Back in December, in the days after the trade that reshaped the Royals bullpen, reliever Kelvin Herrera pulled out his phone and sent a text message to former closer Wade Davis.
You could perhaps view the brief conversation that followed as some sort of passing of the torch. But Herrera says he simply wanted to wish his friend well. If not a vocal leader, Davis had become something like a Pitch Whisperer in the Kansas City bullpen, offering tips on mechanics or observing subtle changes on grips. With Davis headed to the Chicago Cubs in a trade for outfielder Jorge Soler, Herrera understood one thing: Davis would be missed.
“We lost a huge piece of our bullpen,” Herrera said.
On Tuesday morning in Surprise, Royals pitchers and catchers gathered for their first official workout of the spring, and if you gazed around the room, it was easy to think about what was missing. For years, the club was defined by a dominating bullpen, once anchored by the devastating trio of Herrera, Davis and Greg Holland, and now just one piece of that formula remains. Herrera, a two-time All-Star, is ready to assume the role of closer. But the rest of the bullpen remains fluid.
“It’s wait and see,” Royals manager Ned Yost said on Tuesday. “It’s wait and see who takes the job. All the roles are open with the exception of probably Kel.
“We know what Kel is going to do. He’s gonna close. We got a lot of spots and a lot of names to compete for the rest of those things.”
As the 2017 season approaches, club officials remain confident that the roster contains the necessary ingredients for a shutdown bullpen. But the ensuing competition could be one of the more intriguing story lines of camp. A season ago, the Royals relief corps tied for second in the American League in bullpen ERA at 3.45 but a rash of late-inning blowups tainted a group that once helped the franchise to two straight World Series appearances and a championship.
From 2013-15, the Royals logged a 2.85 bullpen ERA, suppressing homers and strangling the life out of opponents in historically dominant fashion. But now the organization must piece together another vaunted bullpen without the right arms of Holland or Davis.
“The names are different,” Yost said. “But I think we’re going to fill the bullpen out fine.”
Yost offered some clarity Tuesday by confirming left-handers Matt Strahm and Mike Minor will be slotted as relievers entering the regular season. Strahm, 25, is coming off a dynamic debut in the bullpen last season, but he also spent most of 2016 as a starter at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. Minor is a former Braves starter who missed last year because of a nagging shoulder injury. He is also slated to make $4 million, which could offer incentive to put him on the 25-man roster.
“Just keeping him healthy, that’s the thing,” Yost said. “That’s why moving him to the pen, we can get him acclimated in that role.”
The Royals believe Strahm possesses a future as a starting pitcher, but with the addition of Jason Hammel, Nathan Karns and Travis Wood to the roster, the club appears comfortable putting Strahm in the back of the pen.
“Do we view Strahm as a starter long-term? Absolutely,” Yost said. “But a stint in the bullpen is not going to hurt his development whatsoever.”
In addition to Herrera and Strahm at the back, the Royals will also count on a bounce-back performance from reliever Joakim Soria, who is entering the second season of a three-year, $25 million contract. Two other bullpen spots could hinge on the competition for the fifth starter spot.
The Royals enter camp with four locks in their starting rotation, beginning with Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy at the top and Jason Vargas and Hammel in the middle. The final rotation spot will likely come down to Chris Young, Karns or Wood, whose two-year, $12 million contract is expected to become official this week. The two losing pitchers could find themselves in the bullpen.
In this way, the numbers add up quickly. If Strahm and Minor take advantage of the spring opportunity, they could join Herrera, Soria, and two pieces of Karns, Young and Wood. If the Royals elect to utilize a seven-man bullpen, that would mean six spots occupied and one vacant spot for a internal option or a possible reclamation project.
One reliever who will not begin the season in the bullpen is left-hander Brian Flynn, who broke a rib and sustained three non-displaced fractures in his vertebrae while falling through the roof of his barn in the days before camp. Flynn, who posted a 2.60 ERA in 36 appearances last year, is expected to miss eight weeks, but a list of intriguing names remains.
Former Cardinals reliever Seth Maness joined the Royals on a minor-league deal on Monday. The club will also look at a group of nonroster invitees that includes Brandon League, Ryan Withrow, Al Alburquerque and Jonathan Sanchez, a long-shot candidate who crashed out in his first stint with the Royals in 2012. The collection of homegrown possibilities could include right-handers Kevin McCarthy, Kyle Zimmer and Josh Staumont and southpaw Eric Skoglund, among others.
Zimmer, a 25-year-old former first-round pick, is seeking to rebuild his stock after years of injuries, while Staumont, 23, can unleash a 100 mph fastball on opposing hitters. One wrinkle: Staumont is not yet a member of the 40-man roster, which could hurt his chances if the Royals seek to conserve roster inventory as the season begins.
For now, the Royals are prepared to take a patient approach. In some ways, a spring camp is closer to a 10K than a sprint, and there will be more surprises, more plot twists. But as the routine begins, Yost is confident the organization has the arms to make it work.
“Over the course of the next six weeks,” Yost said, “It’ll iron it itself out.”