KC Royals: Bullpen reclamation projects are paying off

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Two bullpen reclamation projects, both involving once-great closers, are going well for the KC Royals.

Back in the winter, before anyone really anticipated the added pressure COVID-19 would bring to bear on baseball bullpens this season, the KC Royals busied themselves trying to bolster a relief corps that wasn’t even a shell of the pens of their mid-decade postseason runs.

The club signed several pitchers who couldn’t land or hold jobs with other clubs, and two others–former Royal Greg Holland and ex-Cardinal Trevor Rosenthal–who perfectly satisfied general manager Dayton Moore’s penchant for taking on pitching reclamation projects.

Holland. the unforgettable final component of the Royals’ famed “H-D-H” closeout crew, had been inconsistent since the Royals didn’t pick him up after the 2015 UCL injury that cheated him out of that season’s World Series; Rosenthal, the once go-to closer in St. Louis for new Kansas City manager Mike Matheny (Holland also pitched for Matheny), hadn’t been himself since saving 48 games for the Cards in 2015, missing 2018 with his own UCL issues, and suffering awful 2019 stints with Washington and Detroit.

Both relievers, however, won Opening Day roster spots with the Royals after pitching well in spring training and Summer Camp. And Thursday night in Detroit, continuing their early season effectiveness, they helped the club earn a split of their four-game road series with Detroit.

Holland took over for starter Brady Singer, who didn’t pitch as well Thursday as he did in his big league debut last week but still kept his club in the game and handed Holland a 2-2 tie to begin the sixth. Holland gave the Tigers only a two-out single and, mirroring the form that made him one of the game’s best closers, struck out Miguel Cabrera looking and Cameron Maybin swinging. It was his fourth straight scoreless appearance.

Rosenthal, called upon to close as he was so many times by Matheny in their St. Louis heydays, saved the game for Holland, who was credited with the win courtesy of the run the Royals pushed across in the seventh. Rosenthal surrendered a short leadoff single to Maybin, then retired the bottom of the Tiger order to secure the 5-3 win. Holland’s win was his first of the season and Rosenthal earned his first save.

Thursday’s was Holland’s fourth game of the season and Rosenthal’s third. Neither has given up a run; in their seven combined appearances, they’ve struck out eight, given up four hits and walked two (both walks belong to Holland). Holland threw 12 of 17 pitches for strikes Thursday, while Rosenthal was 10 for 18.

It’s early, but it’s also clear the two veteran relievers figure heavily in Matheny’s current plans for the KC Royals’ reconstituted bullpen. His use of both in important situations suggests the new skipper has confidence in their ability to still get hitters out in such moments. (It can’t hurt that he knows Holland and Rosenthal well from their St. Louis work).

So far, Matheny’s bullpen management can’t be mistaken for the sometimes curious approach of his predecessor, the retired Ned Yost–he has yet to use last season’s closer, Ian Kennedy, in a save situation, and appears committed to utilizing, regardless of past or traditional roles, who he considers the best fit for each situation. Matheny is obviously comfortable putting Holland and Rosenthal in critical spots.

The strategy must pay off for the KC Royals to shed the losing ways of the last two dreadful seasons. The Kansas City bullpen, like the other 29 big league pens, will, for obvious reasons, be tested more than usual this season, especially considering one of the reasons undoubtedly underlying Thursday’s reported news that 2020 doubleheaders will consist of seven-inning games. Besides health concerns, the need for more doubleheaders is apparent; bullpens will need to be deep and good.

Their continuing performance will dictate where in Matheny’s strategy Holland and Rosenthal fit. If spring training, Summer Camp, and the season’s first week are any indication, they’ll be playing critical roles.

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Dayton Moore’s reclamation projects have a record of mixed success. But thus far, his latest–Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal–have been successful.