Kelvin Herrera was the last remaining piece of the vaunted HDH bullpen that guided the Royals to back-to-back World Series appearances.
But the Royals’ dominance in the ninth inning actually predates that trio. The trade of Herrera to the Nationals on Monday leaves a void in the Royals’ bullpen they have not felt in a decade. Because even before Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, there was a resurgent year from Jonathan Broxton and four dominant seasons from Joakim Soria.
In fact, since 2008, the Royals have had a relief pitcher record at least 23 saves in every season, and seven of the 10 have posted earned run averages of 2.27 or better.
That streak is almost certain to end considering this year’s Royals team is yet to win 23 games, and they’re nine games shy of the halfway point in the season. Also, there’s this: No one player will fill the role vacated by Monday’s trade.
“All of them,” Royals manager Ned Yost replied when asked who will get a chance to close out games. “Opportunity exists down there. We’ll have to see who takes advantage of it.”
The bulk of the chances, though, figure to fall to four primary options. There’s Brandon Maurer, a former closer for the Padres before joining the Royals’ bullpen in a 2017 trade. Maurer has 35 career saves, but he entered Tuesday with a 13.50 earned run average in 2018. Yost said he would also consider Kevin McCarthy, Justin Grimm and Wily Peralta.
“I’ll look at different guys, but I would prefer one guy to emerge, take advantage of the opportunity,” Yost said. “But it’s wide-open right now.”
Among that group, only Maurer has served in a closer’s role. Grimm has four career saves. All came with the Cubs — three in his career year of 2015 and one in 2017. McCarthy and Peralta have never recorded a major-league save.
Asked about the potential to be moved into that closer role, McCarthy said he’s “not really thinking about that at all, really. I think anyone in the ‘pen can get it done.”
The ninth inning requires a unique mentality. Not every player can replicate his success from middle relief when tasked with recording the final three outs. Yost said Tuesday he knew he had future closers in Davis and Herrera, even when Holland was serving solely in the position. In truth, Yost added, he would’ve felt comfortable with placing two more options from those pennant-winning teams into the ninth inning — Ryan Madson and Luke Hochevar.
On Tuesday, he acknowledged more of a wait-and-see approach.
“You got a pretty good idea who can handle it before (they’re put into that spot), but they still have to prove that they can handle it,” Yost said. “You provide an opportunity for guys, and some guys can take advantage of it, and some guys can’t.”