Killing them Softly with Our Bullpen


I’m going to repeat this once more (and for the last time), so if you’ve seen it before, skip ahead. Dayton Moore and the Royals have been busy this offseason. Not busy looking for starting pitchers and not busy looking for new bats. They’ve been busy finding the pieces to finish up their killer bullpen.

But really, there weren’t a lot of moves to be made. The Royals bullpen only increased by two members, as Jonathan Broxton became the new, well, whatever role he’ll supposedly fill and Jose Mijares became lefty insurance. There were lots of rumors about using the Broxton addition to move Joakim Soria and leave Greg Holland to closing, but that’s all in the past. Right now, we’re barely different than last year’s team. Let’s just get a quick recap of where that team stood in several categories with regards to the rest of the American League:

Runs Allowed Per Game: 11th (4.70)
Wins in Relief: 3rd (26)
Losses in Relief: 13th (26)
Save Percentage: 10th (63%)
Holds: 10th (58)
Inherited Runners Scored Percentage: 2nd (25%)
Games Pitched on Zero Days Rest: 2nd lowest (56)
Average Outs Recorded Per Outing: 1st (3.6)

If you have any questions about those rankings, throw them out in the comments. All I know is this paints a very muddled picture. Was the bullpen good or bad? Was it good or bad as a result of how rough the rotation was? Can we really blame the bullpen when they had quite a bit of work over the course of the year due to that rotation?

What it seems like to me is that they did a respectable job with the hand they were dealt. Manager Ned Yost didn’t overwork them too badly, though the consecutive days stat could be biased a bit toward one or two pitchers. I had no idea that they had done so well with inherited runners, but the fact that they allowed that many runs, compiled that many losses, and blew that many saves makes me reconsider my acclaim at their success. Of course, as the season wore on, young arms got tired and handing the ball to the bullpen became less of a sure thing. Nonetheless, how can we think about this bullpen going into 2012? Are they truly killers?

Well, I pulled out three projection systems for 10 pitchers that could (or should) be a part of the 2012 bullpen. I’ll use ZiPS, Bill James, and RotoChamp to get three different perspectives. And I’ll try to show them in a way that’s not totally confusing, using their 2010 and 2011 lines alongside their projections to get an idea of what we’re seeing.

Let’s start with Joakim Soria because, well, who else do you start with when you think of the Royals’ bullpen?

For the most part, projections show a return to form from 2011 and more of what we expect from Soria. And I see no reason to debate that, as he’s shown us he can stick in there when healthy, so let’s leave it at that. Soria is a stable player for the bullpen.

We’ll turn to Jonathan Broxton next.

Broxton’s going to be an interesting one to watch. After being nails for the Dodgers earlier in his career, he started to falter the last couple, including a bruised elbow that sidelined him for most of 2011. Between that and the move to the AL, it’s hard to get a read on how he’ll perform. All signs point to him being healthy for 2012 and ready to pitch for the Royals, however. And all three projection systems show that in their analysis. While they’re more bullish on Broxton than I am (or than I expected them to be), I think we can expect solid numbers from Broxton. And if he can pitch consistently throughout the season, he could be a crucial piece for close games in late innings.

Greg Holland

Everyone expects a little regression from Holland’s ridiculously good 2011 campaign. His BABIP last season was .250, which is plenty low and offsets the 3.77 he found himself with in 2010. Settling at a midpoint seems like a good idea, and that’s what the projections have done. I expect Holland to sit closer to the RotoChamp projection than the others, however, even though their hits/9 is a little low. Holland will still be a crucial piece of the bullpen, but maybe not quite as amazing as he was last season. The battle between him, Coleman, and Broxton for the “set-up role” will be one that could go all season if Holland doesn’t end up replacing Soria as the closer should Soria get injured.*

*Knock on wood. Every piece of wood. Even Blake Wood.

Blake Wood

I’ll be honest and say that I have no idea what to expect from Wood. He was extremely frustrating to see pitch at times, but surprisingly productive at other times. And I guess that just means we should expect something similar to last year. Every projection system shows some amount of regression, but I’d expect Wood to sit around an ERA of 4 and to be neither great nor horrible, providing solid relief when you least expect it and poor relief when you need outs. This all leans on him making the roster, of course, but he should be a likely candidate unless he spoils it for himself in Spring Training.

Louis Coleman

Coleman was the guy that always made me think he was right there the whole time, just about ready to break free, but restrained by his high home run numbers. He still had an amazing season considering he missed almost a month of the season and will be another important piece of the bullpen in 2012. I would guess he can take a step forward on those home runs numbers while staying roughly constant in every other way. Bill James’ projection seems to be the closest for me, showing exactly that. With a step forward in the home run area for Coleman, the back four righties of the bullpen (Soria, Broxton, Holland, and Coleman) should be a formidable set for opposing lineups to face as they try to rally.

