good in a couple of spring outings, and has been working on a slider to add to his arsenal, but he’s likely the sixth man in a five-man rotation for now. He has pitched well in relief in the past, and he could give the Royals a long-man if Ryan Yarbrough is not ready to begin the season. Bubic could benefit from the new pitching coach staff, but he may need to find more consistency this year or he’ll be a non-tender candidate next winter.

Brad Keller seems like he has a rotation spot locked up at this point, along with Zack Greinke, Brady Singer, Jordan Lyles, and likely Daniel Lynch. Keller has been disappointing the last two seasons, but has been a solid pitcher in the past and is just 27 years old. He has been drawing rave reviews this spring with a new “sweeper” and if he’s able to turn his career around, he gives the Royals a chance to have a pretty solid rotation. This will be his last year of club control, so he if does turn things around, the Royals may want to consider extending him or trading him in July.

Ryan Yarbrough has been dealing with groin soreness, limiting him to just two outings so far this spring. But he seems to be back on track now, giving the Royals a strike-thrower who has had one of the lowest walk rates in baseball the last few seasons. The 31-year-old could get some starts this year, but I expect most his action will come out of the bullpen to sop up innings.


Jake Brentz just signed a two-year deal with the Royals, but isn’t expected to be available until July as he recovers from elbow surgery. Brentz showed promise as a hard-throwing lefty with 10.7 strikeout-per-nine innings and a 3.66 ERA in 2021. Walks are an issue, but a two-year deal seems like a low-stakes gamble to see if he can become a solid piece for next year.

Taylor Clarke has been dealing with lower body soreness, limiting him to just two innings so far this spring. He was a pretty underrated reliever for the Royals, walking just eight hitters in 49 innings. His 3.30 FIP indicates he was probably better than his 4.04 ERA would suggest, and he posted the highest strikeout rate of his career. If he’s healthy, Clarke should have a spot in the bullpen, but he also has an option year remaining, so he could get shipped down at times this year.

Battling for a spot

Jose Cuas was a great feelgood story last year, but he was also a darn effective pitcher for the Royals with a 3.58 ERA in 37 23 innings. He became one of Mike Matheny’s most trusted pitchers last year, but that was because there were few other options at times. Cuas still had trouble throwing strikes at times, and he doesn’t feature a big fastball that can blow hitters away. He has options remaining, so I’d expect he begins the year in Omaha, but is up quite a few times this year to give the Royals a groundball artist in the pen.

Carlos Hernández could be one of those pitchers that benefits greatly from new pitching coach Brian Sweeney. He has long featured a fastball that can hit triple digits, but has curiously found few strikeouts with that heater. Now it seems like he is getting some movement on his heater, giving him the potential to be a nasty reliever.

It’s possible that Hernández could still start, but my understanding is the Royals seem him as a reliever now, and he could be an elite one if he has figured out how to effectively use his fastball.

Richard Lovelady has long been a darling on this site due to his minor league performance, but injuries have set back his career. He was added to the 40-man roster this year after missing most of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery and has looked terrific this spring with seven scoreless innings and no walks with nine strikeouts. Lovelady had some good numbers in limited action with the Royals in 2021, but what could be working against him is the fact he has options and the Royals have so many lefties in camp right now.

Collin Snider is another “great stuff, poor results” guy that could benefit from better coaching. He throws hard with a good sinker, but hasn’t seen that translate to many strikeouts. He could have a nice career as a groundball pitcher, but will likely begin the year in Omaha to work on his arsenal, giving the Royals a solid option to call up when needed.

Josh Taylor was a pitcher the Royals said they were targeting for awhile before acquiring him from the Red Sox for infielder Adalberto Mondesi. The lefty missed all of last year with back issues, but was solid in 2021 with a 3.40 ERA with 11.3 strikeouts-per-nine innings in 47 2⁄3 innings. The Royals might want to bring him back slowly after missing all of last year, and he has options remaining, so he could begin in Omaha and work his way back to the big leagues.

Ryan Weiss is a pitcher who shouldn’t have a chance of making this team on paper, but has been drawing praise in camp. He was shelled last year in Triple-A, but has thrown more two-seamers and sliders this spring with better results. He has options remaining, and isn’t currently on the 40-man roster, so I’d expect him to begin in the minors, but if he can become a useful reliever this year, that would be a big win for this coaching staff.

Nick Wittgren has had some big league success with a career 3.96 ERA in 287 games with Miami, Cleveland, and St. Louis. The 31-year-old right-hander has a pretty deep arsenal for a reliever, but suffered a drop in performance last year. He has thrown pretty well this spring, but not being on the 40-man roster is working against him making the team.


Brooks Kriske has some limited big league action and pitched in Japan last year, earning him a non-roster invite from the Royals. He has pitched well this spring, but is likely headed to Omaha as depth.

Mike Mayers has had some decent success with a 3.34 ERA in 101 games with the Angels from 2020 to 2021. But he dropped off signficantly last year and was offered a minor league deal with the Royals. He hasn’t pitched particularly well with the Royals this spring, so I would expect him to be in Omaha if he stays in the organization.

Evan Sisk gives the Royals a lower arm angle from the left side, but will probably make it hard to make the team with so many lefties ahead of him. He was acquired from the Twins in the Michael A. Taylor trade, and pitched very well in the minors last year, so expect to see him up at some point with the Royals.

Opening Day Prediction: Scott Barlow, Aroldis Chapman, Taylor Clarke, Dylan Coleman, Amir Garrett, Carlos Hernández, Josh Staumont, Ryan Yarbrough