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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Here, in simplified terms,
is the Kansas City Royals' blueprint to winning the World Series:
• Build a fireproof bullpen.
• Construct an elite defense that saves runs and fits the home ballpark.
• Fill the lineup with savvy, athletic players.
• Cut down on strikeouts, put the ball in play and don't rely too much on the longball.
• Don't overspend on players.
• Endeavor to create a tight-knit clubhouse.
As baseball's hot stove season heated up at the winter meetings last week, were teams following K.C.'s master plan? The answer is a qualified yes.
While it's true that the Arizona Diamondbacks gave free-agent starter Zack Greinke a six-year contract worth $206.5 million, and the Chicago Cubs — as reported by numerous outlets — nabbed outfielder Jayson Heyward for $184 million over eight years, the Royals' more modest route to success has caught on.
The idea of building a strong relief corps with power arms that can take over a game in the sixth or seventh inning is certainly in vogue.
"I think you're seeing a trend toward that focus on bullpens," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "I know that the years that we've been good and we've been playoff teams, we've had good bullpens.
"Going back to my days when I was (in Colorado) as a player in (1995), we had a real good bullpen. We figured: 'Come the sixth inning, we'll pass the ball around our bullpen, and our 'pen is going to beat yours.' "
This is a good time to be a reliever.
Last week the Rockies signed 33-year-old Jason Motte to a two-year contract worth $10 million and Chad Qualls, 37, for two years and $6 million.
Within the last 10 days, 11 relievers signed multiyear deals: Darren O'Day, Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson, Tony Sipp, Shawn Kelley, Mark Lowe, John Axford, Jonathan Broxton, Oliver Perez, Motte and Qualls. The going rate for quality bullpen arms has been established at about $4 million to $8 million per season.
Money matters in K.C.
The Boston Red Sox, believing they can get back into contention in 2016, struck early to bolster their bullpen. Last month, they acquired four-time all-star closer Craig Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres in exchange for four prospects. Now Boston has a top-of-the-line finisher, with former Red Sox closer Koji Uehara pitching the eighth inning and Junichi Tazawa pitching the seventh. It's not on par with the Royals, but it's an upgrade for Boston.
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The Royals' $113 million opening-day payroll ranked 17th in the majors in 2015, and that was downright generous by their historic standards. So general manager Dayton Moore knows he must spend wisely.
"The bullpen has always been an area where money goes a little bit further," Moore said. "So you try to get impact there."
The Royals don't exactly play "small ball," but they certainly don't field a lineup of muscled sluggers. Moore emphasizes signing and developing athletic players with good contact skills and stresses the importance of putting the ball in play. In addition to finishing last in the majors in strikeouts in 2014 and 2015, the Royals also ranked last in walks in 2014 and second-to-last in 2015, ahead of only the lowly Miami Marlins.
"We don't like to wait around," first baseman Eric Hosmer said during the World Series. "We feel that when a pitcher's ahead, he tries to make his pitches have more depth on them or put them in a spot to get us to chase. If we go up there with the approach that one of the first couple pitches you're going to get is probably going to be the best one to drive, and try to do some damage with it, I think that results in a lot less strikeouts."
The rest of baseball took notice.
"(Teams) do pay attention to what Kansas City did," Twins manager Paul Molitor said last week at the winter meetings. "Two years ago it was their bullpen philosophy and this year it was their offensive efficiency for not striking out and putting the ball in play."
"Best for our team"
The Angels might have been influenced by Kansas City's bulletproof defense when they traded for brilliant Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons. The cost was steep — veteran shortstop Erick Aybar and two legitimate starting-pitching prospects — but the Angels netted one of the best fielders in baseball.
While the Royals have been praised for their economical approach to building a champion, they didn't set out to change the face of the game.
"To be honest, we just do what we think is best for our team," Moore said.
In the process, the Royals created team chemistry that's proved to have staying power.
"I thought from the minute we lost the World Series last year — from the day that game was over — I thought this was a team that (could) win the World Series," manager Ned Yost said.
"From Day One, their energy, their intensity, their focus never wavered. I'd never been on a team that's played 162 games where their energy never wavered for one instance throughout the entire year. So they were focused on what they wanted to accomplish. They knew what they wanted to accomplish."