“Cactus Royals” Preview: Relief Pitcher Rankings

Oh boy it’s been a long week. While Spring Training game have begun which is amazing as a MLB fan, this week has been an extremely busy one in regard to high school baseball starting (I coach at the high school I work at), the third quarter ending (which requires me to finalize grading), and grad school turning up (ton of work due this week). Thus, I apologize for the lack of posts this week and hope to turn it around next week when my schedule becomes a little more stable and calmer.

Anyways, I wanted to finalize my “Cactus Royals” Spring Training preview, even though we are about a week into Spring Training, officially. Here is a list of all the posts that have been done in the series (I hope to create a page for the series in the next day or so):

In this final post of the series, I am going to take reveal my Royals “Relief Pitcher Rankings” of pitchers currently at camp in Surprise. Much like other posts in the series, I categorized all the Royals relief pitchers into four different categories.

Here are the four tiers:

  • Late Innings Potential: These are the top Royals relievers who will be depended on for key innings late in games.
  • Middle Relief Options: These are Royals relievers who may not see a lot of high leverage situations, but still could be important pitchers that Mike Matheny will rely on in the bullpen.
  • On the Bubble Relievers: These Royals relievers have potential to be contributors in 2021, but they may be on the outside-looking-in, and could also fluctuate between Omaha and Kansas City next season.
  • Minor League Arms: These are relievers at camp in Surprise who most likely will spend most of their time at the Minor League level, barring a really dramatic turnaround or showing this Spring.

Thus, with the tiers outlined, let’s take a look at the Royals “Relief Pitcher Rankings.” The complete spreadsheet can be found at this link here. Projections come from PECOTA (DRA) or ZiPS (FIP).

Late Innings Potential

  • 1. Scott Barlow (Projections: 4.35 DRA; 4.02 FIP)
  • 2. Greg Holland (Projections: 4.87 DRA; 4.45 FIP)
  • 3. Jesse Hahn (Projections: 4.81 DRA; 4.37 FIP)
  • 4. Josh Staumont (Projections: 5.64 DRA; 4.84 FIP)
  • 5. Kyle Zimmer (Projections: 4.83 DRA; 4.71 FIP)

I have talked about Scott Barlow already on this blog, but I just don’t think Royals fans talk about Barlow enough as one of the best relievers in the Royals bullpen. Of the Royals relievers currently in camp, no Royals reliever has accumulated a higher WAR (1.5) than Barlow, and he also led Royals relievers in CSW rate (35.1 percent). Furthermore, Barlow had the most optimistic projections of any Royals reliever, as he led in both DRA and FIP projections. While Barlow isn’t really talked about as a potential closer option in 2021, it would not be surprising if he took over the role at some point, especially if trouble besets Holland or Hahn.

One arm on this list that I had trouble ranking was Staumont, who made tremendous gains in 2020, but still doesn’t rate all that well in terms of projections. The positive of Staumont? Well, he throws gas, as his fastball ranked in the 99th percentile, according to Baseball Savant. Furthermore, Staumont ranked second in CSW rate by one point behind Barlow, so he can generate strikes at a pretty elite rate. That being said, Staumont’s issues with control and command have haunted him in the past, both at the Major and Minor League level, and he has struggled with giving up hard hits, as he ranked in the bottom two percentile in regard to hard hit rate in 2021, according to Savant.

However, there may be some hope on the horizon, as The Athletic’s Alec Lewis wrote an excellent piece that chronicled his growth and development over his professional career:

Will Staumont finally put it together and be a crucial setup man or potential closer for the Royals in 2021 and beyond? Or will his issues with walks and hard hits continue to rear their ugly heads next season and hold him back?

Middle Relief Options

  • 6. Wade Davis (Projections: 5.26 DRA; 5.45 FIP)
  • 7. Jakob Junis (Projections: 4.84 DRA; 4.56 FIP)
  • 8. Richard Lovelady (Projections: 4.54 DRA; 4.14 FIP)
  • 9. Tyler Zuber (Projections: 4.87 DRA; 4.48 FIP)
  • 10. Jake Newberry (Projections: 5.21 DRA; 4.80 FIP)

Davis is back and that is bringing back all the feels for Royals fans. However, I am not sure if he can be depended on as a late innings option just yet. He’s coming off two rough seasons in Colorado, as his 19-20 xFIP was 6.60, which actually was the worst mark of any reliever in camp. His 26.1 CSW rate last year demonstrated that his ability to make batters swing and miss may be regressing, and it may be in the Royals’ best interest to only use him in low leverage situations in the middle innings initially in order to see if he indeed has recovered. However, he has experienced some early success thus far, which shouldn’t be taken lightly, even if it is Spring Training:

