Slowly but surely, the youth movement in Kansas City is starting to take hold, as Royals fans are just beginning to see the first glimpses of the long-awaited prospect pool we’ve all heard so much about. The recent promotions of Eric Hosmer and Danny Duffy are merely the first, with players like Mike Moustakas, John Lamb, Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery and many more not far behind.
Even though the team has gotten off to a surprising .500 start, 2011 is still seen as a transition year, with some sightings now but with the bulk of the youngsters expected to arrive in 2012-13. That is why this year’s team is still stocked with placeholder types like Jeff Francis, Bruce Chen, Melky Cabrera, and Chris Getz, there mainly to fulfill the team’s obligation to play games in 2011 and possibly serve as trade chips at the deadline.
However, one area where the youth crew has already made their mark is in the completely revamped bullpen, where earlier this week the Royals counted five rookies and second-year man Blake Wood to go along with young veteran Joakim Soria. That being the case, it’s no surprise that it’s not only a mostly new group, it’s a very young one: thanks to the debut of Everett Teaford last night, the Royals have used nine relievers (defined as having 80 percent of their appearances coming in relief) born in 1984 or later. No other team can claim more than six, and two clubs, Baltimore and Oakland, have elderly staffs that haven’t used even a single reliever that young.
Despite the youth, the Royals relief corps was actually the leading the majors in percentage of inherited runners left stranded through Monday, topping their 2010 mark of 72.2 percent by a full ten percent. (Let’s stop here to caveat that yes, all of the stats are going to be “through Monday”. That is partially a function of when I wrote much of this piece, but mostly because of how skewed the stats became after Tuesday’s historic disaster by Vin Mazzaro. He may have been pitching in relief of the injured Davies, but he was not a part of the usual bullpen, was used as a human sacrifice for 2 1/3 innings, and was immediately demoted to the minors after the game.)
The new Kansas City bullpen isn’t all the way there yet–the shiny pre-Mazzaro ERA of 3.05, good for eighth in baseball, isn’t completely supported by the peripherals and advanced stats which have them more appropriately in the middle of the pack–but the new class has brought definite improvement. Compared to the 2010 edition, the Royals relievers are striking out more per nine innings (7.33 to 6.90), allowing fewer homers (0.87 from 1.03), and holding down the OPS of opposing hitters (704 from 760), despite a slightly higher walk rate. That is all also in spite of Soria suffering through what is so far the worst year of his career; clearly, the arms around him have seen an upgrade from the bad old days of Victor Marte and Jesse Chavez.
In an era where teams consistently overpay for non-elite middle relievers on the open market, the Royals have managed to cobble together an adequate and improving bullpen with excellent upside for a minimal cost. Only Soria and Aaron Crow are making more than the minimum, and Soria’s contract is widely viewed as one of the most team-friendly in the sport. Even after the Mazzaro meltdown, the bullpen’s performance is still outpacing that of some teams who invested heavily in the market this winter, including the Dodgers (who gifted Matt Guerrier with a three year, twelve million dollar deal), and the Orioles (who have four relievers making one million or more).
Yet while the Royals have smartly avoided the volatile free agent reliever market, the current collection of relief arms isn’t entirely reflective of the rest of the cream of Kansas City’s farm system, which was mainly acquired through high draft picks. Take a look at Kevin Goldstein’s Top 11 Royals prospect list from the most recent offseason and you’ll see that of the top nine players listed, eight were drafted in the first four rounds. You’ll also see that just one member of the bullpen, Tim Collins, appears in the top fifteen–and he was an undrafted free agent who was traded twice in three weeks last year.
Continue going down the roster, and the varied backgrounds of the new collection of Royal relievers becomes clear. It’s not that they’re not talented–there are a few high draft picks to speak of–but the paths many of them have taken to the big leagues have been circuitous.
Collins may seem like an extreme example, yet he is hardly alone. Soria was originally acquired as a Rule 5 pick after blowing out his elbow in the Dodgers system, and after being left unprotected by San Diego. Crow was a first round pick in 2009, but only after sitting out a year when he refused to sign with Washington, and was outside Goldstein’s top fifteen because his command issues led to a 5.66 ERA in Double-A last year. Jeremy Jeffress was part of the Zack Greinke deal with Milwaukee, but carried with him the hefty baggage of being a repeat offender of the minor league drug policy. Nathan Adcock was drafted by the Mariners in 2006 before being shipped to Pittsburgh as part of a package for Ian Snell and Jack Wilson; he came to Kansas City this year as another Rule 5 experiment. Louis Coleman, for his part, was a Kansas City draftee in 2009 (as was Wood in 2006, though he at least is a former starter).
As the spring turns into summer and fall, and moves on to next year, we’ll almost certainly start seeing the wave of prospects begin to fully take over in Kansas City. Moustakas will replace Wilson Betemit and company at third base. Lamb, Montgomery, and Duffy will push out Chen, Francis, and Davies (Duffy getting a chance to push someone out as soon as tonight, even), and Johnny Giovatella could finally liberate Royals fans from Getz at second base.
That is a process that will take time, and one which we’re just seeing the start of. But in the bullpen, traditionally the last piece of the puzzle for a non-Kevin Towers run winning team, we’re already starting to see the turnover happen. The new faces in the late innings in Kansas City may not be recognizable to the casual fan or even to those who are mainly familiar with the big names on the prospect lists, but so far, the results are promising.