*At the time of this writing, Soria’s second opinion with Dr. Lewis Yocum hasn’t been divulged, but optimistic words aren’t coming out of Royals camp. We’ll operate under the assumption that Soria will be out for at least half the season if minor cleanup is necessary for his damaged right elbow and that he’ll be out all year in the case of potential Tommy John surgery.
Joakim Soria has been the key member of the Royals bullpen since Octavio Dotel was traded away back in 2007. Since, he’s been an All-Star twice and looked like the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera as the never-wavering elite closer in the game.
Before the worst news was reported, Robert Ford discussed the impact of a Soria injury and how it relates to the construction of the Royals bullpen:
"Modern-day bullpens are built backward, from the closer on out, and having instability at the closer’s spot can be a recipe for disaster. If Soria has to miss significant time, the Royals may be able to weather the absence of their closer better than most."
Following the now-standard model of bullpen construction, the Royals need to determine who their closer is going to be to open the season.
Closer Candidates (unscientific estimated likelihood, or, a guess if you will)
Jonathan Broxton (50%): Broxton was, at one point, an elite set up man who inherited the closer’s role with the Dodgers, then had an All-Star 2009 where he struck out better than 13 batters per nine innings and limited teams to less than one baserunner per inning. In 2010, he ran into arm troubles and his performance suffered into last year. His velocity and strikeouts dropped while batters hit him harder, walked more and put up a 5.68 ERA against him. He looked sharp in one spring outing, but in Tuesday’s game, he gave up a few hits and committed an error. My guess is that Ned Yost will cite his “experience as a closer” as a means to setting him up in that role.
Aaron Crow (20%): The Royals officially announced what most everyone knew was going to happen anyway, that Aaron Crow would move back to the bullpen after a half-hearted look at him as a rotation candidate. That’s not so much Crow’s fault, as most of his seven innings have been strong and he’s been striking people out. On Tuesday, he used six pitches to strike out the first two Angels he faced. When Soria struggled last year as the closer, Crow took over the role (technically) though he never ran into a save opportunity while Soria settled down. When called into tight spots in other contexts, though, Crow usually showed the ability to come in and get the out.
He has the typical fastball/slider combination that many late-inning relievers have and both pitches can be strong when he has them going well. He’s prone to a little inconsistency and had bad platoon splits. Right-handers put up a .537 OPS against him. Lefties? .919.
Greg Holland (20%): There’s a great bit of research over at ESPN about Holland’s slider and his potential as a closer. Unlike Crow, the pitch gives him the opportunity to manhandle left-handed batters who mustered only a .522 OPS against him. Righties were at .519.
He definitely has the stuff to close. At times, it’s downright filthy (hence my continued efforts to call the North Carolina native “Dirty South”). Holland strikes batters out, he was more efficient with his pitches in 2011 than after his 2010 debut, and reaching less three ball counts allowed him to avoid walks.
The best stat to make his case as the closer is this one: Holland inherited 33 runners last year. Two scored.
So far this spring, he has seven strikeouts in 5.1 innings and no walks. He’s a favorite of the Twitter crowd to snag the closer’s role and with good reason. If the Royals take a progressive approach though, they may use him more like an old school fireman to relieve whenever a threat pops up. If he’s truly the Royals best reliever, his value is best realized in those moments that matter, and not a three run game that most other Royals relievers could close out.
Kelvin Herrera (9%): Herrera is often cited as having “closer stuff”, which is a simple way to say that he has an upper-90s fastball and strong secondary pitches. Against the Dodgers this spring, he struck out four in two innings, using his fastball, a curveball and his changeup to put batters away. With Soria’s injury, he’s more likely to make the team, whereas before he might have ended up in Omaha and been the first pitcher recalled. With many other options, Herrera isn’t likely to be put into the role, but if he pitches well and others struggle, he has his chance to succeed in the role.
The Field (1%): I suppose it’s possible that Louis Coleman or Blake Wood (assuming his elbow soreness isn’t an issue) could get a look if there are concerns or other issues that press them into service. Jeremy Jeffress has shown better control and still has the heat that made him one of the Brewers top prospects. These are longshots to close, but they’ll have a role in Kansas City’s bullpen throughout the year.
The Royals were fortunate to have the depth to handle the potential loss of Soria, so they don’t have to scramble to find someone to close. The arms are there and they can be utilized almost at will. Since most of the bullpen is so young, they have options and can be shuttled to and from Omaha if someone starts to slow from fatigue. Say Jeffress is pitching well in Omaha and Coleman has thrown more innings than were planned. The Royals can swap them out and get a less taxed arm up from the minors for a short stretch then swap them back out if they want to.
Lefties Everett Teaford, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares and Tommy Hottovy can eat up innings as well, depending on which ones make the team (Collins, at 1.50, has the worst ERA of the four, which is a great place to be if spring training stats translate to regular season performance somehow). One of Felipe Paulino or Luis Mendoza will probably be in the bullpen as a long reliever as well while the other is in the rotation.
Losing Soria isn’t the way the Royals would want to go, but they aren’t without options to fill his shoes. I would bet that Broxton will get the first look but if there are any struggles, Holland is the most likely long-term option to finish off games.