Matheny has decisions to make on Royals bullpen after Indians series

It’s hard to be optimistic about the 2020 outlook after the Royals lost their opening series to the Cleveland Indians two games to one. Yes, the Indians were the better and more favored team in the pre-season, so the idea that the Royals would win this series, on the road nonetheless, seemed like quite a tall task, even before the first pitch was thrown Friday evening. But, after Brady Singer’s stellar debut in game 2, as well as the triumphant returns of Salvador Perez at the plate, and Greg Holland in the pen, there was hope that the Royals could build on the momentum and somehow sneak the rubber game of the series in Cleveland on Sunday afternoon and go into Detroit on Monday tied for first place.

Unfortunately, the Royals bats, much like Friday evening where they struck out 18 times, continued to produce more “wind energy” than run production, as Royals hitters struck out 15 times today, which brought their strikeout total for the series at 39. While the Royals had some guys who struggled with strikeouts a year ago (Jorge Soler and Adalberto Mondesi being the main culprits), they only ranked 9th in the American League in terms of total strikeouts, which was close to league average. And thus, one has to wonder if these strikeout “issues” are just a fluke from a bad opening series, or perhaps a sign of some problems to come. If the Royals want to avoid the cellar, they will need to fix this “swing and miss” issues at the plate, especially with a Tigers team that’s suddenly tied in first place at the end of the weekend.

And yet, despite Singer’s hopeful debut as well as the Royals’ struggles at the plate, the biggest question mark on Royals fans mind is this: who can the Royals depend on from the bullpen going forward, especially since the starting pitching will be such a question mark after Singer and Danny Duffy (who had a decent, but unspectacular Opening Day debut)? Mike Matheny, who has suddenly been testing his chops as an “analytical” manager, basically threw out all his relievers over the three-game series, especially in Sunday’s contest, where they had to pitch only relievers, due to the lack of availability from starting pitchers Brad Keller and Jakob Junis, who both are recovering from COVID. The high usage of bullpen arms not only gave him and pitching coach Cal Eldred an idea of who they could depend on during this upcoming 60-game sprint, but also gave a glimpse to Royals fans of who could surprise, and who may disappoint out of the bullpen this season as well.

So what’s the verdict? Who made good impressions out of the Royals bullpen over the weekend, and who may be on their way out? I decided to categorize all the Royals relievers into three categories for this post: the “dependable“; the “possible“; and the “expendable.” I am only looking at pitchers who pitched over the weekend and are on the 30-man roster, so anyone who falls out of that category will not be mentioned.

Hence, let’s take a look at those three categories of Royals relievers and which category each one falls under.

“The Dependable”

Ian Kennedy, Trevor Rosenthal, Greg Holland, Scott Barlow, and Tyler Zuber

Yes, I know it’s just one series, but I’m ready to go all-in on KRH (Kennedy-Rosenthal-Holland) for 2020. While technically the closer, Matheny pulled out of his “analytical” hat and went with Kennedy in the sixth inning in a tie game. Even though Kennedy wouldn’t get the save, he proved to be “nails” in the situation, as he went two innings and allowed zero hits and runs while striking out one. Rosenthal, the former Cardinals closer, followed up Kennedy in the eighth inning and also kept the Indians hitters at bay, as he struck out two batters in an inning of work. And in the 10th, after the Royals took the lead in the new extra innings format, Holland shut the door on the Indians with a runner on second (per new extra-innings rules), as he struck out the side in the 10th. Yes it was only one game, and who knows if father time will catch up with the three (or at least Rosenthal and Holland), but the three showed that their veteran presence and experience and it seems like this trio has just gelled ever since they reported back in February in Surprise.

And in all honesty, it was nostalgic for Royals fans to see Holland in the ninth again, as the Royals’ Twitter account alluded to below:

Barlow had an up and down series, as he allowed two hits and the Indians’ only two runs on Opening Day (though the runs were credited to Danny Duffy). However, Matheny went back to Barlow in game 2, and though he allowed two walks and a hit, he got out of the inning with no runs allowed and also struck out two batters to boot. Barlow was expected to be one of the Royals’ main relievers in 2020 after a strong second half in 2019, but I think the emergence of Rosenthal and Holland could ease the pressure off of him a bit, and his nice bounce back in game 2 showed that he can still come through, though he’ll need to show better command if he wants to be a dependable arm in the 7th and 8th this season.

As for Zuber, it appears likely that Matheny may depend on him the most after the three veterans (Kennedy-Rosenthal-Holland) and the emerging Barlow. Zuber pitched two innings against the Indians on Opening Day and allowed no hits or runs and only one walk, and his fan club in Kansas City has only grown with each and every appearance since Cactus League play.

The rookie should continue to impress out of the Royals pen, and it’s possible that he is setting himself to be an heir apparent to one of the three veterans in 2021. Right now, Barlow holds a slight edge over him due to experience, but if Zuber can pitch like he did on Opening Day, and if Barlow doesn’t clean up his command, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Zuber pass him on the bullpen depth chart at some point this season.

