Eight games into the season, we should be talking about how impressive the offense looks. The Royals have scored 38 runs in eight games, ranking fifth in the league; they’re hitting .290/.348/.438 as a team. Jose Guillen has four homers and is slugging .781. Rick Ankiel had hits in 8 straight at-bats at one point. Jason Kendall has started all eight games (no surprise) and has an 8-game hitting streak (big surprise). Scott Podsednik is hitting .452 and is on pace for 121 steals.
And yet the Royals are 3-5, because they’ve allowed the second-most runs in the league. They’ve done so even though their rotation has a perfectly respectable 4.21 ERA. The bullpen, on the other hand, has a 7.96 ERA, and has allowed more than two baserunners per inning.
Karl Marx once wrote that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Marx never delineated the third step, which is unfortunate, as we entered the farce stage sometime last summer. And speaking of Communism, when your poor beleaguered beat reporter suggests that the best way to deal with your bullpen is “lining them all up like the Romanovs” – you might have a problem. (A more recent version of that article has softened the opening line a bit. Bob Dutton has watched damn near every Royals game this century; I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he finally snapped.)
That the Royals have a massive bullpen problem should not be a surprise to anyone. They finished last season with a massive leaking hole between their starters and Joakim Soria, and then over the offseason, while they were signing hitters like they were a kid in an outfielder store, they didn’t make a single move to address their bullpen. Every single member of their bullpen today was in their bullpen at the end of last season, with two exceptions: Luis Mendoza, who was picked up right before the season after he couldn’t make the Rangers staff, because the Royals felt that one Roman Colon just wasn’t enough; and John Parrish, a left-hander who missed all of 2009 with arm surgery.
It’s telling that Parrish has been the only middle reliever who’s been even remotely effective. Parrish has retired all 10 batters he’s faced, including a host of tough left-handed hitters he was brought in specifically to face: he made four one-batter appearances before being left in to pitch two perfect innings in his last outing.
It’s also telling that Soria has also faced only 10 batters all season – along with Parrish, the fewest of any reliever on the roster. Colon has faced 14 of them. Robinson Tejeda has faced 21 batters (and walked only 6!). LUIS MENDOZA has faced 18. But the best reliever on the squad by a factor of about 100, one of the three best relievers in the history of the franchise, has faced only ten. If he doesn’t pitch again soon, the Royals may need to shut him down for the rest of the season to keep him healthy.
So the problems with the bullpen should not be a surprise. Nor should it be a surprise that finding solutions to this problem are awfully difficult in mid-April. Trading for middle relief is almost always a fool’s enterprise, and while there are a few decent free agents still looking for a home, I’m not aware of any quality relievers who are still on the open market. (If there were, Ed Wade would have signed them already.)
Nevertheless, there a few simple things that can be done:
Stop carrying eight relievers. This might be the funniest sub-plot of the Royals’ bullpen – that the Royals think that quantity can somehow substitute for quality. It brings to mind the old woman’s complaint to a restaurant that “the food is terrible, and the portions are so small.” Maybe we don’t have any good relievers – but at least we have lots of bad ones!
It’s not like the Royals have a rotation that needs coddling. With the exception of Meche’s disaster start, the team’s starter has gone at least 5.2 innings in every start. The idea that any team needs eight relievers to get the last ten outs of each ballgame is laughable. The idea that a team needs an eighth reliever more than a fourth bench player is repugnant.
The solution here is obvious. Luis Mendoza has a career 8.32 ERA in the majors. He has a career 4.67 ERA IN TRIPLE-A. He has a career 5.06 ERA IN DOUBLE-A. I could pull out a host of more advanced statistics, but really, does anything more need to be said? He sucks. The Royals have nothing invested in him. Designate him for assignment, and if by some miracle another team claims him – count your blessings.
In his place, bring up a hitter. I know that Kendall’s hitting .310 at the moment, but between him and Betancourt, there are going to be a lot of opportunities for opposing teams to use a tough right-handed pitcher on two of the weakest hitters in baseball. In six games in Omaha, Kila Ka’aihue already has three homers and eight walks. He would give opposing pitchers fits as a lefty Three True Outcomes hitter off the bench, occasional fill-in at first base at DH, and give the Royals an opportunity to evaluate him as a potential everyday player next year.
