For Royals fans, the memories of HDH (Kelvin Herrera-Wade Davis-Greg Holland) still resonate nearly a half-decade later. The trio’s string of dominance in 2014 and 2015 helped the Royals bullpen be one of the best in baseball, as they ranked first in reliever WAR from 2014-2015, according to Fangraphs. And thus, it’s not a surprise that during that span, the Royals won two pennants, and a World Series title. While there certainly were other factors that contributed to the Royals’ extraordinary success in 2014 and 2015, the bullpen, led by HDH, was a huge reason why the Royals were one of the toughest teams to beat in baseball, especially when they had a lead going into the 7th inning.
However, as the Royals have faded from contention, the bullpen has also seen a regression as well in the same time span, which included a gradual breakup of the legendary HDH. After the World Series, Holland ended up having Tommy John and signing with the Rockies in 2017, after missing the entire 2016 season due to recovery. Davis was traded after the 2016 season to the Chicago Cubs for Jorge Soler. And in 2018, Herrera, the last remaining remnant on the Royals, was traded to the Nationals in exchange for third-baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, outfielder Blake Perkins, and pitcher Yohanse Morel (more on him in a bit).
While Ian Kennedy has settled into the closer’s role in Kansas City, he will be a free agent after the 2020 season, and it seems unlikely that general manager Dayton Moore will bring back Kennedy unless it’s a cheap, one-year deal. And thus, the Royals are in the midst of exploring what the future of their bullpen will look like, and they have plenty of candidates of relief pitchers in their system who could be the heir apparent to Kennedy. Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer both have potential with high-velocity stuff, and prospect pedigree. However, while they are the most immediate options, their control and command issues make either of them a shaky alternative to succeed Kennedy in 2021.
While many Royals fans may be looking at simply “replacing” Kennedy in 2021 (or sooner if he gets traded during the year in 2020), Moore and the Royals should be looking long term if they want to replicate that bullpen success they had during that two-year span from 2014-2015. The Royals shouldn’t be looking just for a closer. Instead, they should be looking for a trio that can handle the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings with ease and effectiveness, much like Herrera, Davis and Holland.
Fortunately, the Royals could have that trio in Daniel Tillo, Yohanse Morel, and Tyler Zuber.
TMZ would already be an awesome nickname for the trio.
Tillo’s future is still a bit uncertain at the big league level, as it seems like even the Royals are unsure what Tillo exactly is. Drafted out of Iowa Western Community College in the third round of the 2017 Draft, Tillo is a raw athlete who played multiple sports and casts an intimidating presence on the mound, as he sports a 6’5, 215 pound frame. A local Midwest-guy who hailed from Sioux City, Iowa, Tillo has flashed promising tools as a Minor League pitcher, but his command and consistency has been the biggest issue for him thus far, especially as a starting pitcher.
In 301 innings of work and 65 appearances in the minors, Tillo has posted a 4.77 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and 1.57 K/BB ratio, all pretty ho-hum metrics in the grand scheme of things. He did post a decent ERA of 3.72 in 130.2 IP between Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas (with a majority of work with the Blue Rocks), but a 1.57 K/BB ratio belied that Tillo still has some work to do if he wants to remain a starting pitcher.
MLB Pipeline ranked Tillo as the 19th best prospect in the Royals system going into 2020. Here is what they said about Tillo in their prospect scouting report:
Intrigued by Tillo’s blend of size, stuff and untapped potential, the Royals made him their third-round pick in 2017. While he hasn’t yet put it all together in the pro ranks, Tillo did make some strides in 2019, reaching Double-A for the first time. He got in some extra work after the season, pitching in the Arizona Fall League and then for USA Baseball’s Premier12 squad.
With his big, athletic frame and dynamic fastball, Tillo certainly looks the part of a big league pitcher. His heater stands out as much for its late movement as its 93-97 mph velocity. The left-hander’s ability to throw the pitch with such heavy sink, run and at times cutting action from a lower arm slot leads to a ton of ground-ball contact. He led all Minor League hurlers (130 IP min.) with a 63.7 percent ground-ball rate in 2019 to bring his career rate 63 percent.“No. 19: Daniel Tillo” Royals Top-30 Prospects; MLB Pipeline
While the control is an issue, the fact that Tillo can induce groundballs at a high rate is a promising sign, especially if he makes a transition to the bullpen in Kansas City. While Kauffman Stadium plays as a pitcher’s park, being able to induce hitters to put balls on the ground could boost Tillo’s value in relief, especially with a defense led by shortstop Adalberto Mondesi and second baseman Nicky Lopez that could rate in the upper half of the league when it comes to fielding this upcoming year and beyond.
