KC Royals: Greg Holland looks good in closing role

KC Royals reliever Greg Holland, pitching well in a comeback season, stepped into a familiar role Monday night. He capped off a good Kansas City win.

When this season began, the smart money, if there can be such a thing around these 2020 KC Royals, was probably on Ian Kennedy as Kansas City’s most likely to be traded player. He’s in the last year of his contract and was riding the waves of last year’s excellent campaign as the club’s closer.

As this unique season unfolded and progressed, however, Kennedy didn’t pitch well and his value dropped; rejuvenated fellow relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland eventually replaced Kennedy atop the list of likely trade pieces as Monday’s deadline for deals closed in.

The Royals traded Rosenthal Saturday and even the slight chance that Kennedy might follow vanished Saturday when he suffered a calf injury and was placed on the Injured List. A trade involving Holland, like Rosenthal pitching on a one-year pact, seemed probable.

After Sunday’s game, and with less than 24 hours to go before the trade deadline expired, Holland was 2-0 with one save in 18 appearances; his 3.00 ERA was inflated by the four runs he gave up in one inning in early August, and he’d been touched for only four runs in his other 17 games.

But, surprising many, the Royals kept Holland. Dissecting the possible reasons why must wait a few moments as an analysis made less urgent by the performance of Holland and his teammates in their Monday night victory over Cleveland.

The game, pitting the first-place Indians against last-place Kansas City, easily earned the title “pitchers’ duel,” and it wasn’t just because the final score was 2-1. Cleveland starter Shane Bieber, who owned the Royals in the season opener, owned them once again by striking out nine and giving up only one hit in his six innings. KC starter Brad Keller, who came into this one with a miserly 2.08 ERA, didn’t give up a run until the Indians scored one with one out in the seventh. Keller finished the night with a 1.93 ERA. The Kansas City bullpen didn’t give up any runs.

Cleveland’s pitchers allowed the Royals just two runs, both in the eighth, but those were enough. Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler walked to start the inning and, after Ryan O’Hearn struck out, Maikel Franco drove in Dozier with a single to tie the game at 1. Bubba Starling, who pinch ran for Alex Gordon the inning before and brought a .174 average into the game (.167 with runners in scoring position), singled Soler home to give his club the lead.

Then, with Rosenthal no longer a Royal, came Holland in his old role, chasing a save in the ninth inning of a close game. And, just like the old days, he came through—despite the scare of a one-out double to Franmil Reyes, Holland struck out Tyler Naquin and got Josh Naylor to ground out for his second save, and the Royals’ 14th win, of the season.

That Holland was available is a bit of a mystery. Why, with such serviceable stats at the trade deadline, didn’t the KC Royals move him?

Perhaps a deal that struck general manager Dayton Moore’s fancy—one that would net a worthwhile return—just wasn’t there. After all, Holland is almost 35 and has been inconsistent since leaving Kansas City after Tommy John surgery kept him out of the 2015 playoffs and World Series, not to mention the entire 2016 season. His return to the KC Royals is going well, but some teams may have been nervous about sacrificing talent on the evidence provided by Holland’s 18 games.

Or perhaps there wasn’t really a market for Holland at all, but that’s improbable given contending teams’ penchant for seeking stretch run relievers.

The most likely reason Holland stayed home is probably two-fold: he may have been on the market but the Royals wanted more for him than suitors were willing to give, and the Royals wanted to keep him, at least for this season.

Based on their performance, Rosenthal was always going to bring more in trade than Holland. Rosenthal is a fireballer, Holland is not; Rosenthal was averaging over 13 strikeouts per nine innings while Holland’s SO9 was 8.5 after Sunday; and Rosenthal had seven saves to Holland’s one, an advantage traceable to Rosenthal’s season-long status as the team closer.

So with Rosenthal predictably gone, the Royals needed a veteran presence in a bullpen heavily reliant on younger, less-experienced pitchers. Who better in the organization to fill that role than Holland, a proven reliever with over 200 career saves who was instrumental in the club’s 2014 and 2015 World Series teams, the anchor of Kansas City’s feared “H-D-H” late-game bullpen trio, a likely future member of the club’s Hall of Fame, a three-time All-Star selection, and a pitcher who so willingly and successfully accepted his non-closer role this season?

It isn’t at all surprising that, considering the circumstances and the club’s needs, Holland remains a Royal, at least for the rest of this campaign. He doesn’t throw as hard as he used to, but he knows how to pitch and get batters out, and has now held 2020 opponents scoreless in 14 of the 19 games in which he’s appeared. His ERA, skewed a bit by that one, early August four-run inning, is 2.84 after Monday night.

He might just have his old job back.

Next: Wrenching weekend likely seals club's fate

Greg Holland, spared at the trade deadline, saved a game for the KC Royals Monday. It seemed so familiar.

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