In the initial days after the season, as the Royals’ top brass combed over the needs of their club, they settled on the bullpen as the area that demanded the most attention.
They’re yet to address it with major-league experience. But this was to be expected.
As the winter meetings concluded Thursday morning in Las Vegas, the Royals plucked a couple of right-handed pitchers in the Rule 5 Draft who could impact the bullpen. But that wasn’t their entire template for improving the relief core, which accounted for a 5.04 earned-run average in 2018, worst in the American League.
The Royals made just one move that could be classified as any sort of splash, signing Billy Hamilton to be their starting center fielder. That pushed the payroll to around $88 million. The club would like to stay beneath $92 million in 2019.
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The bullpen addition, as the Royals expected, will therefore have to come after the market presents itself in a clearer way.
“For where we are in the offseason right now and what we have remaining with our payroll, I’d be surprised if any player jumps out and takes a deal at that level at this point,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “Those types of players who take a lesser deal, usually it’s a little closer to spring training.”
The Royals depart the winter meetings with a relatively complete roster. A starting center fielder checks one box. They leave with only one more unchecked.
The members of the lineup are unlikely to change between now and March. The Royals are similarly content they have more than enough options to fill the starting rotation. In fact, the overflow there will add options to the bullpen.
But they still would like some additional help. Manager Ned Yost envisions Wily Peralta returning to his role as the closer. It’s the innings preceding the ninth that are muddled. Moore has mentioned past signings of Ryan Madson and Joe Blanton as the type of middle relievers the club will target.
“We need to continue to focus on trying to find bullpen pieces,” Yost said during this week’s winter meetings. “I think when I sit down, and I’ve talked to Dayton about our team, I’m really pleased with where we are defensively with our group and with our position players. I think if we can continue to stay focused on trying to upgrade the ‘pen a little bit, even though I think we’re going to have some really nice candidates come in and pitch in the big leagues this year, just continue to stay focused on that.”
The bullpen market finally started to unfold late Wednesday, after midnight in Vegas, with closer Jeurys Familia signing with the Mets on a reported three-year contract totaling $30 million, and Joe Kelly landing with the Dodgers for a reported three years and $25 million. As the bigger pieces continue to be plucked off the market — and there are still some big names out there — it will help dictate the price of the players who intrigue the Royals.
But as of now, many relievers will likely enter the new year without a contract. And the Royals are leaving the winter meetings with a need to address.