That being said, Tillo’s control, as referenced in Pipeline’s report, needs to be refined, and it is quite evident in the small highlight tape below that he can be all over the zone at times, much to Tillo’s dismay.
Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report, who ranked Tillo as the 16th best prospect in the Royals system, was a big fan of Tillo, especially as a reliever. Duvall envisioned him having perhaps a Zach Britton-esque career in Kansas City, which would be a huge add for the Royals bullpen.
Among 836 pitchers that threw at least 70 IP last year, only five posted a higher GB% than Daniel Tillo. Tillo creates some crazy downhill movement throwing turbo sinkers from his 6′ 5″ frame making it extremely hard to elevate the baseball. Tillo moved to the bullpen shortly after arriving to AA, and he showed out in a big way. I’ve long been a fan of Tillo moving to the bullpen, giving him something of a Scott Alexander/Zach Britton comp in shorter stints. After Tillo’s electric performance for Team USA, Royals fans should be really excited about what he can bring to the big league club in a relief role.“Royals Farm Report’s 2020 Preseason Prospect Rankings: 20-16” No. 16 Daniel Tillo by Alex Duvall; Royals Farm Report
Tillo hasn’t made the official move to the bullpen just yet, as he started in 23 of his 29 appearances in 2019 between the Blue Rocks and Naturals. However, most of his appearance in Double-A came in relief (he only made three starts) and he did make 10 relief appearances with Surprise in the Arizona Fall League as well (he posted a 6.94 ERA in 11.2 IP). Thus, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him fully embrace a relief role in 2020, especially if could result in him making his Major League debut this year.
While Tillo seems to be the most physically imposing, and most heralded prospect of the three, it is possible he could be the least likely to be a closer as a Royal. Not only is he a lefty, which hurts his potential to be a closer with “traditionalists” (there is only a small handful of left-handed pitchers who have become closers, with Billy Wagner and Sean Doolittle being the most prime exampes), but his control may also be a liability in the ninth inning. If TMZ were to be a thing, it is likely that he would be better suited in the 7th or 8th, depending on the kind of lineup the Royals would be facing that game.
Morel and Zuber are smaller pitchers size-wise in comparison to Tillo, as Morel hovers around 6’0 and 170 pounds, and Zuber is about 5’11 and 175 pounds. Morel, who was acquired in the Herrera deal in 2018, has an electric arm and may be the best prospect of the three-player package that the Royals acquired from Washington in 2018. Furthermore, in his first stint in Lexington as an 18-year-old, Morel flashed good command, as he posted a K/BB ratio of 2.71 in 14 appearances (which included 11 starts) and 52.1 innings of work. However, he proved to be quite easy to hit, as he gave up a 6.02 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in his stint with the Legends. While he was nearly 4 years younger than the competition in the Sally, the inconsistent full-season debut didn’t necessarily impress Royals fans who were hoping for another Yordano Ventura in Morel. However, if Royals fans watch the video below, it’s easy to see how many could make that comparison and perhaps see Morel develop into a Yordano-esque prospect down the line, even if it is in a bullpen role.
MLB Pipeline said this in their report about Morel, whom they ranked as the 30th best prospect in the Royals system:
Strong and stocky, Morel stands out for his quick arm and what could eventually be consistent premium velocity. He supplements a fastball that can reach 94-96 mph at times with an 81-84 mph slider and an advanced changeup in the mid-80s that can play as a plus pitch. Morel’s delivery can be a bit too upright and he’s worked with the Royals to change that for long-term health. With a little recoil at times, he doesn’t always allow himself to finish the way he should, another area of focus.“No. 30: Yohanse Morel” Royals Top 30 Prospects; MLB Pipeline
Duvall of Royals Farm Report was a bit more optimistic about Morel, as he rated Morel as the Royals’ 15th best prospect in the farm system. Though he did mention that Morel struggled, he did note that Morel was one of the younger prospects in the Sally, and that he could greatly improve once he garnered more innings on the mound at the professional level.
