Bash open a piñata of the Royals’ 2014 season and out would tumble a jumble of images great and small:
Foundation-setting starting pitching. Sensational defense.
Havoc on the base paths (a major-league-high 153 stolen bases), and 33 of those puny sacrifice bunts that rankled so many fans (but was about the American League average, 30), each of which was an adaptation to a short-circuited power grid that yielded a feeble 95 home runs …
Then again, it was home runs that jolted the Royals through the playoffs and into the World Series. And it was a homer by Raul Ibañez in the 1-0 win on Aug. 1 at Oakland that was the very reason the Royals played the Athletics at home instead of on the road for the mind-blowing wild-card game.
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Towering over this quirky hodge-podge, though, was the concoction of the most consistently potent part of a patented formula: the unprecedented seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning bullpen combo of Kelvin Herrera, 24, Wade Davis, 29, and Greg Holland, 29.
Call them “H-D-H” or the “Three-Headed Monster or “Snap, Crackle and Pop.” Or, as inspired by The Star’s Andy McCullough regarding Davis and Holland, call them “Shake ’N’ Bake … and I helped!” as Herrera evolved into the third piece.
By any name, though, you can call them unique: The suffocating trio represents the first time in baseball history any team had more than one reliever produce more than 60 innings in a season with an ERA below 1.50.
And call the group not to be trifled with, at least in any way lightly, in the wake of last week’s Winter Meetings in San Diego.
The Royals came out of last week still holding a hand that no one really ever has held before, or at least held and recognized and organized this way, and here’s hoping it stays that way.
It’s a hand that was a fundamental reason they were 68-4 last season in regular-season games they led after six innings.
It’s a hand that as much or more than any other single factor enabled them to land 90 feet from tying game seven of the World Series against the Giants.
So with the anticipated successful return of Luke Hochevar (1.92 ERA in the pen in 2013) from Tommy John surgery, it might seem as if the Royals are stocked with an embarrassment of riches … and thus are duty-bound to deal from their stockpile to fill their glaring needs.
But general manager Dayton Moore is publicly touting restraint on that front, and all indications are that’s the word behind the scenes, too.
“We’re not in a hurry to break those guys up,” Moore told The Star Tuesday in San Diego, later adding, “If there’s something that truly makes sense, we’re open-minded with it. But we have to maintain our strengths.”
Now, there are infinite ways to look at how the Royals could or should be working this Rubik’s cube of priorities and economics as they consider their calls to upgrade in right field and at DH and maybe second base and add a sturdy starter.
Really, it would be hard to squawk about surrendering part of what might be considered a surplus to help fortify one of those gaps. And, yes, it would be nice to have the juice to be leading more than 72 games after six innings.
Moreover, the current core group of five relievers, including Jason Frasor, figures in 2015 to reap in the neighborhood of $25 million, meaning about a quarter of the overall payroll would be earmarked for what generally is considered the most routinely filled of roles on a team.
But filled isn’t the same as animating in an entirely new way.
The Royals’ deployment of the trio didn’t reinvent the game, of course, but it had a revolutionary edge to it.
Now it has further intriguing possibilities if Hochevar is who he was in 2013.
All of which is an advantage the Royals would diminish at their peril.
Because it was so enmeshed with how they won and almost certainly what they will have to do to continue to win even if, say, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas finally have full seasons of prosperity.
Because no matter how the Royals are able to upgrade offensively, it’s hard to believe it will be enough to radically change their power game and reduce their margin for error.
Even if the reality is that bullpens are fickle and tend to fluctuate year to year and that past performance is no guarantee of future results, even if injuries loom, that’s all as much an argument for maintaining the essential group as for breaking it up.
If one falters, then, it wouldn’t be critical.
But one trade or one injury is all it would take to puncture the dynamics of this, and you need look only to last season to see how volatile pitchers’ health can be:
Hochevar, 31, was lost for the season in March; Holland missed much of the September stretch run because of a triceps injury that some believe is indicative of trouble ahead.
It’s true that the Royals must find a starting pitcher who can give them in the neighborhood of 200 stable innings … and that they best get more than the three home runs and 44 RBIs they got out of Billy Butler’s 108 games at DH (whether it’s with a presumably rejuvenated Kendrys Morales or someone else or by committee) … and that they would prosper by more productivity in right field and at second base.
But it’s also true that after 28 years of drifting and reeling, the Royals got to game seven of the World Series with disappointing production out of the DH and right and second base.
Thanks in hefty part to a back end of the bullpen that wasn’t so much a luxury as a necessity.
It was the signature touch on a signature season with so many other elements to it … but none that the Royals could afford less to casually compromise now.