A little more than 24 hours before the season, Brad Keller sat in a room full of media as the man officially atop the Royals’ rotation. When Kansas City takes part in opening day on Thursday afternoon, Keller will throw the game’s first pitch. He’s the starter.
So who will throw its last pitch? Who’s the closer?
The Royals have intentionally failed to name one, and if manager Ned Yost has a plan in place for the late innings, he’s done an admirable job keeping it a secret.
“We purposely didn’t anoint a closer or an eighth-inning guy because we want to try to mix and match a little more in the bullpen,” he said. “We’re going to do things a little differently and see how it plays out here in the first month.”
The Royals’ opening day roster is sealed until Thursday, but Yost offered some hints as he cycled through his bullpen options. He mentioned the repertoires of Scott Barlow, Brad Boxberger, Jake Diekman, Tim Hill, Ian Kennedy, Kevin McCarthy, Wily Peralta and Kyle Zimmer, classifying each of them as unique. And Chris Ellis is a Rule 5 pick, so he either must be placed on the major-league roster or relinquished.
Nobody in the American League posted a worst earned run average out of the bullpen than the Royals did in 2018, a mark of 5.04. That became a point of emphasis this offseason for general manager Dayton Moore. If the aforementioned group is indeed the opening day relief core, it will have been almost fully reconstructed from the close of 2018, with the exception of Hill, Peralta and McCarthy.
“Our bullpen will be much better,” Moore said. “We have more weapons in the back end, more experience in the back end.”
In March and April, Yost plans to tinker with those weapons. As the art of bullpen management has absorbed new focus in baseball, the Royals will adjust, too. Sometimes Yost might use his top-performing arm early. Sometimes he will save him for later.
During the winter meetings in Las Vegas, Yost expressed comfort with returning Peralta to the closer’s role. Peralta saved 14 games for the Royals and posted a 3.67 earned-run average.
During spring training, after some late additions, he softened on that stance. Boxberger saved 32 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. He’s a late-inning option. Diekman could factor late into games from the left side if the circumstance calls for it. Kennedy and Zimmer may grow quickly into their new projected roles.
“I’m sure it will all play itself out over time as every year does,” Boxberger said. “It’s just a matter of playing games and seeing how it goes. Just have to be ready as soon as the starter comes out. Whether that be early or later, it’s just a matter of being prepared whenever the phone rings.”
The formula could — and likely will — differ from game to game. If Peralta or Boxberger or anyone else is offered the first save opportunity, it doesn’t mean they will be offered the next. Even if successful.
The Royals are inclined to let game situations dictate who they use over the middle innings, which will in turn determine who is left for the final one or two.
“They’re all a little different,” Yost said. “We don’t have two guys that are really alike down there. So you can kind of mix and match your looks from day to day with the guys that we have.”