Teams that lose over 100 games do so because gaping holes permeate their rosters. Such was the case for the KC Royals this year, when a victory over the Yankees in the season's final game rescued them from the embarrassment of a franchise record 107th loss.
The 2023 version of the Royals was a seriously flawed unit, one general manager J.J. Picollo must work hard to repair and reinvigorate. His club will re-achieve relevance only when he improves its offense, its starting rotation, and its bullpen. There is, unfortunately, much to do before this team can legitimately declare its rebuild complete.
One critical role Picollo and his front office lieutenants must fill is closer. The Royals haven't had a consistently reliable one since they shipped Scott Barlow to San Diego in July; Carlos Hernández tried, but failed, to competently succeed him, and KC entered baseball's winter without an established reliever to protect late-inning leads.
But the Royals appear to have a good, homegrown candidate.
Can Will Klein become the Royals' next dominating closer?
Klein, a big righthander who came to the Royals via the 2020 amateur draft, moved to the head of their bullpen prospect class when they added him to their 40-man roster Tuesday. The widely-expected move shields Klein from December's Rule 5 Draft and confirms his solid position in the club's future plans.
But the coveted spot he now occupies on Kansas City's 40-man isn't the only thing putting Klein in the late-game relief and closer mixes. At the top of the list is a fastball with which he can hit 100 mph; managers love pitchers with the ability to throw that hard in high-leverage late-game situations, and Klein has it.
Ranked among MLB Pipeline's Top 30 KC prospects, Klein also has some decent minor league numbers. He's 9-7 in 115 games (111 in relief) since debuting professionally at High-A Quad Cities in 2021 with a 7-1, 3.20 ERA record; he also struck out 121 in 70.1 innings (15.48 BB/9) that year. Texas League batters roughed him up for 56 runs over 30 games in 2022, his first Double-A campaign, but he came back nicely this year and, during an early season return to Northwest Arkansas, fanned 44 batters in 35 innings.
A mid-June bump-up to Triple-A Omaha brought mixed results. His strikeout count remained high (12.60 K/9), but he issued too many walks (25) and too many runs (23) in the 35 frames he worked. He requires improvement in both areas — his three-season minor league BB/9 is 6.76, his ERA 5.66.
Clearly, Klein isn't quite ready for a primetime role; he's a work in progress, but boasts promising potential. The Royals need late-inning relief help, and he's clearly on their radar for such a role.