Three Free Agent Relievers Who Could Boost the Royals’ Bullpen Next Season

On Josh Vernier’s Royals offseason spectacular on 610 Sports Radio, JJ Picollo made an interesting statement in regard to improving the Royals’ pitching situation, which ranked 21st in the league in team ERA last season:

The focus on improving the bullpen through free agency or trades rather than the rotation, which seemed to be the initial inkling this offseason, caught many Royals fans by surprise (which included me).

After all, the James Shields deal before the 2013 season helped solidify the Royals pitching staff the following two seasons, and helped spark a tremendous run of baseball success from 2013-2017. Considering the Royals’ lack of a true “ace” at this moment, Royals fans believed that Picollo and Royals president Dayton Moore would follow the same blueprint from 2013 this Winter, with the focus on perhaps finding a James Shields 2.0 to help mentor the Royals’ talented young pitchers on the staff.

That being said, as evidenced from a conversation between Royals Athletic beat writer Alec Lewis and Athletic MLB writer and former Nationals GM Jim Bowden, it seems like the “sure money” is on the Royals front office being aggressive in adding to the bullpen this offseason. Here is an exchange between Lewis and Bowden that confirms that notion:

Lewis: Last week, Moore and Picollo met with media members at Kauffman Stadium and outlined their offseason strategy. It did not sound as if they’ve prepared to be extraordinarily active. If anything, it sounded as if, from a free-agency perspective, bullpen depth was a focus.

How much does this make sense given where they are?

Bowden: I think it makes a ton of sense, and if I were in that position I would be going about it the same way. Developing a dynamic group of young starting pitchers is going to be the key to their future success and the major focus should be on that. In addition, when you have legitimate position-player prospects who are on the cusp of being major-league ready — like Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto — it takes away the need to sign free agents or make trades. Developing your own is almost always the best way to go.

“Talking Royals with Jim Bowden: Offseason approach, free-agent fits and the prospect with Hall of Fame potential” by Alec Lewis and Jim Bowden; The Athletic

The Royals front office’s focus on improving the bullpen through free agency rather than the starting pitching will be an interesting strategy for next season and is pretty atypical to what most teams in the Royals’ situation would do honestly.

Typically, clubs who add pieces to their bullpen through the free agency method are for sure playoff contenders, as relievers tend to be the “icing on the cake” winning teams need to get them that elusive pennant and/or World Series trophy. For example, the White Sox signed Liam Hendriks to be their closer after their bullpen folded in the AL Wild Card series against the Athletics. Trevor Rosenthal and Archie Bradley also were signed by the Athletics and Phillies, both teams expecting to compete for playoff spots this past season (even though they fell short).

Teams who finish 74-88 and haven’t had a winning season since 2015 don’t typically prioritize relievers in free agency…

However, the Royals bucking that trend could perhaps help them find “value” on the market in terms of boosting their pitching staff for 2022 (and on the cheap as well).

Granted, I don’t believe the Royals will necessarily look for a “closer” this offseason. Closers come at a tremendous cost on the free-agent market, and I think the Royals looking to build their pitching staff through the bullpen in free agency is also tied to the fact that relievers come at a lot cheaper cost than starting pitchers. However, considering the nature of baseball where starting pitchers are going fewer and fewer innings due to “arm management” concerns, investing in a plethora of middle relief arms could be a solid strategy to improving the Royals pitching staff in 2022 and beyond.

Thus, let’s take a look at three relievers who could not only boost the Royals bullpen next season, but could also be in the Royals’ price range.

Hector Neris, RHP (Phillies)

Neris has already gained some steam this offseason, as some on Twitter have mentioned that the Royals could be a possible destination for the six-year reliever who has spent his entire career thus far in Philadelphia:

Neris has had two stints as the Phillies’ primary closer, as he saved 26 games in 2017 and 28 games in 2019 (he also posted ERA marks of 3.01 and 2.93 in 2017 and 2019, respectively). However, he has failed to hold onto the job long-term, which is probably a big reason why Neris is a free agent this offseason.

As mentioned before though, the Royals do not necessarily need to spend for a closer. Scott Barlow seemed to handle that role just fine last year, and he appears to be in line to be the Royals’ closer again for 2022, barring injury. Thus, Neris wouldn’t be expected to be a ninth-inning guy, like he was in Philadelphia, but one who can hold things down in the 7th and 8th innings. Yes, Josh Staumont and Domingo Tapia handled that role down the stretch last season, but Neris would give the Royals bullpen insurance, should Staumont or Tapia falter next year.

Neris does a stellar job when it comes to displaying control for a fireballing reliever. Neris has a career K/BB ratio of 3.44, and last year in his final season in Philadelphia, Neris posted a 3.06 K/BB ratio. To compare, Staumont and Tapia posted ratios of 2.67 and 1.79, respectively, Thus, Neris already offers a profile that could be beneficial in the late innings for Kansas City.

Furthermore, Neris still profiles well in many key Statcast categories, as evidenced from his percentile rankings from last year via Baseball Savant:

Even though Neris’ 3.63 ERA in 73.1 IP wasn’t exactly impressive for a late-innings reliever, his xERA of 2.99 demonstrates that he was probably better than his traditional metrics indicated.

