The Kansas City Royals bullpen is going to look vastly different when the 2024 season kicks off. Last season, the team’s relievers put up the second-worst ERA in the entire league. As a result, the front office has made a concerted effort to churn the roster and reshape the bullpen. The largest additions were Will Smith and Chris Stratton. Before free agent signings, the team also acquired veteran reliever Nick Anderson in a trade with the Atlanta Braves. All of the moves have culminated in a lot of reliever depth and one underlying question as we look ahead to spring training - who’s going to make the cut on Opening Day?
LHP Will Smith
Will Smith signed with the Royals on a one-year, $5 million contract this offseason. That’s at least five million reasons that he will start the season in the big league bullpen. Beyond that, he’s one of the few proven veterans in an otherwise young and inexperienced bullpen. Even beyond the cliche “three straight World Series” argument, Smith has been one of the better relievers in the league for the better part of a decade. That strong track record and veteran presence is exactly why Kansas City signed him in the first place.
RHP Chris Stratton
The argument for Stratton is right along the same lines as Will Smith. For four years now, he’s been a steady workhorse of a reliever. Last year he tossed 82.2 innings with a healthy 3.92 ERA. His 3.53 FIP was even better. The ceiling for Stratton next season isn’t likely as high as what Smith could potentially deliver, but the floor for each veteran doesn’t really seem all that different.
RHP James McArthur
McArthur was a revelation in 2023 in an otherwise desperate bullpen situation. A bet on McArthur to repeat his insane 0.8 walk-per-nine innings mark is ill-advised, but even if he can repeat 80% of that showing it’ll be a steadying force in the bullpen. McArthur’s 4.63 ERA doesn’t jump off the page, but his FIP was much better at 2.78 and explains his 2.95 xERA on the season. He was one of the front office’s biggest wins last season after his departure from the Phillies organization.
RHP Carlos Hernández
As bad as Hernández was in the second half last season, he was good enough in the first half to warrant a return look. The upside is as enticing as any other young reliever on the 40-man roster. With a triple-digit fastball and effective (but inconsistent) secondaries, the sky remains the limit for Hernández. At still just 26 years old, with four more seasons of club control, it’s difficult to imagine the Royals starting the season without Hernández in the bullpen.
RHP John McMillon
John McMillon saw his 2023 season come to a disappointing close after becoming a feel-good story before his debut. His injury — a forearm strain — ended the year early but no additional news has come to pass. This late in the offseason, that appears to be good news for his health heading into 2024. McMillon, much like Hernández, can light up the radar gun. His triple digits fastball dominates opposing hitters, but his curveball gave him the nickname, “The Whammer.” This at bat against Julio Rodriguez made it clear to me last season: McMillon is here to stay.
John McMillon striking out Julio Rodriguez. pic.twitter.com/UqUTPGWuUK— Preston Farr (@royalsminors) August 27, 2023
RHP Matt Sauer
Sauer was selected by the Royals in December’s Rule 5 Draft. He must remain on the 26-man roster for the entire 2023 season. If he doesn’t, the Royals will be required to offer him back to the New York Yankees for $50,000. Although he pitched exclusively as a starter last season in Double-A, Sauer will likely debut next season in the bullpen to ease him in. If he’s successful, there’s a Brad Keller-esque path to relevancy for him. At the same time, if he struggles tremendously in spring training, it’s possible the Royals won’t even confirm his roster spot. For that reason, he’s not a true lock for next season.
LHP Jake Brentz
It’s hard to see the Royals cutting bait on Brentz now after they’ve hung onto him so long. He signed a two-year contract with the team last offseason. At the time of the signing, the front office knew he would most or all of the 2023 season following shoulder surgery. For that reason, along with the $1.05 million they guaranteed him for this season, it seems most likely the team will give him a chance to open the season. In addition, Brentz is the seventh name on our list and only the second lefty reliever, behind Will Smith. With so little left-handed depth, Brentz makes a lot of sense. In his last sample of note (back in 2021), Brentz pitched to a 3.66 ERA over 64.0 IP.
RHP Nick Anderson
Anderson has been an effective MLB reliever for much of his career thus far. Unfortunately, over four MLB seasons that’s only equated to 122.2 total innings. Health has been a limiting factor and I can’t help but wonder if Anderson is truly healthy. If he were, it seems like a team such as Atlanta would look to acquire a little more than cash considerations. He offers strong command and a veteran presence, but it seems difficult to count on Anderson for much more than 30 innings in 2024.