“The Possible”

Ronald Bolanos, Josh Staumont, Kyle Zimmer, Gabe Speier, Glenn Sparkman, and Kevin McCarthy

Bolanos got the surprise start in the rubber game on Sunday in what ended up as a “bullpen day” for the Royals with few starting pitching options available. Bolanos’ stuff played up, as he was hitting upper 90’s with his fastball, and his breaking ball showed some nasty bite at times. However, as per his scouting report when he arrived from San Diego, Bolanos struggled with his control, which contributed to him giving up two runs, three hits, and a walk in two innings of work (though third-baseman Erick Mejia made a throwing error in the first which led to a two-run first inning). While Bolanos’ was far from perfect, his performance made a positive impression on Matheny, which should imply that Bolanos will get a lot more chances out of the bullpen (and perhaps the rotation) in 2020:

Staumont and Zimmer also saw work in this game, and the former highly touted arms (both have been top prospects in the Royals system at one point in their Minor League careers) impressed, even though the game was well out of hand when they came in. Staumont walked one and struck out one in one inning of work, and was touching 100 MPH and 101 MPH with his first two pitches. But what was really impressive was his breaking ball, which not only had good bite to it, but was thrown with much more control than at times last year. As for Zimmer, while he did give up a single in a inning of work, he allowed no runs and also struck out the side as the Royals’ last pitcher of the day, which included strikeouts of Jose Ramirez (who had two home runs today) and Francisco Lindor (the Indians’ best overall hitter). In addition to a solid stat line, Zimmer carried himself with confidence on the mound, as I said this about him in a Tweet earlier today:

As for Speier, Sparkman, and McCarthy, they fall in the lower end of this category. Speier showed good stuff and looked effective against lefties, as he struck out Bradley Zimmer looking to end the third. However, he gave up three hits overall, which set up a situation in the fourth in which McCarthy gave up a three-run home run that pretty much put the game out of reach early for the Royals. Speier may be an effective LOOGY, and as stated before on this blog, he may have the best strikeout stuff out of the three left-handed options (Randy Rosario and Richard Lovelady). However, he’ll have to be better against right-handed hitters, especially with the new three-batter rule, if he wants to stay in the bullpen.

As for McCarthy and Sparkman, they are a slight notch below Speier, and are what they are: McCarthy is a groundball guy who will give up the occasional long ball when he’s not locating (like he did today), and Sparkman could provide some fireman work in the middle of innings when the Royals are behind. Neither are super dependable options and most likely they’ll probably find their way out of KC by the end of Spring Training in 2021. That being said, they add depth to the pen and won’t hurt the team too bad, especially if they are in low leverage roles.

“The Expendable”

Richard Lovelady and Jorge Lopez

I know Lovelady still has something to prove, but with Speier and Rosario, it just doesn’t seem worth it to keep Lovelady on for much longer. While he has posted great metrics in the Minors, his stuff has just failed to look impressive at the Major League level, and he struggled to command anything, as he threw five straight balls when he took the mound. He of all people can’t afford to put people on base, and though he did get a double play on the next batter, he served up a meatball to Ramirez who absolutely crushed it:

While there is a slight chance Lovelady could bounce back, it’s the inverse for Lopez, who really has failed to generate any confidence or support with Royals fans not just in terms of today, but spanning back to last year. In fact, I don’t think there’s any player more disliked by Royals fans than Lopez, which is sad because, by all accounts, Lopez seems like a decent guy. Don’t believe me about the Royals fan hate? There is a “DFA Jorge Lopez” Twitter account which posts nothing but retweets of Royals fans who post negative things about Lopez. It’s a bit mean-spirited for my liking, but there’s a kernel of truth to this account and its 326 retweets: Royals fans are tired of Lopez and his inability to fulfill any role with the Royals.

Even though it’s only been one series of games (we still have 57 to go), it might be good for Dayton Moore to part with Lopez sooner rather than later, especially once Keller and Junis return to the roster. As much as I enjoyed that near-perfect game in 2018, Lopez just can’t fit in any role on this pitching staff. He struggles as both a starter and a reliever, and it just seems like he looks less and less confident when he takes the mound. I pointed this out in a Tweet today, comparing Lopez to Singer’s performance Saturday:

While Royals fans could live with the Royals giving Lovelady a few more looks until Rosario comes back, the Jorge Lopez-in-KC-era should be mercifully ended by Moore on behalf of not only Royals fans but Lopez as well. It’s easy to spot Lopez’s frustration and anxiety on the mound today, and the Twitter vitriol after just demonstrates how fans are done with him and will continue to feel this way, even if he can be “average” this year. The damage is just too deep for Royals fans with Lopez, and not only do better options exist on the 60-man to replace him, but Lopez probably deserves a fresh start with another organization, even if he may not make their active roster right away.

And as I said before on Twitter earlier today, at least Royals fans will always have this from Jorge Lopez:

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