The Royals’ closer situation is distinctly different from those of the teams already previewed in this series on bullpens for likely non-contenders. The Marlins and Diamondbacks will almost certainly be auditioning relievers for various roles — including closer — in spring training. Will Smith figures to be the Giants’ opening day closer if he sticks around, but it seem likely he will get dealt. The same goes for the Orioles and Mychal Givens, and if they don’t trade their incumbent closer this spring, it could easily happen at some point during the season.
Wily Peralta would appear to be the Royals’ equivalent of Givens. He took over as the team’s closer shortly after Kelvin Herrera was traded to the Nationals in last June, and he converted all 14 of his save chances. But whereas Givens’ most likely path to losing his job is getting traded to a team that uses him in a different role, Peralta could get ousted as closer without leaving Kansas City. While he throws hard and, at least in 2018, got a lot of weak ground ball contact, there is little else in Peralta’s skill set that suggests he can be a consistently effective closer.
If Peralta hits a snag in 2019, is there an obvious successor to take over the ninth-inning role? In addition to breaking down Peralta’s credentials, we will take a look at those of his potential challengers.
The good: As mentioned above, Peralta was far better than average at getting opponents to hit weak grounders. According to xStats, he compiled a 32.2 percent dribbler rate (measuring the least harmful type of ground ball contact), which was well above the major league rate of 24.6 percent. Though Peralta only managed a 12.7 percent SwStr% on his slider, it was still an effective pitch, limiting opponents to a .139 Avg and .222 wOBA.
The bad: Peralta’s 23.5 percent strikeout rate is not particularly good for a closer, but it would not be a concern if he demonstrated another way to consistently get outs. However, his control was poor (37.9 percent Zone%), and that showed up in the form of a 15.4 percent walk rate. He also got rocked when airborne contact was made. Of pitchers who allowed at least 80 batted balls, only Dillon Peters, Matt Shoemaker and Andrew Triggs yielded a higher exit velocity on flies and liners than Peralta’s 95.9 mph (per Statcast).
The outlook: Though Peralta finished with a decent 3.67 ERA in 2018, his FIP, xFIP and SIERA all sat above 4.60. We should expect a much higher ERA from Peralta this season, and it’s hard to see him keeping his job with a mark in the mid-to-upper 4.00s.
The good: Hill had the lowest xFIP (3.31) of any Royals reliever last season, and only Herrera accumulated more WAR. He had elite-level control (49.0 percent Zone%) and posted the fourth-highest soft contact rate (29.3 percent) and eighth-highest ground ball rate (61.8 percent) of any pitcher with at least 40 innings. The rookie left-hander rounded into form in the second half, compiling a 2.45 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and a 20.3 percent called strike rate.
The bad: If Hill does not improve on his 8.1 percent SwStr%, he could regress from an already-pedestrian 21.2 percent strikeout rate. As long as he relies heavily on his sinker, it will be difficult for him to improve in this critical area.
The outlook: For fantasy purposes, it’s ideal for a closer to have a high SwStr%, but it’s not necessary for success or even for a decent strikeout rate. In 2017, Shane Greene recorded a 2.66 ERA, nine saves, 14 holds and a 25.8 percent K-rate despite an 8.6 percent SwStr%, as he was able to induce called strikes at a hefty 21.2 percent rate. Hill has a better skill set than Peralta, and while he would not be a low-risk closer, he could have some value and staying power in that role.
The good: McCarthy was better than Hill at getting whiffs last season, putting up a 10.0 percent SwStr%, and he was superior to both Hill and Peralta in terms of ground ball rate (64.3 percent). While his control was mediocre (42.9 percent Zone%), McCarthy was sufficiently good at getting hitters to chase out-of-zone pitches (35.2 percent O-Swing%) to restrict his walk rate to 6.8 percent.
The bad: Though McCarthy got swings-and-misses more frequently than Hill, his rate (which was a career high) was still on the low side for a potential closer. He has never been adept at freezing batters, so there are no signs that he is due to improve upon a poor 15.1 percent career strikeout rate.
The outlook: Because McCarthy was effective in a setup role last season (3.25 ERA, 15 holds), he ought to be considered as a possible replacement for Peralta, should one be needed. With such a low strikeout rate, he wouldn’t have much margin for error, and he would still be a deep league option due to the lack of Ks.
The good: The hard-throwing prospect transitioned to a relief role last season, and in 36 relief appearances, he registered a 32.6 percent strikeout rate and a 13.1 percent SwStr% with Triple-A Omaha. He also continued a long-standing trend of avoiding pulled flyballs, posting a rate that was roughly two-thirds of the Pacific Coast League average (per StatCorner). That may have helped Staumont to allow only four home runs in 74.1 innings.
The bad: Staumont’s issues with walks followed him into the bullpen. He did set a career-low with his 2018 walk rate, but it was still a stratospheric 15.8 percent.
The outlook: The 25-year-old righty appears to be a long shot to close at any point in 2019, but if he can somehow reduce his walk rate substantially, he would be the Royals’ best option by far.
The good: The frequently-injured Zimmer missed the 2018 season, but after training for several months at Driveline Baseball, he is throwing without pain and with greater velocity. When he has been at his best, Zimmer has been able to rack up strikeouts while maintaining a decent walk rate.
The bad: Though he made progress in 2018, it’s still hard to trust that Zimmer will stay healthy for a full season. He signed a split contract earlier this month, so he could finally make his major league debut this year, but it’s not yet clear what role he might fill.
The outlook: Zimmer is probably an even bigger long shot to close than Staumont, and he is likely to be off owners’ radars in redraft leagues, so there is no need to draft him. His progress will be worth tracking, and given the potential void Ned Yost could face in the ninth inning, there is some potential for Zimmer to wind up with some saves.
Who, if anyone, do you think could emerge as a steady closer in K.C., and why? Let me know in the comments section…
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.