These aren’t your older brother’s Royals. Nope. The days of rolling with veterans with experience just because they’ve been in the trenches is long past. Remember, “It wouldn’t be fair to Dougie?”* That’s been replaced with, “Dougie? Screw him.”
*You may recall in the dark days of the 2005 season the Royals recalled prospect Justin Huber early in the season. He was up with the Royals for a couple of weeks, but only made a couple of cursory appearances. Asked about why Huber wasn’t receiving more playing time, manager Buddy Bell remarked that to do so, “Wouldn’t be fair to Dougie.” He was referring to Doug Mientkiewicz, who at the time was OPSing around .650.
Ahead of the final homestand of the season, Ned Yost met with the media and made the announcement that Greg Holland would be shelved for a few days as he was dealing with elbow soreness. This revelation wasn’t exactly shocking. Anyone who has watched the Royals for any length of time this summer has seen the decline of effectiveness of the Royals closer. His velocity has been dropping since August of last year. It bottomed out in a couple of outings where he was opening appearances with an 89 mph fastball.
This isn’t a mystery. Holland has been a guy who has built strength and gotten stronger as the season progressed. He was on that track through the first three months of the regular season last summer, but stalled out in July. In September, he lost a couple mph off his fastball. The Royals were concerned enough they shut him down with what was termed “triceps soreness” early in the month. He returned and, while he never recovered his velocity, was nails for the Royals in the postseason. Over the three series, Holland threw 11 innings, struck out 15 and allowed just one run.
The Royals certainly hoped that a few months of rest and relaxation would do their closer good. His velocity was low in spring training, but once the Royals broke camp and Holland was throwing in real, live closing situations, his velocity didn’t jump forward like it had in previous seasons. After collecting four saves in the Royals first 10 games of the year, Holland was placed on the DL with a pectoral strain. The thought at the time was, when Holland was fully healed, the velocity would return. It didn’t.
On Tuesday, Yost made it sound like Holland’s elbow was a chronic concern.
“Rest isn’t going to help him,” Yost said of Holland. “He’s been functional through it all year long, and it’s gotten a little more sore the last month or so. But he continues to and pitch through it, and he’s been successful for the most part. We just have other options.”
Other options means Wade Davis. And what a luxury to have. Eliminating the final H of HDH pushes Davis to the ninth and Kelvin Herrera to the eighth. That leaves the seventh inning open. The smart money is on Ryan Madson, with Danny Duffy figuring to get a long look over these final regular season games.
Where does this leave Holland? After his flame out on Friday, I wondered on Twitter if he wasn’t the closer, if the Royals would keep him on the postseason roster. Twitter isn’t the place for nuance, so let me explain my thinking as it stood at the time. It was fairly obvious that Holland, while he had experienced some success ahead of his implosion, that he was a candidate to be removed from his role. And if that happened, my question was, where would he pitch? I didn’t see the Royals swapping Davis and Holland. Nor did I see him throwing in the seventh. If we’ve learned anything about Yost and the Royals in the last year, it’s that they place a premium on having lock-down guys coming out of the bullpen in the final three innings. If Holland isn’t the closer, he’s not a lock-down guy anymore. And if he’s not a lock-down guy, he’s not going to get one of the final three innings. So let’s assume Madson gets the seventh. It’s probably safe to assume Duffy can power ahead of Holland on the pecking order as a sixth inning guy or the seventh inning guy. Remember, in October, Ned is looking for lock-down guys. Also, figure Morales gets the LOOGY role. Then you have Chris Young in long relief.
I’m just having difficulty seeing where Holland fits on the October roster.
And that’s if he’s healthy. But we know he isn’t. According to Yost Holland’s elbow has been barking all year and we know rest isn’t going to help. In other words, if it’s hurting today, it’s going to be hurting tomorrow. And since it’s going to hurt tomorrow, it’s going to hurt in October. The Royals could still stash him on the postseason roster, I suppose. They did something similar with Duffy last year, even though they knew he was hurt. Duffy was there for situations where he felt right and could give the Royals an inning or a little more. They could do the same with Holland. Keep him on the roster and throw him when he feels his best. But you know that means he’s pitching in a blowout or in a low leverage middle inning situation.
The postseason rosters don’t need to be set until October 8, so the Royals have over two weeks to figure out what to do with Holland. One thing is clear, though: The Royals are playing to win. That may sound trite, but moves like bumping a hurt and ineffective Holland from the closer role (along with other moves like dropping Escobar to ninth in the order and removing Infante completely) show a larger understanding of the situation. The division is all but wrapped up (even though it’s taking longer than we had anticipated to get there) and most of September has been about setting up for October. Yost is what I would call a “push button manager.” He wants to find roles for his guys and leave them there. That’s what this month is all about – finding the right lineup and the correct mix in the bullpen. You will see over the next week and a half the team take shape for October.
The Royals understand that once they arrive in the postseason, there are no guarantees. They understand there is no room for egos or sentimentality. They may owe Omar Infante $18 million over the next two seasons, but if he hasn’t been producing and there’s a better option, he’s out. Alcides Escobar has seen his on base percentage slide under .300 and he’s down at the bottom of the order. These are the moves serious teams make. They are moves that are about improving their team and winning now. Bumping Holland from the closer role on Tuesday, gives Yost and Dave Eland the right amount of time to formulate a plan for the bullpen for October. This is their blueprint.
It’s a bummer that this has to happen to Holland, but the Royals are only admitting what we’ve speculated all year: The guy isn’t healthy. I’ll assume whatever is wrong with him is something that can’t get worse, or it’s something that will require surgery no matter what and it’s all about tolerance of pain. If this is the case, the Royals handled the situation perfectly. They allowed him to pitch for as long as he could, before a level of uncertainty in his performances could no longer be ignored. And now, by removing him from the closer spot with a handful of games remaining in the regular season, they have allowed themselves enough time to shuffle the right guys into their new roles.
Holland has been on the mound for many of the Royals greatest moments of the last year. He has been the ninth inning rock in the best bullpen in baseball. He has been the best closer in baseball in each of the previous two seasons. He has been responsible for closing down so many wins for the Royals. The thought he is out of his Saveman role is something I hoped wouldn’t happen, but I’ve accepted it had to happen. And now, with an unknown injury and one final year of arbitration eligibility, it’s possible we have seen the last of Greg Holland in a Royals uniform.
Baseball can be a cruel and unsentimental game sometimes. Holland has given us so much, if this is the end, it’s highly unsatisfactory.