Aaron Crow

For whatever reason, Bill James didn’t project Crow, but it doesn’t matter. I see Crow regressing a bit, sticking closer to his late-season numbers than his initial ones, but he can still be an important part of the bullpen. We have some projection issues here, as RotoChamp saw Crow as a starter, but the numbers are similar nonetheless. I think the ZiPS projection is a bit bearish, but Crow should maintain his strikeouts and potentially his walks as well, staying roughly in the same point as he was last year. Like Coleman, if Crow can cut his home run numbers a bit, he’ll make it into that upper tier of relievers. But he’ll still be a useful arm nonetheless. And if they’re thinking about trying him as a starter, he could become a middle relief sort of guy, as Wood might be the only other useful righty candidate for such a role. The prognosis? Still useful, but maybe less of the early Crow and more of the later Crow.

Kelvin Herrera

I’m really intrigued by Herrera’s chances, as he could either go the Jeremy Jeffress route or he could stick as another strong righty reliever. If you’re counting at home, that would mean the Royals would have seven average-to-great righty relievers in their bullpen, so I don’t know if we can count on them all making it. But Herrera has shown strong numbers in the minors, flashing a 1.60 ERA in 2011 across high-A, AA, and AAA before getting a September call-up to Kansas City. He usually strikes out about 9/9 IP, and while that should continue this year, I expect closer to 8/9 IP. Like Wood, Herrera’s case probably hinges on his Spring Training performance, but his existence alone exhibits why the Royals have a good reason to rely on their deep, deep bullpen.

And on to the lefties.

Tim Collins

Collins will be another interesting one, as he seemed to be fatigued by the time the season ended. He pitched in 68 games, eight more than Soria and 11 more than Crow, which likely contributed to that fatigue. And Yost seemed to be content with (over)using Collins no matter his fatigue. Collins has some legitimate competition in Jose Mijares this Spring Training, with Everett Teaford also available, so the team won’t have to rely on him quite as much. Still, more competition is better than less, and Collins will at least have to perform or be sent down, hopefully keeping the bullpen stocked with a capable left-handed reliever.

Jose Mijares

Mijares is a guy that I vouched for when the Royals signed him. It’s definitely good to try many options, and, as I said above, it gives a bit of insurance and competition for Collins. Mijares was a great reliever for the Twins a few years back, but his weight and other issues led to less use and less productivity as the seasons wore on until Minnesota dropped him this offseason. It’s a good flyer to take on a guy that could be a huge boost should he return to form. And if he doesn’t do that, no harm, no foul. Collins and Teaford, plus Mike Montgomery or other lefty prospects, could fill that role.

Everett Teaford

Teaford’s another guy that got some partial projections as a starter, but he should only exist as a spot starter and mostly as a lefty reliever option. He’ll also have to fight his way onto the roster, and he’s probably less likely to make the roster than Collins and maybe Mijares. I think Teaford was a bit lucky last season, but he’s got the ability to put in about what Bill James’ projection shows when the Royals need him. It’s just another sign of the depth this season.

What we can really take from this, as I’ve said before, is that the Royals have considerably more depth and insurance in their bullpen for 2012 than they did going into 2011. There are more players than can ably contribute when needed, and that should make it easier to keep the bullpen performing all year. As some prospects move forward, there should only be more options, allowing for extreme selectivity going forward. Even though Broxton’s contract is only a year, this all points to the team being prepared for a great bullpen for many, many years as they approach the start of their window of competition.

So, while the bullpen was a great point of strength in 2011, it should be as strong or stronger in 2012 given the number of options and the players’ performance in previous seasons. The projection systems are understandably mixed, but even with some of their lower projections, the bullpen will be solid for this season. Considering how they ranked in some categories last season, there’s room for improvement. And there should be improvement.

Of course, the wild card in all of this is new pitching coach Dave Eiland. He may change the pitching strategies of some younger players, and we’ll have to keep track of any changes in performance or style from 2011 to 2012. Just another thing to keep in mind.

Has Moore built a “killer bullpen” for 2012? Well, yes and no. He didn’t add much to build that bullpen. But it also didn’t need a ton of additions to become a killer. Broxton and Mijares should only add depth in two areas where competition and number of options will only help the team to stay in it throughout 2012. And with a rotation that’s questionable and difficult to project, having a strong bullpen with many potential members can only be a good thing.

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