RHP Steven Cruz
Cruz has an outstanding fastball. Much like Hernández and McMillon, he can dial it up to triple digits. Unlike those others, however, Cruz doesn’t have an effective second pitch to rely on. He’s yet to find command at any level of his professional career thus far. Over six minor league seasons, Cruz has walked 159 batters over 242 innings. Last season in Kansas City he wasn’t much better. In 12.2 major league innings, Cruz walked 11 hitters. If he can show improved command in spring training it could give him a chance to claim a spot but that seems unlikely.
RHP Will Klein
Klein represented the Royals at last summer’s Futures Game. He was then added to the 40-man roster this winter. As the team’s number 26 prospect, it makes a lot of sense for him to garner enough looks this spring to give him a chance. Although Klein has been a strikeout machine throughout his minor league career thus far, the command has been inconsistent. He started last season strong but struggled following the All-Star Break. If the bullpen didn’t have as much depth, his path to the major leagues would be much easier to see. Instead, now, he looks like a depth piece that should get the first crack once a need arises.
LHP Josh Taylor
Taylor survived the 40-man roster moves this winter despite his recent injury struggles. That alone is worth mentioning but the fact that he remains over other pitchers including Josh Staumont and Dylan Coleman is telling. He’s one of three lefties in the pen, alongside Smith and Brentz. Additionally, Taylor was a strikeout machine in his limited sample last season. Over 17.2 IP before his injury, Taylor struck out 26. His ERA was ugly, but his FIP shows signs of positive regression on the horizon. The real question here is health and whether Taylor can stay available next season. He does have two minor league options remaining, which helps his case as reliever depth.
Are they relievers? Are they starters? The Royals currently have a handful of arms on the 40-man roster who have spent ample time as a starter either in the minor leagues, major leagues, or both. Looking ahead to next season, their prospects for the Major League bullpen could depend heavily on what the Royals see in their future. They could provide valuable depth to the starting rotation in case of injury. At the same time, the front office may feel it’s time to see what they can do in the big leagues regardless of their role.
LHP Angel Zerpa
Zerpa is a lefty, which helps his case to start the season in Kansas City’s bullpen. Beyond that, he could find himself competing with Daniel Lynch IV and Jordan Lyles for the final spot in next year’s rotation. If he’s unable to earn that final rotation spot, Zerpa would still be a strong addition to the bullpen. In that role last season, he was much more successful. As a starter in 2023, Zerpa pitched to a 6.39 ERA over 12.2 IP. As a reliever, his ERA was 4.20 and opponents hit just .258 against him.
RHP Jonathan Bowlan
Jonathan Bowlan — much like these next two names after him — is an older prospect who just made his MLB debut last season. Tommy John surgery slowed Bowlan’s path to the major leagues. Will the Royals continue using him as a starter? If so, his chances of making the bullpen next season could be difficult. Bowlan could provide valuable depth in Omaha in case of injury in the Kansas City starting rotation. Although he put together his most complete season since 2019, 2023 still saw Bowlan struggle with command. He’s certainly not the same pitcher he was when he tossed a no-hitter for the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Regardless, he’s valuable depth and could end up in the bullpen someday anyway.
RHP Alec Marsh
Marsh was very similar to Angel Zerpa last season in that he was much better after moving to the MLB bullpen. He struggled with the long ball over eight starts in 2023. As a starter, Marsh’s ERA was an ugly 7.64. Opponents slugged .636 against him over those 35.1 IP. Then, once Marsh moved to the bullpen he fared much better. Over 39 innings in relief, Marsh pitched to a 3.92 ERA and allowed just three home runs — ten fewer than he had as a starter. The strikeout ability is unquestionable, but Marsh may not be able to command that well enough in a starting role.
LHP Anthony Veneziano
Veneziano was one of the organization’s best pitchers in 2023 for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. An early season promotion to Omaha was met with some struggles but he adjusted quickly and put together a strong season. That strong season earned him a late-season call-up to Kansas City. It was barely a cup of coffee in the big leagues — just 2.1 IP — but it’s clear that Veneziano is in the mix for next season. Unfortunately for him, he’s the 15th name on our list and the team can only roster nine relievers. More likely, they roster seven or eight and keep a couple of swing-man starter types in Kansas City. Veneziano has some promise, but much like Bowlan probably makes more sense as starter depth in Omaha than in the MLB bullpen.