The Royals claimed the 2014 American League crown largely on the strength of their bullpen, which was the best in the league. If they are to remain on the throne and ward off the hopeful usurpations of the other contenders, they’ll have to do so without one of the jewels of their pen.
Closer Greg Holland is out for the rest of the season because of a serious elbow injury, the team announced on Thursday. According to Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star, manager Ned Yost said Holland has a significant tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, an injury that almost always leads to Tommy John surgery.
This explains the version of Holland we’ve seen for the better part of the 2015 season. His velocity has been down for much of the year, reaching a nadir earlier this week when he had a fastball clocked at 87 mph. Yost added that he thinks Holland tore the ligament in August of last year, meaning he helped the Royals reach the World Series while pitching with an unhinged elbow.
For the most part, the Royals have already adjusted to life without Holland. Wade Davis closed for most of August, and he can slide right back into that role. Kelvin Herrera will be his primary setup man, with Ryan Madson serving as the first link in the bridge between the starter and Davis. That remains a bullpen the team can win with, especially with Davis again rating as one of the most unhittable relievers in all of baseball.
Still, the Royals had to be nursing hopes that they’d get at least an 80%- or 85%-healthy Holland to lock down the back end of the bullpen for the playoffs. They may still be in good hands in the eighth and ninth innings, but the initial foundation of the reliever bridge isn’t quite as structurally sound with Madson, and potentially Luke Hochevar, taking the ball first. That could put a lot of pressure on a rotation that has really struggled since the All-Star break. The Royals’ starters have a 4.63 ERA since the break, which ranks 21st in the league. Their 4.38 xFIP is 25th, worse than all other likely playoff teams. The only team still in the race with a worse second-half xFIP is the Angels (4.62).
If there were ever a night in the regular season for Johnny Cueto to come through with a statement outing for the Royals, this would be it. Cueto hasn’t been the rotation savior the Royals need him to be since the team acquired him from the Reds before the non-waiver trade deadline. In eight starts with the Royals, Cueto has a 5.12 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. He has fanned just 45 batters in 63 innings after striking out nearly a batter per inning in the National League. His role as this team’s ace just became that much more important. With the bullpen down one crucial arm, it will be up to him to give the bullpen a virtual night off every time he takes the ball in playoffs. Yost can only ask for so much from Davis and Herrera. If he asks for too much, the Royals may indeed abdicate their AL throne.