SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It wasn’t that long ago that the Royals’ path to 27 outs consisted of a starter merely getting 15 of those. With the great bullpens that Royals general manager Dayton Moore built from 2013-'15, all the Royals had to do was get beyond the fifth inning with the lead.
Then it was checkmate.
The Royals in 2015 had Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland to close out games in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. They also had Ryan Madson and Luke Hochevar to pitch earlier or fill in the gaps later. Those were the recent glory days. They may never be seen again, for bullpens anywhere.
“It’s tough to say, because we had five closers who could have closed on any other team back then,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Most clubs back then, they just tried to figure out how to get to the ninth inning and get to their closer. We just tried to get through five innings and it was over.
“I don’t know if you’ll see that again. Ever.”
All good things come to an end. Hochevar retired, Madson was lost in free agency, Holland had Tommy John surgery and Herrera and Davis were traded.
The path to 27 outs for the 2019 Royals will be more difficult. It starts with a mostly inexperienced staff. Brad Keller, a Rule 5 Draft pick last year, will be the Opening Day starter. Jakob Junis will be in his just second full season and Jorge Lopez, whom the Royals acquired in the Mike Moustakas deal last July, has to prove he belongs.
Yost is hoping those starters, along with veteran Homer Bailey, can give him plenty of innings early as he sorts through the bullpen options. The Royals likely will go with 12 pitchers in the first two weeks of the season because of off-days.
There's Wily Peralta, who was 14-of-14 in save opportunities last season, and veterans Jake Diekman and Brad Boxberger to hold down the fort late. There's also Ian Kennedy, who was converted to a reliever this spring, and lefty Tim Hill, a side-arming sinker-ball pitcher. The last three spots likely will go to Kevin McCarthy, another sinker-baller who had 65 appearances last season; Kyle Zimmer, a first-round Draft pick in 2011 who has been the feel-good story of camp; and Rule 5 Draft pick Chris Ellis or non-roster invitee Michael Ynoa.
“We have more weapons in the bullpen than we’ve had recently,” Moore said. “It’s a matter of them coming together.”
Yost has indicated he will not start the season with traditional roles, as he has in the past, waiting instead for the season to get going to see how things will play out. He's not sure if Kansas City will have a defined closer or not.
“Right now, they’re all in the circle of trust,” Yost said. “Once the season starts, we’ll look ... to individual matchups. Who does Diekman match up with? Perlata, Hill, McCarthy, Boxberger? We don’t know.”
But Yost knows it won’t be like the Royals’ World Series years.
“That was written in stone,” Yost said, smiling. “Kel was in the seventh, Wade in the eighth and Holly in the ninth. And Hoch and Madson would pitch when someone else needed a rest. They knew, we knew. They weren’t sitting on the edge down in the bullpen when the phone rang. If it was the seventh inning and the phone rang, Holly and Wade knew it wasn’t for them. It’ll be different now.”