Almost every team heads into a season with one or two bullpen positions up for grabs, and in the Royals case, that number is probably closer to four. The teams used a total of 19 relievers in 2010, and racked up the worst bullpen ERA in the American League last year. In short, the unit was a disaster.
Obviously the bullpen will be anchored by Joakim Soria who is one of baseballs five best - and probably it's most unheralded - closers. Setting him up will be Robinson Tejada, a solid if unspectacular middle reliever with swing and miss stuff and control issues. Also likely to be in the bullpen is Blake Wood who had a solid showing in his rookie campaign last year and profiles as a ground ball, pitch to contact middle reliever.
Beyond that however, it's really anyone's guess. Which isn't to say there aren't options. While Kansas City's bullpen was a nightmare carousel of mediocrity in 2011, Kansas City's phenomenal farm system has help at hand. Between a bevy of starting pitching prospects who could wet their feet in the bullpen, and another full handful of legitimate relief prospects, there are plenty of arms to go around.
It's likely that the teams keeps it's highest ranking starting prospects in the minors to get more seasoning - guys like Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, and Jake Odorizzi - there are still others like Will Smith, Danny Duffy and Aaron Crow who have a realistic chance at opening the 2011 season in the Royals bullpen. Joining Duffy and Crow as likely options will be the recently acquired, flame throwing Jeremy Jeffress, Tim Collins, and Louis Coleman. The team also returns a bevy of other pitchers who had an impact on the 2010 season.
Of the pitchers who's names I just rattled off, only the right handed Crow and Jeffress are currently on the 40-man roster. Therefor, almost by default, they are the most likely to win the job out of the gate, as the team wouldn't have to give up anyone in order to keep them on the team. Other likely candidates currently on the 40-man would be Kanekoa Texiera, Greg Holland, and Kevin Pucetas.
Whereas Pucetas and Texiera are options for long-relief/mop-up roles, the hard-throwing Holland actually has a chance to be a very good reliever. He debuted last year for the Royals and while we didn't get to see much of him, he averaged 95.8mph with his fastball and showed a good hard slider that was really tough on righties who he demolished to the tune of a 12.60 K/9 rate. He struggles more against lefties, but he should still be at least moderately effective against them in the long run.
Giving Jeffress a long, hard look is likely as well. Not only is he on the 40-man, but with two drug suspensions under his belt (a third would result in a life-time ban) and on his last option season, the guy should get a look. Jeffress throws gas (95.4mph), and has a solid curveball, though he doesn't always know where either pitch is going. He managed to get a cup of coffee with the Brewers last year and showed that his ability to miss bats, combined with strong ground ball rates should make him an effective option out of the bullpen even if he never makes significant improvements to his very shaky command.
What the team really lacks, are solid left-handed options currently on the 40-man. If we assume that the team chooses to carry Holland and Jeffress, as well as one of the Texiera/Pucetas pair, that leaves one spot open, and the team needs ta lefty.
To me, the two most logical candidates to fill that role would be Tim Collins, and Danny Duffy. Given that Duffy is one of the teams four vaunted left-handed starters, and with Collins having far more experience at the upper-reaches of the Minors Leagues, my money would be on Collins. The team will almost certainly want to make sure that Duffy's development isn't derailed by not being able to take the ball every fifth day and losing the reps needed for development in the bullpen. Of course, both will be given a long look during spring training and there is a chance that if Duffy shows good enough stuff, that he could be the first of the Royals impressive corps of starting pitchers to reach the majors. Albeit as a reliever.
So that's it. My seven right now would be Soria, Tejada, Holland, Jeffress, Collins, Wood, and Texiera.
Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.