Can this KC Royals pitcher find his way in the bullpen?

Jordan Lyles' Kansas City role has changed drastically.
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Two winters ago, following a miserable 97-loss season that cost manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred their jobs, the KC Royals knew they needed rotation help and tried to get it. The club signed veteran free agent Jordan Lyles, Baltimore's winningest 2022 starter and a proven innings-eater — the Royals hoped he could help bridge the gap between their shallow, shaky rotation and a new one that would take a season or two to build.

The plan was clear, but the execution failed. Although he chewed up all the innings the Royals wanted him to, and probably more, he tainted those 177.2 innings with the worst ERA (6.28) in the major leagues and lost more games (17) than any other big league pitcher.

Now, and obviously due more to the $8.5 million they owe him for this, the final year of his two-season deal, than his performance, Lyles is back with the Royals, but in a far different role. Rarely written about or discussed in the media, he toils in some obscurity, working only in low-leverage, late-game situations.

His is not an unexpected fate. Lyles' 2023 was worthy only of the failing grade we gave him and, combined with the excellent late-season emergence of Cole Ragans, the offseason acquisitions of Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo, and his spring training back tightness, there wasn't room for Lyles in manager Matt Quatraro's rotation when this season began.

So Lyles sits in the bullpen now, waiting for Quatraro to call and probably yearning for chances with which to prove he has greater value to the club.

How is he doing?

So far, Jordan Lyles has been serviceable for the KC Royals

The numbers, even as small sample-derivative as they are, tell Lyles' 2024 story. In five appearances of one inning each, he's struck out three, walked two, and yielded a pair of hits. He's retired 15 of the 19 batters he's faced without surrendering a run. His WHIP is 0.800, his OBA .118.

Those are, however, the numbers of a pitcher not yet relied upon to put out a fire or kill a rally. Instead, Lyles has three times started the ninth inning with huge leads — March 31 when the Royals led 11-0, April 4 with a nine-run lead over the White Sox, and April 11 when KC led Houston by 10.

He also entered in the eighth inning April 10 with Kansas City ahead of the Astros by seven. Only when he pitched the seventh inning against the Mets a week ago was a game in which he appeared arguably in doubt: the Royals were down 5-1.

That he's been deployed by Quatraro with little at stake suggests Lyles' role is far less than pivotal; he's yet to be used in a truly crucial spot, and may not be unless and until the Royals find themselves in extra innings with their bullpen choices all but exhausted.

That will happen sooner or later. How Lyles responds will be interesting. And if he can come through in some important moments, or perhaps become a reliable opener, general manager J.J. Picollo could find he has a potential trade piece when the midsummer deal season arrives.

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