Even though the Winter Meetings have passed, general manager Dayton Moore and the Kansas City Royals have continued to be active players on the free agent market, as evidenced by their most recent move on Monday:
The move to re-sign Greg Holland felt expected, especially after his strong bounce-back campaign in Kansas City in 2020, as he posted a 1.91 ERA and accumulated six saves and 0.7 WAR in 28 appearances and 28.1 innings of work. Holland especially came on strong after the Royals dealt closer Trevor Rosenthal to San Diego by the trade deadline, as he inherited the closer’s role in Rosenthal’s absence, and showed flashes of his 2013-2015 “Dirty South” self during the stretch run of 2020. And thus, even though Holland was a free agent by season’s end, it seemed likely that Holland would be back in Kansas City for 2021.
Thankfully for the Royals and Royals fans, not only is Holland back, but he also came at a reasonable cost, which fuels the fire that Moore and the Royals may have some more moves left in them this Winter when it comes to building the roster in preparation for Spring Training.
According to Roster Resource’s Free Agent Tracker, the original projection was that Holland was going to go somewhere in the 1-year, $5 million range this off-season. Thus, the fact that the Royals were able to get their 2021 second-half closer, at a savings of over $2 million, should be seen as a huge win for the Royals front office, and should also give them some flexibility to add another decent free agent or two before pitchers and catchers report to Surprise. Alec Lewis of The Athletic also seemed to suggest that the Royals may be eyeing another bat and arm to round out the 40-man roster this Winter (even with the Holland acquisition, the Royals roster sits at 38 players).
So, Holland’s deal not only boosts the bullpen in the short-term (Holland takes over the closer’s role once again), but it also gives some flexibility to the Royals payroll-wise. That being said, how does Holland’s return affect the other relievers currently on the Royals’ 40-man roster? Additionally, how could it affect future moves that Moore may make in terms of ensuring that the Royals relievers continue to be a strength of this Royals team in 2021, much like they were in 2020?
Let’s take a look at those two factors, and what could possibly unfold in regard to the bullpen in the coming weeks.
There is no question that Moore has priortized adding pitching depth to the Royals system over the past three seasons, claiming that “pitching is the currency of the game“. And honestly, that organizational pitching depth is incredibly important at this time, especially as Major League Baseball transitions suddenly from a 60-game to a 162-game season from 2020 to 2021. There is a lot of concern around the league about the health of pitchers in this transition, for many experts and teams feel that pitchers and their arms could be a carry-over casualty from a pandemic-affected season. And hence, it is likely that Moore will continue to build this Royals pitching staff as the team prepares for Spring Training as mitigation to this risk.
Last year, the Royals bullpen was a strength of the team, as Royals relievers ranked 12th in terms of WAR, and 8th in bullpen ERA, according to Fangraphs. While Rosenthal carried the ninth inning in the first half of the season, and Holland took over that role after the trade deadline, the Royals’ overall bullpen was a hodgepodge group that offered considerable depth for a 26-34 club. Josh Staumont, known for his wildness in the minors, seemed to harness his control a bit in his first full season as the Majors, as he posted a 2.45 ERA and struck out 37 batters in 25.2 IP. Staumont also threw some of the fastest pitches in the Majors last season, as pointed out in this tweet below:
Staumont’s breakout was nice to see for Royals fans, but he was far from the only Royal reliever to stand out. Jesse Hahn and Kyle Zimmer recovered from injuries and combined for an ERA of 1.05 and struck out a total of 45 total batters in 30.1 IP. Scott Barlow led all Royals relievers in innings with 30. And Jake Newberry was a surprise in the middle innings, striking out 24 in 22 innings of work. Furthermore, with Jakob Junis most likely moving to the pen in the wake of the Mike Minor signing, the Royals bullpen could be deeper than ever, especially with young arms such as Tyler Zuber, Carlos Hernandez, and Ronald Bolanos capable of contributing, should they iron out their command issues in 2021.