Furthermore, Neris also was hurt by playing his home games at Citizens Bank Park, which is one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the league. To compare, if Neris pitched only at Citizens Bank Park, he would have given up 13 home runs (one more than his actual home runs allowed mark this year). If he were at Kauffman? That total falls to seven.

Neris could see a major ERA regression should he make the move to KC, especially with a split-finger pitch (his primary pitch) that generated a whiff rate of 45.6 percent and a strikeout rate of 39.8 percent last season. Take a look at Neris’ splitter fooling Marlins shortstop Jazz Chisholm:

Neris isn’t the pitcher that he once was when he was closing out games for the Phillies in 2017 and 2019. However, he could be a stellar sixth-to-eighth inning reliever who could provide a veteran presence in the Royals bullpen, in addition to displaying some impressive strikeout stuff for the Royals in 2022.

Collin McHugh, RHP (Rays)

McHugh is an interesting pitcher because he lives for the middle innings. He’s not a closer or setup man. However, he doesn’t have the stamina to be a starting pitcher, as he hasn’t started more than 10 games in a season since 2017 (when he was on the Astros).

And yet, McHugh posted a 1.55 ERA and accumulated an fWAR of 1.8 last season with the Rays. At 34-years-old, McHugh could have a James Shields-esque impact on this pitching staff…it would just be as a long reliever rather than a starting pitcher.

But in this modern-day game where starting pitchers are going fewer innings than ever before, a reliever like McHugh can be a tremendous asset to a ball club, and the Royals certainly would benefit from his services, especially considering the injury issues they had to deal with down the stretch in 2021.

McHugh will probably come at a bit of a cost (I imagine he’ll command somewhere in the $3-5 million AAV this offseason). However, he is an effective pitcher who could fit in a variety of roles in the Royals bullpen, and he has plenty of playoff experience from his days in Tampa Bay and Houston.

When looking at his percentiles from Baseball Savant, it’s kind of insane to see how well McHugh did in his short one-year stay in Tampa Bay in 2021:

Of the 15 percentile categories, McHugh ranked in the Top 10th percentile in SEVEN of them. Yes, he doesn’t fit the traditional “closer” role, but McHugh was automatic last year, and would instantly boost the Kansas City bullpen in 2022, even if he wouldn’t have a clear “defined” role with the Royals.

On a run value end, McHugh’s slider was his most effective pitch, as his slider was 13 runs BELOW average, according to Savant (below is good). In addition, it also generated a strikeout rate of 32.7 percent.

In this clip below, check out how McHugh’s slider absolutely freezes Yankees slugger Joey Gallo on an 0-2 count at Yankee Stadium:

Some Royals fans may question spending $3-4 million a year on a possible middle or long reliever. However, McHugh is an absolute savant on the mound, and if he’s willing to pitch in Kansas City, Moore and Picollo should make an aggressive move for the former 18th-round pick.

Brooks Raley, LHP (Astros)

From 2016-2019, Raley was one of the best pitchers in Korea, as he nearly threw 1,000 innings as a starting pitcher in KBO play over that time span. He got a chance to return to the States a year ago and split 2020 with the Reds and Astros, with a majority of is innings coming with the Astros.

This season, Raley spent the entire season in Houston, and had his best MLB season yet, as he accumulated an fWAR of 0.8 in 49 innings of work.

At the surface level, the 4.78 ERA doesn’t look all that impressive. However, his 3.92 xERA and 3.27 FIP hint that Raley was hurt by pitching in a hitter-friendly stadium such as Minute Maid Park. Much like Neris, Raley would probably see a major ERA regression if he were to pitch his home games in Kansas City’s pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium next season.

When digging into his advanced metrics, there is a lot to like about Raley. His K/BB ratio was 4.06 last year, highlighted by a K/9 of 11.94. Furthermore, his percentile rankings according to Baseball Savant were solid last year, even if they weren’t as impressive as Neris or McHugh’s comparatively:

The strongest part of Raley’s pitching profile is his ability to limit hard contact, as his hard-hit allowed rate was one of the best in baseball at 21.5 percent. This wasn’t a fluke either, for he also posted a hard-hit rate of 21.3 percent during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Raley’s ability to generate impressive and effective spin on both his fastball and curveballs proved to be a big reason why hitters struggled to put serious velocity behind batted balls a season ago.

Raley’s slider though was the key to his success with the Astros, as he threw the pitch 29.1 percent of the time, his second-most thrown pitch a year ago. The slider not only generated a -5 run value, according to Savant but also a whiff rate of 48.8 percent and a strikeout rate of 50.7 percent. Those were the best rates in those categories of any of the six pitches he threw in 2021.

Here’s Raley getting Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox to look silly on the slider in game one of the ALCS:

Right now, according to the Royals’ Depth Chart via Roster Resource, Jake Brentz and Gabe Speier are the only lefties expected to pitch out of the bullpen in 2022, and both have had their fair share of inconsistency over their short careers.

Raley on the other hand could be the consistent lefty presence this Royals bullpen needs in 2022 and beyond, and he probably won’t come at too high a price tag either, a big plus for a small-market club like the Royals.

Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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