Bullpens get the Royal treat­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

bal­ti­more — In the sum­mer of 2015, when the Kansas City Roy­als thought they had a cham­pi­onship-cal­iber club, an­chored by one of the most bru­tally ef­fi­cient bullpens in re­cent mem­ory, they made a pair of splashy dead­line trades de­signed to push them over the top. In came ace right-han­der Johnny Cueto and su­per-util­ity man Ben Zo­brist, who went on to be­come two of the he­roes of the Roy­als’ march to their first World Se­ries ti­tle in 30 years.

But times have changed in these past 24 months, both for the Roy­als and all of base­ball.

Nowa­days, and in no small part be­cause of the ex­am­ple the 2014-15 Roy­als set in the sci­ence of short­en­ing games, ev­ery con­tender seems to be look­ing for the same thing at the trade dead­line: dom­i­nant bullpen arms. While only a hand­ful of im­pact bats and front-line start­ing pitch­ers changed teams at this year’s dead­line, nearly two dozen re­liev­ers did so.

Some teams, such as the New York Yan­kees, locked in a tight di­vi­sion race, needed bullpen help just to get them­selves to the play­offs, while oth­ers, such as the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, were all but as­sured of a play­off spot but needed the beefed-up bullpen for Oc­to­ber, when the game be­comes even more bullpen-cen­tered. That’s some­thing for which the Roy­als, with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, claim credit.

“I think we kind of opened the door to all that in ’14 and ’15,” Roy­als Man­ager Ned Yost said in ref­er­ence to the fran­chise’s back-to-back Amer­i­can League pen­nant-win­ners. “[Teams] saw how suc­cess­ful you could be build­ing a pitch­ing staff from the back end.”

This year, the Roy­als them­selves, with a bullpen that has suf­fered bouts of in­con­sis­tency, were one of the con­tenders hoard­ing re­lief arms at the dead­line. They emerged with two, get­ting righthander Bran­don Mau­rer and left-han­der Ryan Buchter from the San Diego Padres in a six-player trade on July 24 that also brought starter Trevor Cahill.

“Up­grad­ing the bullpen,” Yost said, “was a big piece for us.”

The Roy­als have had the strangest of sea­sons in 2017, open­ing with a dis­as­trous 7-16 April that ended on a nine-game los­ing streak and in which their of­fense scored only 63 runs all month. Well into May, when they bot­tomed out at 10-20, and even June, when they first clawed their way back to .500, the Roy­als looked like a fran­chise stag­ger­ing to the end of an era.

Some of the last re­main­ing core pieces of the 2014-15 World Se­ries teams are ap­proach­ing free agency at the end of this sea­son — a group that in­cludes Lorenzo Cain, Al­cides Es­co­bar, Eric Hos­mer, Mike Mous­takas and Jason Var­gas — and other teams were be­gin­ning to cir­cle the Roy­als like vul­tures in prepa­ra­tion for a po­ten­tial fire sale ahead of the July 31 trade dead­line.

“We just weren’t play­ing good base­ball. There was noth­ing crazy about it,” said Roy­als left-han­der Danny Duffy, now in his sev­enth sea­son with the team. “Teams go through bad stretches all the time. But it was so dang early. It helped that it was early — you weren’t in a time of year when every­one was drag­ging. We went ahead and got our re­ally bad stretch out of the way.”

But as a 17-9 June gave way to a 16-10 July — a two-month stretch in which only the Los An­ge­les Dodgers posted a bet­ter record — the Roy­als de­clared them­selves all in on 2017. When the trade dead­line came, the Roy­als were buy­ers in­stead of sell­ers. In two deals, Gen­eral Man­ager Day­ton Moore landed Mau­rer, Buchter and Cahill from San Diego and out­fielder Melky Cabr­era from the Chicago White Sox. Cabr­era has been hit­ting in the third spot in the Roy­als’ lineup since his ar­rival.

