Dayton Moore and the Royals had a tame off-season, as the signing of third baseman Maikel Franco and re-signing of Alex Gordon to a one-year extension were the major moves that made the most noise this Winter. However, two interesting minor-league moves Moore made this off-season centered on potentially improving the bullpen, as the Royals signed former closers Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland to minor-league contracts.
While the Royals bullpen improved in the second-half and was much better than its starting rotation in 2019, it was a far cry from the glory years when HDH (Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera) dominated the 7th through 9th innings. And even though Rosenthal and Holland had their share of injury and effectiveness issues the past couple of seasons, they both were relatively low-risk options who offered upside to the Royals this Spring Training. After all, if they did not work out, the Royals could part ways with little impact to their payroll or roster situation (since they are both non-roster invites).
Even though the Royals are early into Spring Training, the early reports on Rosenthal and Holland in Surprise have been good, and it seems likely that the two will start in the Royals bullpen on Opening Day. However, while the two former closers will start the year in Kansas City, will they have much impact and finish the year in 2020? Furthermore, what kind of impact will this have on the Royals roster in order to clear 40-man space for these two bullpen veterans by Opening Day?
Let’s take a look at the Royals’ situation with Rosenthal and Holland for the upcoming season.
There were many concerns about Rosenthal and Holland when acquired this Winter by the Royals. First, both have had major injury issues, as Holland missed all of 2016 and Rosenthal missed all of 2018, both to recover from Tommy John surgery. To make matters worse, they have failed to find consistency since returning from Tommy John at the Major League level. Holland has taken over closer roles in Colorado and Arizona in 2017 and 2019, respectively, but he failed to stick on either NL West club. That was especially true last season as he was released from not only the Diamondbacks closer role, but the team completely by August. As for Rosenthal, while he returned to Major League baseball after missing all of 2018, he struggled immensely, posting above a 22.00 ERA in 12 appearances with the Nationals, and a 7.00 ERA over 10 appearances with the Tigers.
Hence, just based on those numbers, it is no surprise that the Royals only had to offer a non-guaranteed Minor League deal to sign both relievers, who have saved 327 games combined over their careers. Considering their recent struggles, both pitchers were lucky just to get a shot at the Major League level, let alone an opportunity with a club both have familiarity with (Rosenthal is from Lee’s Summit, and he also pitched for Mike Matheny in St. Louis, where he experienced his most success).
Despite neither pitcher being guaranteed a roster spot on Kansas City this spring, they have stepped up to the challenge and performed thus far in Cactus League play. Rosenthal has absolutely dealt in three early appearances this Spring, as he has struck out seven and has allowed no walks or runs and only one hit over three innings of work. Furthermore, Rosenthal has wowed Royals fans and management alike with triple-digit stuff, as evidenced in the tweet below:
While Holland has not been as invincible as Rosenthal, he has still been effective, as he has struck out five over four innings of work. While he has allowed two hits and a run over the three appearances, he has not walked any batters, a good sign that his control is coming back after posting K/BB ratios under two for the past two seasons. Furthermore, for those who think Rosenthal and Holland may be feasting on minor league batters thus far, the OppQual (Opponent Quality) ratios are currently 8.3 for both, according to Baseball Reference, which shows that they are facing more Major League hitters than Minor League ones this Spring, and thus, legitimizing the numbers we are seeing from both so far. (OppQual measures opponent quality on a 1-10 scale with 10 being MLB quality and 1.5-3 being a Rookie League player.)
Unless they get injured or fall suddenly off a cliff performance-wise, it’s hard to picture Rosenthal and Holland not making the 26-man roster by Opening Day. Both are proven veteran relievers, which is good for a bullpen that is questionable beyond closer Ian Kennedy and setup men Scott Barlow and Tim Hill. Kevin McCarthy is a groundball machine who has 185 Major League innings under his belt, but he is coming off a season where his ERA rose (3.25 to 4.48) and groundball rate dropped (64.3 percent to 58.3 percent). And after McCarthy, the Royals bullpen is pretty unknown, as Jorge Lopez, Glenn Sparkman, Chance Adams, Jesse Hahn, Randy Rosario, Richard Lovelady, Jake Newberry, Kyle Zimmer, Josh Staumont and Stephen Woods, Jr. are all expected to compete for spots, but none of them really have major track records of success out of the pen at the Major League level.
If manager Mike Matheny wants to compete and win right away as promised, then Holland and Rosenthal give him the best path to do so. He’s familiar with them, as they both pitched for him in St. Louis, and Matheny has a track record of preferring veterans over young, unknown players from his managing days with the Cardinals. Granted, going with these two veterans is understandable from even a Royals fan perspective: of those listed, how many of them have a real future with the Royals beyond this year or the year after? Maybe Staumont, but other than him, all their futures in Kansas City are shaky. If the Royals have to release one of them (other than Staumont of course), or another option on the 40-man who is destined for Omaha to start the year (which I talked about in a previous post), then I do not think Royals fans will be too upset with Royals management, especially since Rosenthal and Holland will provide more production and fanfare than any of those other pitchers listed above (with the exception of Staumont, who I think is on pace to break out this year at some point).
Hence, the question for Royals fans will be not if Rosenthal and Holland will begin the year on the Royals, but if they will last and have a major impact. Expectations are low in Kansas City for 2020, but there is hope that if the pitching can improve overall from a year ago, the Royals could have a chance to surpass expectations, which seem to be in the 63-65 win range. The Royals’ hitting should improve, especially if Jorge Soler is fully healthy and with Salvador Perez returning to the lineup. Add in an improved Ryan O’Hearn and Nicky Lopez, and a full season of Adalberto Mondesi (fingers crossed), and it is easy to see that this Royals lineup could be one of the more underrated ones in the American League.
While the starting rotation still needs a lot of work, the bullpen could be a dark horse in the American League if Rosenthal and Holland can make an impact. Yes, both pitchers are coming off down years, and are not the “elite” closers they once were four-to-five years ago. That being said, they are proven veterans who could have an impact on the mound for the Royals, as they have both demonstrated strikeout-generating stuff this Spring. Furthermore, they also could have an impact on mentoring the young guys in the pen who could be coming up from the minors over the season. It is is possible that Staumont, Zimmer, and even Daniel Tillo and Tyler Zuber could make appearances in Kansas City should the Royals pen go through a stretch of injury and/or ineffectiveness. Those guys will need mentoring, and Rosenthal and Holland, who have experienced the highs and lows of being Major League relievers, could easily embrace those roles to help the young Royals relievers develop into effective late-inning guys at the Major League level.
It is still early to know if Rosenthal and Holland are on the roster for sure. But their chances look good, and that will benefit the Royals in 2020, as they look to improve upon last year’s 59-103 record. The Royals bullpen will need both of them to be successful, and Rosenthal and Holland need to have solid seasons to prove that they can still pitch and contribute at the Major League level for at least a few more seasons.
So far, it’s been a win-win for the Royals as well as Rosenthal and Holland. Let’s hope this solid start to the Spring for them can carry over the full 162 game season in 2020.