Hence, it may be easy for Royals fans to think, “okay, the Royals are done” when it comes to building the bullpen next year. However, it would be wise for the Royals to continue to add, especially with pitchers’ health always a volatile issue. After all, both Hahn and Zimmer missed considerable time due to injury in the past three seasons, and even Zimmer had to miss the end of the 2020 season due to elbow nerve issues, not exactly a comforting sign considering his medical history. And thus, it is likely that Moore will look for another reliever or two, as insurance should a Royals reliever or two get stricken with injury at some point in 2021.
However, while he is still available, it is probably likely that the Royals will steer away from re-signing Rosenthal this Winter.
That is not to say that Rosenthal wouldn’t be welcomed on this team next year. If the Royals could perhaps get a decent deal for the former Cardinal and Lee’s Summit native, then Moore perhaps could bring Rosenthal back to Kansas City.
However, a lot of chips have to fall in the Royals way: it has to be a deal similar in AAV (average annual value) to Holland, and the deal probably shouldn’t exceed a year. Unfortunately, it seems like Rosenthal is expecting something beyond both those stipulations, and it’s hard to see him not getting that, especially after playing a crucial role in the Padres bullpen down the stretch and in the postseason.
Instead, Royals fans should perhaps look for another reclamation project in the Rosenthal and Holland mold of last off-season: former Royals relievers Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. Even Alec Lewis of The Athletic seemed to suggest that Davis was a possibility, and both Davis and Herrera could come to Kansas City on inexpensive, perhaps even Minor League, deals, which would keep things open for a position-player addition. While they would not come with Rosenthal’s recent pedigree of success, they could be low-risk, high-reward options who could not only add depth to the Royals bullpen, but also not seriously block anyone in the Royals system either, as they would likely be one-year options.
When it comes to what kind of relievers to expect Moore to target this off-season, Royals fans have to keep this in mind: they have to be temporary options. The Royals have plenty of depth and ammunition in their farm system (both starters AND relievers). Thus, at the end of the day, Moore will not sign anyone who could perhaps block any pitchers who could have long-term value to the Royals organization. That is why Rosenthal may be a tough option to bring back in 2021: he is good, but he may not be worth a two-year deal, which might be what it takes to bring him to the Royals next year.
Furthermore, even Holland fits into this “mantra”, and it would not be surprising to see Holland only be a “temporary” closer for the Royals in 2021. Yes, Holland was effective in 2020. That being said, he only did that in a 60-game season, and even in 2019 with Arizona, Holland struggled in the second half of his campaign. In the first two months of the year, Holland posted 1.56 ERA in 18.2 IP. In the next two motnsh and 16.3 IP in 2019? He posted a 7.44 ERA and was eventually released by the end of July.
And thus, Royals fans should not perhaps see Holland as the 2013-2015 version who was firmly entrenched as the Royals’ go-to guy in the 9th. Rather, he should be seen as a solid option now who could eventually pass the torch to perhaps Staumont, Zimmer, or even Hahn in the ninth over the course of the year. There is no doubt Holland is a Royals legend, and having him back will make the bullpen better in 2021. That being said, it is likely that the Royals will begin some kind of transition in 2021 to help find the closer of the future, which would mean Holland either gradually handing over his role, or Matheny using some kind of closer-by-committee system, which he kind of used anyways in his first season as Royals manager.
Royals fans should obviously celebrate the return of Holland. But Holland will not “make or break” this Royals bullpen next season. Rather, it will be how the other relievers develop, the ones under team control, such as Staumont, Zimmer, Hahn, and even Zuber (just to name a few), who could perhaps be the HDH-esque group in 2021 and beyond.
And if those younger, team-controlled, relievers develop, with the help of Holland (and whoever else Moore acquires this Winter), that could be the boost this Royals team needs to turn the corner in the standings in the American League Central.
Because Royals fans know what can happen when a club has a lights out bullpen…especially in the postseason.