In the final days of September, before the Royals’ offseason had even begun, general manager Dayton Moore leaned up against a dugout rail in Cleveland and identified a top priority for the winter.
The bullpen, Moore said, looking out toward the infield at Progressive Field, needed to be better.
It was easy to see why. After years of impenetrable relief work, the club’s bullpen took a step back in 2016, the result of two major injuries and a disappointing showing from free-agent acquisition Joakim Soria. But as the offseason pushes toward November, the restoration of the relief corps is still in its early stages.
The Royals remain confident in a bounce-back year from Soria in 2017. They also express hope in a cadre of young arms, including left-hander Matt Strahm — if he is not starting — and right-hander Josh Staumont, a rising prospect who is blowing away hitters in the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Yet there remains another option, another available reliever who could potentially bolster any bullpen in the American League: Former Royals closer Greg Holland.
“Greg Holland is one of the very best and most talented relief pitchers that I’ve been around,” Moore said last week. “The success of our bullpen is a direct correlation to his toughness and his competitive spirit. So we admire him as a person and a pitcher.”
Moore declined to speak specifically about Holland, the free agent — in part to adhere to club policy, in part because the club’s offseason plans are still a work in progress. But the status of Holland, a two-time All-Star, remains an intriguing story line.
For the past year, he has remained in limbo, a closer without a home. After undergoing Tommy John surgery last October, he was non-tendered by the Royals in early November. As the offseason played out, he never found a landing spot, spending much of the year rehabbing in Arizona.
For the Royals, the decision to jettison Holland was an obvious one. In his final season before free-agency, he was set to make more than the $8.25 million he collected in 2015. The Royals were not keen on paying an injured pitcher to rehab.
The club held onto hope that they could retain Holland on a low-cost, two-year deal, paying him to recover in 2016 before a return in 2017. But the deal never materialized. And neither did a similar one with any team. A free agent for the first time, Holland and his agent, Scott Boras, elected to pass on offers and take his services to the open mark this winter.
“I’d rather be in uniform watching baseball games than sitting in a suit,” Holland said in April, while returning to Kauffman Stadium to pick up his World Series ring. “But it’s something you got to be patient with. It’s my first time being a free agent. Unfortunately, I’m not completely healthy.”
Holland reportedly returned to the mound in August, but his camp has remained mostly silent during the final months of the season. Yet barring some unforeseen setback in his recovery, he should be healthy when spring training begins in February.
If the Royals are seriously interested in a reunion with Holland, a series of obstacles could await. First, they could face some stiff competition for his services. When healthy, Holland has been one of the game’s preeminent relievers, establishing his bonafides during a sterling stretch from 2011 to 2014. And while the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen and the Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman will headline a crop of free-agent closers, Holland remains one of the most accomplished of the class.
In six seasons in Kansas City, Holland posted a 2.42 ERA and recorded 430 strikeouts in 319 2/3 innings. And in a four-year run from 2011 to 2014, he was his most dominant, recording a 1.86 ERA and 358 strikeouts in 246 appearances. His performance lagged in 2015, when he pitched most of the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The injury ultimately led to him having Tommy John surgery on Oct. 2, 2015.
The Royals’ financial realities could also hinder their ability to pursue Holland. While health issues could force him to sign a one-year deal to rebuild his stock, Holland could seek a multi-year deal — or perhaps a one-year deal with a team option — in an effort to offset the money he lost out on in 2016. The Royals, meanwhile, face budget questions as their payroll projects to top at least $140 million for the second straight year.
If the money is not there to go after Holland, the Royals could also pursue a reunion with right-hander Luke Hochevar, who is expected to become a free agent when the club declines on a mutual option. Hochevar, 33, is a Tommy John survivor and coming off surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome, which could force the Royals to evaluate the medical risks. But after more than a decade in the organization, the club could be interested in a low-risk, one-year deal.
The Royals, of course, still believe they have the built-in framework for a strong bullpen. Closer Wade Davis is under contract on a $10 million team option, while Kelvin Herrera is in line for a raise as he enters his second-to-last season before free agency. In addition, left-hander Brian Flynn will return after posting a 2.60 ERA, and former Braves starter Mike Minor could project as a relief option after missing all of 2016 while recovering from shoulder surgery. The club could also kick the tires another one-year deal with veteran right-hander Peter Moylan, who finished strong in 2016.
Still, Moore remains bullish on the club’s internal options. After a terrific debut in August and September, Strahm, a 24-year-old lefty, will audition for a starting spot in spring training. Moore has said the team would prefer to keep Strahm as a starter, but after flashing dominance in relief, he could be a power option at the back end of the pen.
Another wild card exists in the right arm of Staumont, a 22-year-old who was selected in the second round in 2015. Armed with a fastball that can touch 100 mph, Staumont solved command issues during the latter part of 2016 and saw his prospect stock skyrocket. In 50 1/3 innings at Class AA Northwest Arkansas, Staumont posted a 3.22 ERA with 73 strikeouts. He’s continued to burnish his credentials with a strong early returns in the Arizona Fall League.
“A gifted arm,” Moore said.
Royals officials caution against expecting too much from Staumont in the early portion of 2017. He is entering just his second full season of professional baseball, and he has logged just 163 1/3 innings in the minor leagues. He will likely begin 2017 in the minors and the club would like to keep him as a starter. But with an electric arm and a bright future, he could give the Royals a lift as a midseason callup, either as a starter or reliever.
“We’ve always adopted the theory,” Moore said, “that guys can pitch out of the bullpen and then transition to starting.”