“Ev­ery­body as­sumed af­ter the way we played in April, that’s what this team was,” said sec­ond base­man Whit Mer­ri­field, who has had a break­out sea­son as the Roy­als’ pri­mary lead­off hit­ter. “But we knew we were bet­ter than that. It was just a mat­ter of time.”

The resur­gent Roy­als reached a peak of seven games over .500, at 55-48, in late July, and en­tered Satur­day 56-52 fol­low­ing a three-game sweep at the hands of the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles, in which the Roy­als’ bullpen gave up seven runs in 82/ in­nings. Though they came tan­ta­liz­ingly close to first place in the Amer­i­can League Cen­tral a cou­ple of times in July, en­ter­ing Satur­day they were 31/ games be­hind first-place Cleve­land — which they play 10 times in the sea­son’s fi­nal six weeks — and have seen their lead in the race for the sec­ond AL wild card shrink to a half-game over Tampa Bay.

The Roy­als’ bullpens of 2014-15 re­main some sort of myth­i­cal ideal the rest of base­ball — in­clud­ing 2017 Kansas City — has been chasing ever since. At their best, Kelvin Her­rera, Wade Davis and Greg Hol­land com­bined to form a seam­less, un­touch­able sev­enth-eighth-ninth com­bi­na­tion — with additional con­tri­bu­tions in the mid­dle in­nings from a ro­tat­ing cast of hard throw­ers — that helped usher in the cur­rent age of bullpen supremacy across the league. The trend may have found its ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion with the 2016 Cleve­land In­di­ans, who ac­quired bullpen ace An­drew Miller at the trade dead­line that July, but it started in Kansas City.

“When they had Kelvin in the sev­enth, Wade in the eighth and Hol­land in the ninth — it was just lights out,” said vet­eran re­liever Peter Moy­lan, who came to the Roy­als in 2016. “What you’re see­ing in the game now, the way teams are re­think­ing their bullpens and putting all their em­pha­sis on build­ing a great one, I think it all started with the Roy­als.”

But the Roy­als traded Davis to the Chicago Cubs at the end of 2016, and Hol­land, af­ter miss­ing all of 2016 fol­low­ing el­bow surgery, signed with the Colorado Rock­ies as a free agent in Jan­uary. Both are hav­ing ex­cel­lent 2017 sea­sons as the closers for teams pointed to­ward the post­sea­son. All that’s left of the Roy­als’ holy late-in­ning tri­umvi­rate is Her­rera, who is now their closer but who hasn’t been the same dom­i­nant force he was the pre­vi­ous three years.

Piec­ing to­gether the nec­es­sary outs to close out a game hasn’t been nearly so easy for Yost and the Roy­als since the hey­day of Her­rera/Davis/Hol­land came to an end. These days, the Roy­als’ bullpen is a pa­rade of lefty-lefty and righty-righty matchups, in­stead of a three-man march through the sev­enth, eighth and ninth in­nings. It is quan­tity over qual­ity.

“We just have to mix and match now,” Yost said of his bullpen, con­trast­ing it to the ones he had in 2014-15. “It’s not so much a cut-and-dried sce­nario, where you go boom-boom-boom. We have arms down there that are qual­ity arms, and the fo­cus is on try­ing to keep every­one healthy and their work­loads bal­anced go­ing into Septem­ber.”

More than ever, that’s what base­ball is in 2017, with ev­ery­body hoard­ing re­liev­ers and piec­ing to­gether late-in­ning outs with the weapons at hand. It’s great if you have a three-headed mon­ster like Her­rera-Davis-Hol­land, but for ev­ery­body else, in­clud­ing the 2017 Kansas City Roy­als, it’s much more com­pli­cated than that.

PAUL SANCYA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kansas City ac­quired re­liever Bran­don Mau­rer last month in a trade with San Diego. The team’s bullpen hasn’t been as strong as it was in re­cent years.

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