It was another disastrous year for the Royals bullpen as they finished 2019 with a 5.07 ERA (27th in baseball), 2.01 K/BB (29th) and dead last in WHIP (1.54). Despite the problems, don’t expect Kansas City to be big players in free agency for any of the remaining relievers out there. One possibility that’s been bounced around is a potential Jake Diekman return, but that’s not exactly moving the needle. It’s more likely the Royals go the other way and sell some pieces, such as trading incumbent closer Ian Kennedy, who’s in the last year of his deal. Multiple starters, such as Jorge Lopez, Glenn Sparkman and possibly Danny Duffy, may find themselves in a full-time bullpen role next year. The Royals also have plenty of interesting pitching prospects, a bunch of whom will be over age 22 for next season and could find themselves making their debut in a relief role. Whatever happens from now till next April, expect another year of 20+ relievers used in the Kansas City bullpen.
|Ian Kennedy||Scott Barlow||Tim Hill||Kevin McCarthy||Richard Lovelady||Kyle Zimmer|
Closer – Ian Kennedy
Ian Kennedy was a revelation for the Royals bullpen last season, as the starter-turned-reliever took over the closer’s role in May and never looked back. As is the case with most starter-turned-reliever types, Kennedy was able to add a few mph to his arsenal, a roughly three-mph uptick across the board, while also only focusing on his plus pitches. He completely scrapped his changeup in 2019, going with a heavy fastball-cutter mix (68% and 15% respectably) while mixing in his curveball at 15% compared to 19% last year. Also among the changes he made this season, he dropped his arm angle, getting more horizontal movement on his fastball, which resulted in a career-high 44% ground-ball rate. The changes showed as his 2.99 FIP ranked 14th among all qualified relievers.
Despite all the positive changes, he still wasn’t able to generate a ton of swings and misses, with a below-average 9.9% swinging-strike rate. However, his 21 K-BB% was still a career-high by almost four percentage points. His 30 saves put him in some special company as one of only four pitchers in MLB history to produce both a 30-save and 20-win season in their career (Derek Lowe, John Smoltz, and Dennis Eckersley being the other three). While the Royals will likely be shopping him this offseason, teams will surely balk at the $16.5 million he is owed, limiting any potential prospect return. If they can’t get a good return in a deal, the Royals should be happy to have him back in the closer’s role to start next season.
Setup – Scott Barlow
While his rookie campaign was ultimately a tale of highs and lows, Scott Barlow showed enough promise to be on your radar entering the 2020 season. Barlow was fantastic in his first month of the season before tail-spinning toward the end of May and into June. But once returning to the Royals bullpen in July, Barlow showed us that same upside he flashed in April.
The only real negative was a high walk rate (11.9%), but besides that, he was quite dominant. Using mostly a slider-fastball combo (43% each), Barlow was able to finish the second half with the 12th-best WAR (0.9), 17th-lowest FIP (2.63), and 23rd-highest swinging-strike percentage (16.1) among all relievers. With the Royals likely to shop Kennedy around this winter, Barlow could find himself closing out games sooner rather than later, making for an interesting late-round flier.
Setup – Tim Hill
While there’s nothing flashy about Tim Hill, he has quietly been one of the more effective lefty relievers over the past two seasons and should see a similar role for 2020. While he can be inconsistent, Hill, similar to Barlow, was able to at least finish the season strong with a 3.41 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 33/8 K/BB ratio over 31.2 second-half innings. A submarine lefty specialist, Hill will need to find ways to get righties out more often next season as pitchers will now be required to face a minimum of three batters before being removed.
Middle – Kevin McCarthy
With a strikeout percentage that ranked 154th out of 158 qualified relievers in 2019 and a swinging-strike rate that failed to break double digits, Kevin McCarthy has effectively established himself as a middling middle reliever. Despite the low strikeout numbers, McCarthy has been able to keep his ERA under 3.80 throughout his 185.2 career MLB innings due to a 59.2% ground-ball rate and 7.4% walk rate. Without the ability to miss bats, however, McCarthy has extremely limited upside and likely won’t see a ton of high-leverage work next season.
Middle – Richard Lovelady
While Richard Lovelady‘s season at the MLB level went poorly, very poorly, it’s still way too early to write off the talented young left-hander completely. Lovelady’s first 20 innings greeted him with 30 hits and 17 earned runs allowed—the 17 runs tying his strikeout total for the season. But the lefty, still just 24 years old, has proved in the minors that he can be a very effective bullpen option. He features a fastball that he can get into the mid-90s with an above-average spin rate and a slider that was quite effective last year (.260 wOBA, 40% K rate). After he underwent knee surgery a few weeks ago, the hope is for Lovelady to get back to 100% for the start of spring training and win a spot in the Royals bullpen.
Middle – Kyle Zimmer
Once a top prospect in the Royals farm system, Kyle Zimmer was finally able to stay healthy last season and make his MLB debut. While he struggled mightily, he still flashed some of the upside that made him a top-five pick in the 2012 MLB draft. Zimmer features both a slider and curveball that can be plus pitches, and his fastball reached the upper 90s last season, so there’s still talent left in his arm. Out of options for next season, Zimmer should at least begin the year in the Royals bullpen, assuming he shows more consistency in spring training.
Josh Staumont, Gabe Speier, Scott Blewett
Josh Staumont‘s first taste at the MLB level was a mixed bag, as the young righty was able to turn in a 3.72 ERA over 19.1 innings, but that came with a 1.60 WHIP. Staumont features a lively fastball that he can get up into the high 90s and a curveball that had a 40% K rate over 99 pitches thrown. Command has always been Staumont’s issue throughout his professional career, as he has never had a walk rate under 15.8% at any stop before his MLB call-up. While his walk rate dipped to 11.4% at the MLB level, his K rate also saw a significant decline, down to 17.1%.
Acquired from the Diamondbacks for John Jay in 2018, Gabe Speier, like many of the Royals to make their MLB debut last season, had a tough time adjusting to the highest level. While the ERA over his first 7+ innings wasn’t pretty (7.36), his 30.3% K rate is worth mentioning, although it did come with an 18.2% walk rate. Speier features a mid-90s fastball and slider from the left side and should be able to stick as a useful reliever down the road.
Scott Blewett‘s time at Triple-A did not go so well this past season, as the 23-year-old logged an 8.52 ERA over 16 starts, but a potential move to the bullpen may do wonders for the Royals prospect. Prior to his first Triple-A stint, Blewett had been known for having good command of his pitches, as well as featuring two potential plus offerings in his fastball and curveball. Already on the 40-man roster, Blewett should get a serious look this spring training as a potential bullpen piece.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)