The one reliever though I am most intrigued by is Junis, who may not be a reliever initially, as he started against the Cubs in Spring Training this year. Junis added a cutter this off-season, and that could be a valuable pitch in his arsenal, especially if Junis is confined to fewer innings as a reliever instead of a starter. Here’s how the pitch looked against the Cubs this Spring, and notice how it made Cubs slugger Kris Bryant look silly at the dish:

After Junis, the remaining spots in the middle innings will be battled for among Lovelady, Zuber, and Newberry. As I mentioned before in a previous post, it’s likely that only one of these pitchers will have a spot in the bullpen, and Royals fans could make the case for any of them, as they offer their own shares of strengths and weaknesses. Newberry posts really solid CSW rates (33.6 perent), but his command and control are a bit iffy, and his ERA typically has out performed his FIP. Lovelady has been good at generating groundballs in the past (2019 especially), but his CSW leaves some to be desired. And while Zuber may have some of the best stuff of the three, he really struggled with command, and he didn’t generate a great CSW rate either in his rookie season (26.9 percent CSW).

It will be interesting to see which of the three emerge, and conversely, who could pitch their way out of the Royals bullpen this Spring. Because while all three could be valuable relievers in the middle innings, they all could end up as mediocre arms who may not make the necessary growth needed to be dependable bullpen arms in 2021 as well.

On the Bubble Relievers

  • 11. Brad Brach (Projections: 4.87 DRA; 4.13 FIP)
  • 12. Carlos Sanabria (Projections: 5.77 DRA; 5.92 FIP)
  • 13. Daniel Tillo (Projections: 5.75 DRA; 6.03 FIP)
  • 14. Gabe Speier (Projections: 5.19 DRA; 4.96 FIP)

Brach and Sanabria have both received some in-depth analysis on this blog and they both carry some significant issues. Brach has some reliever pedigree from his days with the Orioles, Braves, and Mets, but he showed some serious regression in velocity and command a year ago in New York. Sanabria has some electric stuff, but control was a big problem for him with the Astros a year ago. Both are low-risk, high-reward fliers whom the Royals are hoping can rebound in their new surroundings in Kansas City.

Tillo and Speier benefit from the lack of quality left-handed reliever options in the upper levels of the Royals system. However, Tillo missed all of 2020 due to Tommy John, and it’s difficult to tell when he will be available and if the Royals will utilize him at the MLB level (it seems likely that they would take things slow out of caution). As for Speier, he’s had a couple of different stints with the Royals, but he hasn’t really shown that he can be anything more than a LOOGY (lefty only guy), which isn’t exactly advantageous with the three batter rule that was implemented last year.

Minor League Arms

  • 15. Jake Brentz (Projections: 6.62 DRA; 4.80 FIP)
  • 16. Jake Kalish (Projections: 5.20 DRA; 4.99 FIP)
  • 17. Andres Sotillet (Projections: 5.35 DRA; 5.00 FIP)

Brentz has been a journeyman arm, as he pitched in three organizations before coming to the Royals organization in 2019. However, Alec Lewis posted this about Brentz on March 4th, which may pique some Royals fans’ curiosity:

Brentz could be an intriguing lefty, especially if he is able to maintain that velocity throughout the Spring. The Royals lack left-handed relief depth, and should something happen to Lovelady, Brentz could be thrust into duty in Kansas City sooner rather than later.

Kalish will be 30 this year and he still hasn’t made his MLB debut since being drafted by the Royals out of George Mason in the 32nd round in the 2015 MLB Draft. Maybe Kalish could be a late bloomer, as he has a career K/BB ratio of 4.38 in 128 appearances and 442.1 innings at the Minor League level. However, while he has demonstrated great command in the Minor Leagues, he doesn’t have elite stuff, and that could be a problem for him should he make his MLB debut in 2021, much like Eric Skoglund, who was a “command over stuff” guy in the Minors who got hit hard once he made it to the Majors.

The last one on this list is Sotillet, whom I don’t know much about to be honest. He pitched in Northwest Arkansas in 2019 as a 22-year-old, and did well for the most part, posting a 3.35 ERA in 34 appearances and 75.1 IP. Sotillet is not a starter, but he’s not really a late innings guy either, as he has posted paltry K rates (6.8) over his career. Furthermore, he has a history of high hit rates, as he has a career H/9 of 10, which isn’t really all that hot. Sotillet may be in camp mostly for depth, and it’s hard to see him have much of a shot to have an impact on the Royals bullpen in the next year or two as well. He definitely profiles like an Andres Machado or Arnaldo Hernandez-type, which isn’t necessarily a good comp for his outlook.

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

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