When the season previews start to pop up you can be sure one of the areas listed as a strength for the 2012 Royals will be the bullpen. Possibly, the biggest.
In 2011 the Royals bullpen finished 9th in all of baseball with an 8.13 K/9 and did that after throwing a combined 508+ innings, only one of nine teams to amass that high of an inning total. Given that it’s no surprise why Dayton Moore targeted free agent additions Jonathan Broxton and Jose Mijares in the offseason – if there isn’t any way of getting more innings out of the rotation, then the bullpen needs more arms.
But, if the 2012 season truly is one that the Royals can make a run at the AL Central crown, what bullpen arm is best served to fill the role of closer?
Joakim Soria has long been the subject of trades rumors and rightfully so. On a team that has no real shot at contention, an elite level closer is more of a luxury than a need. It’s been argued in a number of places – most loudly by Greg Schaum – that Soria’s best value to the team is tied more to what he can bring back in a trade than what he provides throwing the ninth inning twice a week. But at this point, is Soria’s value so low that he might not even be the best option to close this year?
Greg Holland showed up in Kansas City last year after a less than spectacular debut in 2010. Through his first 12 2/3 innings in 2011 though, Holland had yet to give up an earned run and struck out 17 batters. At that point, a fan favorite was born.
Holland finished 2011 allowing just 37 hits in 60 innings pitched, and struck out 74 batters en route to one of the more impressive seasons by any relief pitcher in Royals history. And in terms of fWAR, was equal to the best season by Joakim Soria in any of his last four.
So it begs the question: should Holland by the closer in 2012?
Purists would say absolutely not because in order to be a closer you have to have that “closer mentality”. (Or, just already be a closer) Soria to this point has proven more than capable of fulfilling the role, and for the Royals to be successful he needs to be a major factor in that success.* That could be true simply from a sentimental perspective, but at this point in their careers it would seem that Holland and Soria are crossing paths on which is more able to finish games in a pennant race.
*Plus, if the Royals were to remove him from the closer role, that would kind of make the last three years of not trading him while his value was high, pretty pointless.
Holland’s pure stuff is better than Soria’s right now (and possibly ever has been) and has the type of swing-and-miss stuff most needed for a late inning role. Soria’s strikeout-per-nine has been on a steady decline for three years now while his hits allowed-per-nine has risen dramatically.
History is not on The Mexicutioner’s side on this one, either. Relief pitchers too often get compared to Mariano Rivera (the outlier) in regards to longevity and performance, when in reality relievers are a fickle bunch. Too many times a reliever has enjoyed two, to three, to four your stretches of elite performance only to see their careers take a sharp turn towards mediocrity. Soria probably (hopefully) won’t take that detour this year, but the rising concerns of the health of his arm and the decreasing peripherals should make one wonder.
The Royals won’t make this move. It doesn’t fit the way they do business and Soria has meant too much to the franchise over the past five seasons. But, in an offseason that saw the team try desperately to find some kind of difference maker to help them bridge the gap even more between themselves and the other teams in the division, they may already have that guy on the roster.
The bold move would be to make Holland the closer this year.