Much like Yefri Del Rosario back in 2018, Yohanse Morel was one of only three pitchers aged 18 or younger to throw 50 innings in the South Atlantic League (A) last year. The ERA may not suggest this, but the young right hander more than held his own against much more advanced competition. If you look more closely at Morel’s peripheral statistics (3.93 xFIP, 13.2% SwStr%, 23% K%), there is a lot to like from a kid who didn’t turn 19 until the end of his first go round at Low-A…Morel works with a fastball that can consistently run into the mid-90’s with great life to it, and a wipeout slider/changeup combo that still need developing, but both flash ++ potential. The command wasn’t quite as refined as Del Rosario while he was in Lexington in 2018, but once Morel refines the finer points of pitching, he could legitimately be a top 5 prospect in this system. At worst, he’s got the stuff to be an explosive reliever in the back end of a bullpen.“Royals Farm Report’s 2020 Preseason Prospect Rankings: 15-11”; No. 15: Yohanse Morel by Alex Duvall; Royals Farm Report.
While Morel may be a long term project who may be a couple of years away from contributing in Kansas City at the soonest, Zuber, a Royals 6th round pick in the 2017 draft out of Arkansas State, may be the most Major League ready of the three. In fact, it would not be surprising to see him make the Royals roster if it does expand to 50 spots in July.
Zuber has absolutely dominated as a professional, as he has posted a 2.96 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 4.54 K/BB ratio 133.2 IP that has spanned from Rookie ball to Double-A Northwest Arkansas from 2017-2019. In addition to great minor league numbers, Zuber also stood out in Spring Training, as he posted a 1.50 ERA in 6.0 innings of work and struck out 8 batters while only allowing a single walk. Thus, after such a strong Cactus League display, there was talk that Zuber may have broke camp with the Royals had the COVID pandemic not shut down Spring Training and the MLB season thus far.
Zuber is the classic “overachieving” prospect, as his production in the minors has consistently helped him overcome modest rankings and expectations from scouts. One of the big knocks on Zuber is that he has primarily pitched as a reliever in professional ball, which of course limits his options down the road. But at the same time, Zuber has excelled in the role, and has been the team’s most reliable reliever in every stint he has pitched at as he has climbed up the Royals’ minor league ladder. Case in point? Zuber has saved 45 games so far in the Minors, which shows the trust Minor League managers have put in Zuber early in his career thus far. Heck, he even pitched in high leverage situations in the Dominican Winter League, as evidenced in the video below during his time with Licey this past Winter, not easy to do considering how rowdy those environments can be.
Of course, there still remains some skepticism that Zuber can put it all together and have a lasting career as a Royal. Duvall ranked Zuber as the club’s 31st best prospect and had this to say about Zuber in his scouting report:
Tyler Zuber has a real shot to make the big league bullpen early on in 2020. He reminds some in the Royals org of Greg Holland, being an undersized right-handed reliever without an elite fastball but throws a plus breaking ball and has great pitchability. Zuber doesn’t quite have the raw “stuff” that Gavin has, but his ability to mix his pitches consistently in the strike zone gives him the slight nod here.“Royals Farm Report’s 2020 Preseason Prospect Rankings: 35-31”; No. 31: Tyler Zuber by Alex Duvall; Royals Farm Report.
Zuber may not have the love of prospect analysts or scouts, but the guy continues to perform and make an impression on the Royals and Royals fans, especially after a strong Cactus League showing. And furthermore, his size and effectiveness also should remind Royals fans of Greg Holland, who too was an underrated and undersized pitching prospect who became one of the better closers in recent Royals history.
It’s probably unlikely that TMZ will be a thing, especially with Morel so far behind Tillo and Zuber when it comes to Major League trajectory. But it would not be surprising to see in 3-4 years these three in the Royals bullpen making an impact together. Tillo has the raw tools and size that scouts love. Morel has raw stuff that could develop as he gains more pitching experience. And Zuber is the polished package who probably will continue to prove doubters wrong at every level he pitches at.
This is an intriguing trio, and not only do they have interesting stories, but they are all legitimate prospects who could help bring respect and stability back to a Royals bullpen that has struggled to do since 2017. Maybe TMZ isn’t exactly a carbon copy of HDH. After all, not many bullpen trios could match those highs that those three relievers set in 2014 and 2015.
But an HDH lite, perhaps?
That should still entice Royals fans and make them hopeful.
Even if it may take about four seasons to happen.