‘Big time’: Royals ‘pen a priority for 2022

Picollo addresses relief need, top prospects at GM Meetings

November 10th, 2021

As the Hot Stove season gets underway with trade rumors, interest in free agents and more, the Royals have emerged with a clear focus on an area of need they can address this offseason.

An improved bullpen will be a priority.

At the General Managers Meetings in Carlsbad, Calif., on Tuesday, Royals general manager J.J. Picollo indicated that the club has targeted relievers as a need this offseason and is beginning to explore both the free agent and trade market for pitching.

“Big time,” Picollo said of the priority on the bullpen. “We like a lot of our position players. Defensively, they were really sound. We’ve got a lot of promising starting pitchers that need to take that next step. But the bullpen is going to be what protects them.”

The Royals have four returning relievers who were used in the high-leverage spots in 2021: Right-handers , and , as well as lefty . Right-handed fireballer will also be in this conversation come the spring, and lefty impressed in his limited time in the bullpen at the end of 2021, when he allowed one earned run in 7 2/3 innings.

“We’re looking to improve, wherever we can, whether it be left-handed or right-handed,” Picollo said. “We ended the season with two left-handers with Brentz and Speier. … But we may try to look left-handed. But at the end of the day, if we can add two to three relievers to complete our bullpen, we’d feel like there’d be a lot more depth.

“We’ll see where it goes, but that’s the goal right now.”

Kansas City’s ‘pen posted a collective 4.22 ERA in 2021, which ranked 11th in the American League. More than even an improved ERA, though, the Royals hope that constructing a strong bullpen in 2022 helps the young starting staff to take the next step in their development. Having relievers manager Mike Matheny can rely on to deliver innings -- and lockdown innings -- allows the coaching staff flexibility in how far they push the starter on any given night.

In this same discussion, targeting a veteran starter to eat innings and lead the staff would make sense if the price is right, too. On the current roster, lefty Mike Minor is the only starter with over five years of Major League experience.

The Royals know that in an improving American League Central, pitching is going to be what brings them into contention. They believe in their young rotation to help with that in the coming years. But there must be a support group so those players can settle into their roles.

The other thing the Royals are keeping in mind is that clubs will be limited to 13 pitchers on their big league roster throughout the season, a rule that was going to come into effect last season but was relaxed after coming off the pandemic-shortened season. While this rule isn’t official for 2022 yet, Picollo and his staff are operating under the assumption that it is and are looking at players with options, as well as players who could throw in a multi-inning relief role.

Picollo elaborated on the improved bullpen idea when talking to Royals insider Josh Vernier for 610 Sports Radio’s offseason Royals Bonanza on Tuesday night.

“We’ve watched this through the playoffs this year, how difficult it is for starters to get through the seventh inning, eighth inning,” Picollo said. “That’s certainly the goal, but the deeper your bullpen is, the more likely you are to secure wins when your games are winnable. So that’s a focus of our offseason discussion with our professional scouts, our [research and development] department. Who are those targets, who fits with us from an evaluation standpoint, from an R&D standpoint and from an economic standpoint.

“More than anything when it comes to pitching, we just have to be really, really focused on how we get the pitchers that we currently have better.”

Where does Melendez fit?

Another big question this offseason is where top catching prospect MJ Melendez, ranked No. 67 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects list, would fit in the field once he’s ready for his Major League debut. Melendez had an impressive year between Double-A and Triple-A this season and recently won Minor League Baseball’s Top Offensive Player honors after leading MiLB with 41 home runs. On Tuesday night, Picollo told Vernier that he would be “disappointed” if Melendez, Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto didn’t make their debuts in the coming season.

With Salvador Perez coming off an historic 48 home run season, Melendez might not get everyday playing time behind the plate in Kansas City, even though the Royals view him as an everyday catcher.

Melendez is athletic enough that he could play the corner infield or outfield positions when the Royals need him to, and they saw him do so at the alternate training site in 2020. Melendez played 80 innings at third base in Triple-A this season.

“A lot of it will be depending on how his bat performs and when he’s ready, but we want him, when his bat is ready, to be able to get on the field somewhere,” Picollo said at the GM Meetings. “We feel good about his catching skills. But he’ll probably play the corners, just so whenever that time comes, he could jump out there with them.”