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Royals Add Jonathan Broxton, Flexibility

The Royals can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. The upcoming season may not be the first one since 1985 to see a Kansas City club make the playoffs, but 2011 showed there is exciting talent on hand. The offense scored 730 runs last season and posted a 102 wRC+ despite relying largely on young players. But the pitching… let’s not talk about the pitching.

Dayton Moore has already brought in Jonathan Sanchez as the first piece to a rebuilt Royals pitching staff. Today, he made his second move, bringing in another former NL West Jonathan, signing former Dodger Jonathan Broxton to a one-year deal worth $4 million and another $1 million possible via incentives.

At first glance, it seems like the Royals should be addressing their rotation issues first. It rarely matters how good your bullpen is if your starting rotation can’t get you to the seventh inning, or at least to the sixth. With Sanchez as the assumed opening day starter and Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy behind him, the fifth inning may be a question mark on more than a few days.

Although the addition of Broxton doesn’t directly address these issues, it does give the Royals some flexibility with the talent currently residing in their bullpen. It appears the Royals will be moving 25-year-old Aaron Crow out of the pen and into the rotation for the 2012 season. There is some debate as to whether Crow is the best option for transition into a starter — Joakim Soria is another option — but that will be covered in a later post.

But mostly, this just isn’t a favorable market for the Royals to invest in starting pitching. C.J. Wilson, Roy Oswalt and Mark Buehrle are too old and too expensive to be targets for a young, building team in a small market. Instead, Kansas City would likely be stuck with a Jeff Francis type again — useful in the short run, but hardly a gamechanger.

Broxton, if healthy, can be a major asset even in just 60 innings or so out of the bullpen. If he doesn’t return to form, the risk is minimal — he takes his $4 million dollars and both sides move on with next season’s budget intact. If we see the Broxton of 2006-2010 — the Broxton which compiled 9.5 WAR in five seasons out of the bullpen — the Royals either have an excellent trade chip for the deadline or the backbone of one of baseball’s best bullpens.

The idea of the super-bullpen — much like the one which nearly led the 2010 Padres to a playoff appearance despite a dearth of hitting talent — has already occurred to the Royals brass. With Broxton in tow, the Royals have a back end of Greg Holland, Broxton, and Joakim Soria, one that stacks up as well as any in the league in terms of potential.

Holland posted a 1.80 ERA and a 2.21 FIP in his first major stint as a Royal last season. If Broxton and Soria both return to form, that bullpen will be one of the American League’s best — role players like Everett Teaford, Tim Collins, and Jeremy Jeffress could fill out the front end nicely.

This strategy is, of course, heavily built on the idea of potential. The reality may be that Broxton or Soria or even both are simply shells of their former selves, the bullpen crashes and burns, and the Royals sputter to another 70-win season. But for this year’s Royals to have even a chance of knocking the Detroit Tigers off their perch as AL Central champions, they need everything and more to break their way.

The kind of high-variance, low-risk strategy we see with a “killer bullpen” is one way the Royals can find these breaks. With both Broxton and Soria as potential trade bait should the team fail, and Broxton representing only a short-term investment, there is little to lose for Kansas City. With a little luck and more improvement from the offense, the Royals can try to compete while keeping an eye towards the future as well.