Losing a closer of the caliber of Greg Holland is never the sort of news you want to hear, but if there’s one team that should be ready to roll with this latest punch, it is the Kansas City Royals. While we don’t know yet how long Holland will be out, moving Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, their other late-game aces, back an inning apiece isn’t going to radically alter their fortunes, not in the span of two weeks or even two months.
Consider last season’s performance: Holland had a 1.83 FIP, a WHIP of 0.9, and struck out 37.5 percent of all batters, and all of that helped him notch 46 saves in 48 opportunities. Hard to top, sure, but Davis had a 1.19 FIP, 0.8 WHIP, struck out 39.1 percent of all batters, and between saves and holds, protected 36 of 39 leads in his opportunities as Holland’s setup man. So if you’re simply thinking about this problem in terms of converting ninth-inning leads into wins, it shouldn’t be a big deal.
The problem is the follow-on effect of bumping Davis into the save-generating role, with Herrera getting sucked into later-game situations to set up Davis, leaving you to ask who, effectively, replaces Herrera. Here, I think you need to tip your cap to GM Dayton Moore, because he didn’t settle for what he had in hand during the offseason. Re-signing veteran Jason Frasor was as good an idea as it was to trade for him down the stretch last year. Add in a duo of solidly useful journeymen in lefty Franklin Morales and Chris Young for the middle innings and it’s an experienced relief crew without all that many question marks. It’s a group that you’d expect to find on a defending pennant-winner that’s aiming to win another.
But there is one wild card. Kansas City is where you’ll find former Phillies closer Ryan Madson -- remember him? -- back in action for the first time since 2011 because of a shredded elbow. That seems like an extremely slow recovery, but Madson didn’t just need Tommy John surgery; his UCL didn’t just tear, it had come completely off the bone. But now that he’s back in action, Madson’s comeback isn’t just a random bit of roster flotsam washing up with one club before washing out; his four-seam fastball is sitting at 94 mph and he’s looked sharp in his initial work. If his upside possibility is a return to elite reliever, the Royals might not have a problem inning to worry about at any time in-game.
My other random thought about this is that Holland’s recent dominance reflects how few “established closers” there are these days -- or how quickly you can pick up the label. With just two full seasons in the closer’s role, Holland already ranks 13th among active pitchers in career saves. Among the guys ahead of him, some -- such as Jim Johnson or Kevin Gregg -- might never log another save. Behind him, there’s a big group of other recently established quality closers, guys such as Kenley Jansen and Glen Perkins and Addison Reed. Last year, 17 pitchers had 30-save seasons, which does a lot to suggest that save tallies just describe opportunities, not ability, because there are clearly a lot of guys capable of ringing up big save numbers in short order. Given the opportunity to do more than set up Holland, Wade Davis would quickly be among them.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.