KC Royals bullpen competition update: It’s still close

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /
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KC Royals,
KC Royals, /

A veteran closer just trying to earn a spot on the team that made him famous, a pitcher searching for an identity and a couple of fireballers headline the early leaders for jobs in the KC Royals’ 2020 bullpen.

For at least four seasons past, Greg Holland reported to spring training with job security. He was the KC Royals’ closer for the better part of those four seasons, the final piece of the vaunted “HDH” bullpen combo–he, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis–that devastated opponents and played such a vital role in the club’s 2014 and 2015 World Series runs.

Why Holland left KC is an unfortunate story: a torn UCL cut short his 2015 season just before the playoffs, and the Royals made him a free agent by releasing him shortly after they clinched the World Series. After missing all of 2016, he saved 41 games for Colorado in 2017, then floundered with the Cardinals and Nationals before recapturing at least some of his old form by saving 17 games for Arizona last season.

Now, Holland is back in familiar territory with the KC Royals, but lacks the springtime job security of the past. He’s a spring training invitee, working on a minor league contract, trying simply to earn a job. Ian Kennedy is the closer (for now–in the last year of his contract, he’s likely to be shopped at midseason), so Holland is competing for any job in the pen he can get.

So far is so good for Holland. With eyes close on him, looking for any sign that age or the effects of past injuries are taking their toll, he’s pitched twice and retired every batter he’s faced. Although he’s only thrown two innings–a reasonable amount of work considering his short relief/closer history–he’s fanned a batter in each. He’s working his breaking stuff a bit (curve and slider) and appears in good form. By ways of his past big league success and association with the Royals, he’ll get, and deserves, a long look; what he’s displayed so far is more than just encouraging.

Unlike Holland, Jorge Lopez isn’t fighting for a job–he’s trying to find his niche. He is superbly talented, but chronic inconsistency, control issues, and his tendency to perform similarly whether he’s in the rotation or the pen, make him a dilemma the KC Royals want desperately to solve–is he a starter or a reliever? He spent much of last season bouncing back and forth from the rotation to the pen and showed signs of being a good reliever. And the club believes Lopez can be effective out of the pen, even in short relief.

Lopez has dominated in two spring appearances. He started both and, in 4.2 total innings, has six strikeouts and only one walk; five of those strikeouts came against Texas in a 2.2 inning stint. Both outings could revive talk of Lopez starting–the fifth rotation spot is definitely open–but their brevity also supports management’s notion that he can be a good short man. (Could these games also make him a candidate to be an “opener” if the Royals choose to experiment with that role? Perhaps, but the club needs to find the spot that best suits Lopez and most benefits the team).

Josh Staumont has been “bringing it” so far; his fastball appeared to top out over 100 mph in his first game last week, an unsurprising occurrence considering he’s a consistently hard thrower. He last pitched Thursday against the Brewers, adding a scoreless inning to two previous scoreless games to keep his spring ERA at 0.00. He’s struck out six, and walked just one, in his three innings. Although it’s early, Staumont is making his case to stick with the club.

Jake Newberry also faced Milwaukee Thursday and kept his 0.00 ERA intact. Opposing batters are hitting .286 against him (1.50 WHIP) but he’s worked himself out of trouble. Control troubled him a bit in the 27 games he pitched for the KC Royals last season, but he could be on the way back to Kauffman Stadium if he continues to pitch well.

Glenn Sparkman, a part-time starter, part-time reliever, is most likely destined for the bullpen this season and should make the club. He’s pitched twice and struck out five and walked none in 3.1 innings.

Other KC relievers have also pitched well. Trevor Rosenthal missed his scheduled second appearance with calf tightness (a common, non-threatening issue in spring training) but was excellent in his first: no walks, no hits, and two strikeouts, and his fastball was its typical upper 90’s self. Randy Rosario has pitched 2.1 scoreless innings and Richard Lovelady, recovering from last year’s injury, has pitched a scoreless one-third frame–the smallest sample source of any hurler discussed here, but relevant because many are watching him.

Finally, Stephen Woods Jr., KC’s only Rule 5 selection, has two strikeouts and an earned run in his three innings. It’s not a stellar record, but his Rule 5 status means he’s closer to making the club than other similarly-situated candidates. Kevin McCarthy has surrendered two runs in two innings, and has four strikeouts; although he has an option left and could start the season in the minors, he remains a decent bet to break camp with the Royals.