With premium on 'pen, KC corps could be even better
Royals supplemented dominant back-end trio with potential middle-relief standouts
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Dave Eiland admits it might come across as cocky or egotistical, but how can he keep from singing the praises of his 'pen?
"The whole world saw how we did it," the Royals' pitching coach said here Saturday. "It was on display for the world to see."
Indeed, while there were many components that ultimately turned a long-suffering franchise into American League elite, it was hard not to come away with the conclusion that the dominant trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera was the biggest separator for the Royals on the October stage. And while it's impossible to imagine that three-headed monster becoming any more effective (regression, in fact, could be on the immediate horizon, if we know anything about relievers), there's an argument to be made that the Kansas City 'pen, as a whole, is better than ever on the verge of 2015.
The 2014 season had not even ended when the Royals made the internal decision to keep the H-D-H group together, seemingly excessive costs and all. Holland's arbitration raise took him from $4.7 million in '14 to $8.25 million in '15. Davis' contract called for a bump from $4.8 million to $7 million. And Herrera's raise was more modest -- from $522,500 to $1.6 million.
Maybe a $16.85 million total outlay for arguably the best back-end bullpen setup in the game doesn't sound like much to some organizations (the Yankees, who will pay setup man Andrew Miller an average annual value of $9 million, come to mind), but that figure accounts for 15 percent of the Royals' franchise-record $112 million payroll for '15. No small sum.
And that's probably the most pertinent point to be made about the Royals' interesting winter. They value the bullpen so much that they not only kept it together, but augmented it in a significant way with the re-signings of Luke Hochevar (two years, $10 million) and Jason Frasor (one year, $1.8 million). We also can't rule out the possibility of Kris Medlen joining this 'pen in the second half as he builds up arm strength after his second Tommy John surgery.
So while the Royals are obviously taking some risks elsewhere on their roster -- with Edinson Volquez in the now James Shields-less rotation and Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales hoping for bounceback years in a lineup that lost Billy Butler and Nori Aoki -- they took no chances with the 'pen.
"There's 27 outs," general manager Dayton Moore said. "You've gotta get 'em. You want to build a staff that matches up well, and we've always put an emphasis on trying to match up well the last three innings of a baseball game."
The general stability of the Royals' relief work has been an asset for several seasons -- one that's especially difficult to come by in such a mercurial realm of the sport. And that stability tells us that Eiland, Ned Yost and the rest of this Royals coaching and development staff know a thing or two about keeping their arms as fresh as possible.
Playing your last game of the season on Oct. 29 doubles down on the difficulty of the fresh factor. Davis and Herrera both exceeded 80 innings last season. Holland topped out at 73 1/3 innings, and notably, he dealt with a minor elbow issue in September.
Little wonder, then, that Eiland won't touch the H-D-H group at all in the first week of Cactus League play, opting instead to ease them into the exhibition schedule.
"Last year, I didn't throw until the second week of games, too, so it's kind of the same thing," Holland said. "You kind of prep on getting a lot of use and wear and tear. You get to a certain point in your career where you can do other things. It's not like I don't throw. I'll be doing side sessions and live BP and stuff like that, and that gives you a chance to have more focus on a minor change or something you're feeling that's not right, rather than letting your competitive instincts take over in a game."
Holland has learned to cede to the coaching staff when he's told it's time to take a day off, and he admits it's easier to do so when you have a bullpen this deep.
The Royals' relief options run so deep, in fact, that Yost is entertaining the idea of going into the season with an eight-man 'pen, a concept gaining credence in the sport now that mid-inning matchup plays have been increasingly emphasized.
That idea basically revolves around the health of Hochevar. Remember, Hochevar was Davis before Davis, a converted starter who grew to relish the relief role (1.92 ERA and 0.825 WHIP in '13). But his elbow snapped last spring, and the Royals are realistic about his recovery and the possibility that he won't be at 100 percent in April.
"Facts are facts," Eiland said. "He won't be a year out of surgery until March 18. So we've got to be careful with him and look at the big picture."
The bigger bullpen picture calls for a stronger sixth-inning situation. As amazing as the Royals became from innings seven through nine last season (in 204 1/3 innings of total work, Holland, Davis and Herrera all posted an ERA below 1.50), there were times when the coaches would greedily opine about what it would mean to have one more lockdown arm in the mix. Frasor's midseason arrival from Texas, as well as College World Series participant Brandon Finnegan's late-season arrival, helped provide that, but Finnegan is nonetheless best stretched out as a starter for the sake of his own development, and Hochevar profiles as a more tantalizing weapon against batters from both sides of the plate.
The elephant missing from the room here is Shields, the annual 200-inning workhorse who unsurprisingly took his services elsewhere. The Royals have questions in their rotation, given that Danny Duffy dealt with shoulder inflammation at year's end, Yordano Ventura has had about a 37-percent increase in his workload each of the last two years and Volquez is just a year removed from being one of baseball's least-effective starters.
It's a positive that Duffy has reported to camp in superb shape and Ventura's body is more filled out (Eiland said he's at 200 pounds) than he gets credit for, and Volquez could once again benefit from a big ballpark and a dynamic defense, as he did in Pittsburgh. But we just don't yet know if this unit can consistently get the Royals through the sixth with a lead, which makes the beefed-up bullpen all the more important.
Lemmings society that the baseball industry tends to be, it was no surprise to see several clubs like the Yankees, White Sox and Astros go to great lengths to latch onto relievers such as Miller and David Robertson and Zach Duke and Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. The middle and late innings are an area where it is increasingly unacceptable to be thin.
We'll see if the Royals are fat enough in that department to offset what might be inevitable statistical steps back for their big three, but their track record earns them the benefit of the doubt for now.
"What we have is rare," Eiland said. "And you see all the teams around baseball trying to model their bullpen after ours. But that's why we've got to keep these guys healthy."