Replacing Mendoza with Ka’aihue is an astonishingly common-sense move to make. Which is why I don’t expect it will happen.
Release Roman Colon. I’ve already called Roman Colon “the Yuniesky Betancourt of the bullpen”, and frankly that might not be fair to Yuni. Betancourt, at least, was at one time a reasonably useful player whose skills have simply regressed over the past 3 years. Colon, on the other hand, has never been a usable major-league pitcher. In 2004, he had a 3.38 ERA in all of 19 innings for the Braves, and that was his high-water mark. The following year he had a 5.58 ERA; in 2006, he had a 4.89 ERA; and he spent all of 2007 and 2008 in the minors. (Where he was basically kicked out of the Tigers’ organization after breaking a teammate’s jaw in a fight, remember. Classy.)
While in the minors he was no better – he had a 4.43 ERA in 2007, and a 4.74 ERA in 2008. He was better in 2009, with a 2.84 ERA for Omaha, but only pitched 25 innings before the Royals hustled him to the majors.
Colon has not remotely approached a major-league caliber pitcher in at least six years – but the Royals have treated him like God’s Gift to Pitching since the moment they acquired him, overlooking both his off-field incident and the fact that he doesn’t get anyone out. This spring, the Royals raved about his new slider and boasted that it would take him to a new level.
Well, that slider has been so intimidating that of those 14 batters he’s faced, he’s struck out exactly one of them. He’s walked two, hit a batter, and allowed 5 hits. The Royals are right: he’s not the same pitcher he was last year. He’s worse.
The same scouting eye that tells the Royals that Yuniesky Betancourt’s lateral range is just fine must be the same eye that tells the Royals that Roman Colon’s stuff is good enough to get hitters out. The difference is that the Royals haven’t guaranteed millions of dollars to Colon. Ship him out, and bring in someone who has actually proven he can retire major-league – or at least minor-league – hitters.
Bring up Carlos Rosa. The Royals have many intriguing minor-league relievers, but Rosa is probably the only one who is ready for the majors.
Blake Wood has seen his stuff improve significantly since moving to the pen this spring, but he has all of eight relief appearances in his career.
Chris Hayes would be the third- or fourth-best reliever on the roster immediately, but he has not pitched at all this season. One source has told me that he’s on the minor-league DL. Another source, though, swears that Disco isn’t hurt at all, and that the Royals are playing shenanigans with the DL because they don’t have enough Triple-A roster spots and they deemed Hayes to be expendable. The Royals have gone out of their way to avoid giving Hayes an opportunity, so this wouldn’t surprise me at all.
The idea of giving Aaron Crow and Mike Montgomery an apprenticeship in the bullpen before graduating to the rotation is an inspired one. But both are still a few months away from being ready for that sort of promotion, and I’d worry that success in that role would only tempt the Royals into keeping them in a relief role for the long term.
I don’t trust Victor Marte one bit, and Greg Holland needs more seasoning. Louis Coleman and Brandon Sisk are very intriguing but not quite ready. That leaves only Rosa.
Rosa made the move from the rotation to the bullpen last season, and was terrible at first; through the end of June he gave up 21 walks and 5 homers in 38 innings. But from July onward he was much better, allowing just 11 walks and one homer in 34 innings, while striking out 39. This year he has thrown four scoreless innings, though he blew the save in his last outing by allowing inherited runners to score. He has a very live fastball in the mid-90s, but his secondary stuff needs work. He’s not going to be a savior, or even a primary set-up man at first, but at least he can come in with a 5-1 run lead in the seventh inning and get some outs, unlikely the guy he would be replacing.
Pray. Maybe Juan Cruz will start to pitch like he did prior to becoming a Royal. Maybe Kyle Farnsworth will pitch as well with the game on the line as he does in garbage time. Maybe Robinson Tejeda will throw strike one. Maybe Joakim Soria can throw 150 innings this year. At this point, all we can do is put our faith in God that things will get better. Because we can no longer put faith in our front office.