You may have heard this, but the Royals’ bullpen is pretty good. You may have also heard, the Royals’ bullpen is pretty deep. Even after losing Luke Hochevar to Tommy John surgery, there are still quite a few qualified candidates to round out the relief corps for Kansas City this year. We know that Greg Holland will close out games. We know that Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Aaron Crow will be his primary set-up men. We also know that Tim Collins will throw a lot of innings.
What we don’t know is how the organization will choose to fill those last couple of bullpen slots. It may be safe to assume Louis Coleman will be on the Opening Day roster, since his right arm is proficient at making his pitches miss opposing bats, and that is a helpful skill to have as a major league reliever. In his 140.1 career innings in the major leagues, Coleman has struck out 28.2% of the batters he’s faced. He also allowed just 2 runs in nearly 30 innings of work in 2013, and while that 0.61 ERA is going to be tough to sustain this season, I think he can handle a bit of regression. There will be two factors to keep an eye on for Coleman this year, though, and those are his walk rate and home run rate. In his first two MLB seasons, he walked 11.3% of batters he faced, while allowing home runs on 12.4% of his fly balls. In 2013, his walk rate fell to 5.5%, and his home run rate plummeted to 4.2%. Home run rates can fluctuate at times, so don’t be surprised if that number climbs closer to league average in 2014. His walk rate, on the other hand, has the potential to remain a bit lower. I don’t expect to see it stay that low, but if Coleman can do a good enough job of getting ahead of hitters, he’ll be in a better position to make them chase his devastating slider and late-moving fastball.
That last reliever spot on the Royals’ roster is the most intriguing one, although the primary candidates couldn’t be more different. Francisley Bueno is 33 years old, from Cuba, and hasn’t struck out over a batter per inning at any professional stop since 2006, in which he was a 25 year old at AA. Donnie Joseph is 26 years old, from Texas, and hasn’t struck out fewer than 10 batters per 9 innings at any professional stop in his five-year career. Ok, so they technically could be more different, since they’re both left-handed, male, and professional baseball players, but that’s kind of beside the point.
There are a few other possibilities for those final spots, including Michael Mariot, Justin Marks, and non-roster guys like Jon Rauch and Everett Teaford, but I think we can assume that the three pitchers I mentioned above are the top three on the list for the Royals.
Bueno is a guy I profiled earlier this offseason as a potential non-tender candidate, and I did think the Royals could have cut ties with him without the move hurting them too much. However, their choice to keep him around isn’t a bad one, considering he has had some success at the big league level, albeit in a smattering of small sample sizes. The key piece of the Jonathan Broxton trade, Joseph has dominated same-sided hitters by striking out 38.8% of the lefties he’s faced in the last two years, compared to “just” 27.9% of the righties he’s faced. That strikeout rate against right-handers is still quite healthy, but Joseph’s overall effectiveness does dip against opposite-side batters, meaning he’d be more of a LOOGY than Bueno, who doesn’t have quite as drastic of a platoon split in his career.
Instead of missing bats, Bueno generates a lot of groundballs to get outs. Last season, Bueno’s ground ball rate was an even 50% in his time at Omaha and Kansas City. Joseph wasn’t exactly a fly ball pitcher, posting a ground ball rate of 45.3% himself, but he makes his money by getting hitters to chase his slider. Joseph is kind of similar to Coleman, in that he relies on a 90 MPH fastball and a slider closer to 80 MPH, so it would be interesting to see the two as specialists out of the pen.
Joseph probably has a bit more upside, and I’m a sucker for pitchers who get whiffs, so he should get the nod over Bueno, if all things are equal. Of course, all things are not equal, because Bueno is out of options, meaning the Royals would need to get him through waivers before they could stash him in Omaha, while Joseph still can be sent down at the start of the season. Granted, the Royals have designated Bueno for assignment before and kept him in the organization, so it wouldn’t be a total shock to see that again. But, I do think the team will keep their inventory of solid relief arms until another move needs to be made, so I’m guessing Bueno and Coleman will be those last two arms on the Opening Day roster. Joseph will likely head to Omaha when camp breaks, where he will just have to wait to be called upon as soon as the need arises.