When the Kansas City Royals won the World Series earlier this month after coming up just short in 2014, it spawned an army of articles on how every other team could learn from their success and implement aspects of their blueprint.
In reality, the foundations of Kansas City's rise to the top have been fairly simple: They get good enough performances from starting pitchers, play roundly excellent defense and consistently execute offensively. Perhaps the defining component of the club, though, has been a phenomenal relief corps that turns virtually every late lead into a victory.
Over the last two years, the Royals have gone 138-10 when leading after six frames. There's a certain psychological edge that is gained when you have an array of intimidating power arms at your disposal in the late innings.
Many general managers – and Terry Ryan is one of them – will say that starting pitching is at the core of a winning formula. That's true to an extent, but it's becoming a little less true these days with bullpens growing more specialized and prominent. As evidence, here's where the World Champion Royals saw their starting pitchers rank out of 30 MLB clubs across various categories this year:
The shutdown bullpen made up for their weakness in the rotation to a rather stunning degree, as the Royals still managed to allow fewer runs than all but two AL teams.
The Twins are not likely to have an elite rotation in 2016, but what they lack in top-shelf talent they make up for with quality depth. A group that is solid one-through-five looks like a fairly safe bet. As the Royals have shown, when you combine a good-not-great rotation with a deep and dominant bullpen, you can beat anyone. To me, this is the clearest path to making the Twins a true championship contender in 2016.
So just what will it take for Minnesota's bullpen to elevate to that point? They certainly weren't there this year, ranking 10th in the AL in ERA, eighth in WHIP, and dead last in strikeout rate. Last week, Seth looked at how the unit might come together with the pieces that are currently in place.
Today, I'll piggyback on that post with a look at some factors that will determine Minnesota's chances of fielding a top-tier bullpen next year.
Will Terry Ryan's focus on adding velocity to the bullpen continue?
Since Ryan took over the GM reins once again in 2012, his increased emphasis on acquiring hard-throwing pitchers with strikeout stuff has been impossible to ignore, especially when juxtaposed against his previous tenure.
In his first offseason back at the helm he traded for Alex Meyer and Trevor May. Each of the past few draft classes has included numerous powerful college arms that profile as late-inning relievers. This year, five of the six highest fastball velocities among Twins relievers belonged to Meyer, May, J.R. Graham (acquired by Ryan in the Rule 5 draft last year), Kevin Jepsen (acquired by Ryan at the deadline this year) and Ryan Pressly (acquired by Ryan in the Rule 5 draft two years ago).
Last week, the club's 40-man roster juggling included outrighting A.J. Achter, whose upper-80s heater belied his outstanding minor-league results, while adding several raw young arms that can approach triple-digits, including J.T. Chargois, Yorman Landa, Mason Melotakis and Randy Rosario.
Up to this point, the approach hasn't really paid off yet, but as long as the front office continues to prioritize these types of players, it will bode well for the bullpen's outlook.
Can Glen Perkins return to form?
It's probably the biggest question in this equation. For the majority of the last five seasons Perkins has been easily the most reliable and overpowering reliever on the Twins, so seeing him devolve into a hittable mess over the final two months was disheartening to say the least. That's why I ranked his second half as one of the five worst things to happen to the team this year, but as I said in that article, I'm optimistic that Perk will put in the necessary work to get back to his previous standing. He's been too good for too long to let a couple months of health-related struggles change our overall perception of him.
Will the young guns arrive and make an impact?
Several of the hard-throwing hurlers acquired in recent drafts were positioned to break through this season, and that might have contributed to Ryan's conservative approach to addressing the bullpen last winter, when his most high-profile addition was Tim Stauffer. In 2014, a number of different minor-leaguers – such as Nick Burdi, Jake Reed and Zack Jones – put themselves on the fast track by posting fantastic numbers while brandishing upper-90s gas.
Unfortunately, all of them stalled out this year and failed to take meaningful steps forward. Fortunately, they're all still under 25, and both Burdi and Reed are coming off eye-popping performances in the Arizona Fall League. Add into that mix Meyer, whose transition to relief may be permanent, and you've got four fireballers in the high minors with a very real chance of entering the picture and developing into potent weapons next year.
I'll be interested to see whether Jones, who curiously was not among the recent 40-man additions, makes it through the Rule 5 draft next month unclaimed. I suspect he will not.
Can Trevor May become Wade Davis Lite?
Davis is the key to the entire Royals bullpen. He's arguably the best reliever in the American League, and since he hasn't been the the closer for most of the last two seasons, Ned Yost has had the luxury of deploying him at the most critical junctures possible, matching him up against the opposing lineup's best hitters in extremely high-leverage spots.
I'm not saying that May is going to reach the level of Davis, because that's a preposterously high bar, but he has a somewhat similar profile as a former highly regarded prospect who was solid enough as a big-league starter but unleashed a new level of dominance in short relief stints. If he can continue to get sharper as he grows more comfortable in that role, it's not hard to envision May being the best right-handed reliever that the Twins have had since Joe Nathan.
Of course, the question is whether the 26-year-old will indeed be used as a reliever or starter next year. Seth wrote last week that he fully expects May to pitch out of the bullpen all year, and given the circumstances, that's hard to argue.
Will the Twins make another big addition?
Entering the season with a bullpen anchored by Perkins, Jepsen and May would be respectable, but the strength of Kansas City's game-changing bullpen is in its depth. It's not just that they have guys like Davis and Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera at the top, it's that they can dig deeper and call on guys like Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales and Luke Hochevar, who are as good as the setup men on many opposing clubs.
If the Twins truly want a bullpen that sets them apart from the competition, I believe they need to bring on at least one more established premium arm for the late innings, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Perkins. That might mean an aggressive splash in the free agent market or trading for someone like Drew Storen or even Aroldis Chapman. Would Ryan be so bold?