On Wednesday, the Kansas City Royals announced on social media those who elected free agency, and it was not a surprising list of players:
While Davis, Holland, and Santana brought back some nice Royals nostalgia in 2021, and Hahn was solid during the shortened 2020 season, it was expected that none of those relievers would be back in the Kansas City bullpen in 2022. The Royals need to get younger, especially on the pitching end, and there are some interesting arms in the Royals system that deserve to garner more innings in 2022.
That would not happen if Davis, Hahn, Holland, and Santana are still around on this Royals roster.
In addition to those four, the Royals also released Scott Blewett, which opens up not just another spot on the 40-man roster, but perhaps another bullpen slot for next season. Granted, the Royals will need to add some prospects to the 40-man roster this offseason in order to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft. It seems to be a given that first baseman Nick Pratto, catcher MJ Melendez, and pitcher Jonathan Bowlan will be added to the 40-man in the next month or so, though it is certainly possible that Melendez could be a major piece in a trade, as rumors are already swirling around the talented young catcher:
That being said, in the midst of this latest string of moves, the main question from Royals fans could be this: who will replace those four in the bullpen next year, and how can they possibly make this Royals bullpen better in 2022?
While the Royals bullpen was better than the starting rotation on an ERA basis last season (the bullpen ranked 19th in ERA while the starting rotation ranked 24th), the unit is still in need of improvement next season. It is possible that if the Royals get some solid contributions from new arms, this bullpen could make some serious strides in 2022, especially with Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont most likely anchoring the 8th and 9th innings.
Thus, here’s a look at three Royals relievers who could see an uptick in usage and innings next season, and how their increased workload could benefit the Royals overall, especially in the Win-Loss standings.
Dylan Coleman, RHP
Coleman made his Major League debut in 2021 and fared pretty well, even though he hadn’t pitched higher than High-A ball in 2019 (and that was in the San Diego Padres organization). In Double-A, Coleman posted a 2.92 ERA in 24.2 IP with the Naturals, and in Triple-A Omaha, he posted a 3.55 ERA in 33 IP. The former fourth-round pick and Missouri State product showed a strong propensity to strike batters out, as he generated a K/9 of 13.50 in Northwest Arkansas and 15.27 in Omaha, according to Fangraphs. In addition, Coleman also showcased some impressive control, as he posted K/BB ratios of 7.40 and 3.29 in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, respectively.
Thus, it is not a surprise that the Royals tabbed him for a late-season call-up, especially when seeing him strike out batters in this fashion below:
Coleman made only five appearances with the Royals after being called up to the big league roster, but even in his limited tenure, the 25-year-old continued to impress Royals fans. In 6.1 IP with Kansas City, he struck out seven and only walked one, which was good for a K rate of 28 percent and a walk rate of 4 percent, according to Baseball Savant.
Coleman succeeded at both the Major and Minor League level in 2021 with a four-seam fastball-slider combo, amplified by a fastball that averaged 98.2 MPH, according to Savant. That being said, while his four-seam fastball touched 100 MPH on frequent occasions, his slider was arguably his most effective pitch, especially at the Major League level.
According to Statcast data, he threw the slider 39.4 percent of the time and generated a whiff rate of 40 percent, a K rate of 50 percent, and a put-away rate of 20 percent, all higher rates than his four-seamer. Here’s an example of Coleman making Minnesota Twins slugger Miguel Sano look absolutely silly on the pitch:
It will be interesting to see how Coleman develops his four-seam fastball over the next year, as his command on the pitch will be really important for him in 2022. He only generated a whiff rate of 22.5 percent, and a K rate of 17.6 percent on the pitch, and often times during his big league debut, he would leave the pitch in far too hittable areas of the zone, which led to hitters taking advantage.
Here’s an example of Coleman pumping heat on the pitch (98 MPH), but locating it right down the pipe, which Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez belts easily for a triple in Kauffman Stadium’s spacious yards:
Coleman has the potential to be a 7th or 8th inning reliever for the Royals next season. His slider is that good, and his fastball has some serious velocity behind it. However, he will need to demonstrate better command of his fastball in 2022 if he wants to earn that role.
It will be interesting to see if he will be able to make an adjustment on the four-seamer this Spring in Cactus League play.
Gabe Speier, LHP
Speier is an interesting reliever, as he actually pitched for the Royals in 2019 and 2020. While Speier accumulated a decent amount of strikeouts at the MLB level (12.27 K/9 in 2019; 9.53 K/9 in 2020), he struggled immensely with walks and control in his brief time in Kansas City in 2019 and 2020, as he posted BB/9 rates of 7.36 and 6.35, respectively, according to Fangraphs. This produced K/BB ratios of 1.67 and 1.50 in 2019 and 2020, respectively, which incredibly lackluster marks.
Thus, it’s not a surprise that Speier was released from the 40-man roster in 2020, and lost out to Jake Brentz and Richard Lovelady in Spring Training in 2021.
However, while Speier could have fallen off a cliff after 2020, he ended up being one of the Storm Chaser’s best relievers in 2021. Despite pitching in a hitter-friendly league, Speier posted a 2.98 ERA, 3.14 FIP, and a K/BB ratio of 6.33 in 45 appearances and 45.1 IP. While Speier’s 11.32 K/9 with the Storm Chasers was impressive, his 1.79 BB/9 was even more eye-popping. After earning a reputation as a bit of a “wild” lefty for years at the professional level, Speier finally demonstrated an ability to be a surefire late innings reliever at the Triple-A level.
Furthermore, Speier also demonstrated some incredible defensive ability as well, as evidenced by this unbelievable play against the St. Paul Saints in June:
Due to injuries and a lack of quality depth at the big league level, Speier was called up to the Royals on September 15th. While his K/9 numbers were slightly down at 5.87, Speier made up for it with sensational control, as he didn’t walk a single batter in 7.2 IP.
Yes, he did allow 10 hits, but Speier didn’t let those hits hurt him, as he ended up posting a 1.17 ERA and 2.26 FIP in seven appearances last year.
What was most impressive from Speier’s call up last year was how he limited hard contact in 2021, a problem for him in 2019 and 2020. In 2019, the average exit velocity on batted balls against Speier was 91.4 MPH. In 2020, that exit velocity regressed a little but was still high at 89.1 MPH.
But last season? The exit velocity on batted balls was 83.1 MPH, a substantial decrease from the previous seasons. Furthermore, his hard-hit rate allowed went from 45 percent in 2020 to 18.5 percent in 2021, which was another sign of improvement from Speier in terms of limiting “hittable” pitches in the zone.
A key to Speier’s success in 2021 was his improved usage of his slider, which he threw 37.1 percent of the time, the most of any pitch last year. Furthermore, his slider was also his most effective pitch on a wOBA basis, as hitters only posted a wOBA of .220 on it, according to Baseball Savant.
What made his sinker so effective last year was due to Speier’s ability to generate so many groundballs on the pitch. Last year, hitters only generated an average launch angle of 6 degrees on the sinker, which means that hitters rarely generated fly balls or line drives on it when they made contact.
Here’s an example of Speier jamming Bradley Zimmer of the Indians on a sinker, which produces an easy grounder to shortstop Nicky Lopez:
With Lovelady out for an extended time due to Tommy John surgery, and Brentz struggling during the second half, it is possible that Speier could emerge as the “preferred” lefty out of the bullpen, especially if he can build on these promising results at the Major and Minor League level in 2021. Speier may not be closer material by any means, but he could be a valuable left-handed reliever who could get the Royals out of jams, especially against primarily left-handed lineups.
Ronald Bolanos, RHP
Bolanos missed most of the season due to injury, and when he did return to Omaha, he struggled for the most part. In five appearances and 19.2 innings with Storm Chasers in September, Bolanos posted an 8.69 ERA and 1.83 WHIP, both lackluster marks. Thus, many Royals fans may ask: why do we think Bolanos can be a contributor at the Major League level, when he struggled at the Minor League level so glaringly during the final month(s) of the Triple-A season?
Well, to be frank, I am not sure if Bolanos was 100 percent down the stretch in Omaha. In addition, I believe the Royals organization viewed his return to the mound in September as more of a “rehab” stint rather than a serious stretch of time that could be seriously analyzed.
That being said, what Bolanos did in a relief role at the Major League level should definitely be noticed. Even though it was brief, it could be a sign of what Bolanos could do with the Royals out of the bullpen, if healthy.
In three appearances and 6.1 IP, Bolanos posted a 1.42 ERA, highlighted by a 14.21 K/9 and K/BB ratio of 5.00, according to Fangraphs. Additionally, the 25-year-old former Padres signee (who was acquired in the Tim Hill trade back in 2020), also saw a decrease in average exit velocity on batted balls, as it went from 92.4 MPH in 2020 to 81.6 MPH in 2021. The same proved true in hard-hit rates, as they went from 40 percent in 2020 to 15.4 percent in 2021. And this was despite Bolanos throwing more pitches in 2021 (106) than 2020 (73).
The biggest change in Bolanos’ repertoire in 2021 was his switch from using the four-seam fastball primarily in 2020 (39.7 percent) to the sinker foremost in 2021 (34.9 percent), according to Baseball Savant. The increased movement of the sinker, in comparison to the four-seamer, was a big advantage for Bolanos in 2021, as he produced a higher whiff rate (35 percent to 18.2 percent), K rate (41.7 percent to 20 percent), and put away rate (45.5 percent to 16.7 percent) on the sinker in comparison to the four-seamer.
Here’s an example of Bolanos blowing away Mitch Moreland of the Athletics on a sinker that tails away late out of the strike zone:
It’s remarkable to see how effective his sinker was last year, especially in comparison to his four-seamer in 2020. In this clip below from two seasons ago, Bolanos serves a 95 MPH four-seamer right in the zone to Luis Robert of the Chicago White Sox, and Robert absolutely demolishes it to deep center field at Kauffman Stadium, which is no easy feat:
The big question for Royals fans will be this: which Bolanos will show up in 2022?
Will it be the lackluster starter who posted a K/BB ratio of 1.26 and a FIP of 7.41 in 38.1 IP with the Storm Chasers last year? Or will it be the lights out reliever who was absolutely dealing before going down for an extended period of time after only three appearances with the Royals?
Fangraphs’ Depth Charts doesn’t think Bolanos will break the season with the Major League roster, but I think Royals fans shouldn’t overlook Bolanos this Spring once Cactus League play begins. Bolanos could be a younger, higher-upside Domingo Tapia, and Royals fans noticed how Tapia succeeded this past year, despite a “checkered” Minor League resume before arriving in Kansas City.
Bolanos won’t be a late-innings guy in 2022, but he certainly could be a reliever who dominates the middle innings for the Royals, especially in games where the Royals may be trying to limit the damage after a bad starter outing.
And that role could certainly help Bolanos develop into something more in 2023, especially if he stays healthy and builds confidence next year at the Major League level.
Photo Credit: SI/Inside the Royals