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The Royals need bullpen help. Is it on the way? Their approach to the trade deadline

Maybe five feet separated the best story of this Royals season from reality Friday.

Well, five feet or one bullpen.

Take your pick.

The Padres beat the Royals 11-8 in the opener of a three-game series Friday, but only after they took an 11-3 lead into the ninth inning and only after Nelson Velazquez’s potential game-tying home run reached the warning track.

The drive would’ve been out in 21 parks.

An out at Kauffman Stadium.

“I still don’t know how that last ball didn’t go out,” shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. would say.

On one hand, that’s the conversation of the outcome.

On another? A trend.

That bullpen.

The Royals’ surprising season stands at 35-24, even after dropping five of their last six games, so I’ll put this into the context of a bar that’s been severely raised: The ‘pen needs some help, and a very specific type of help, at that.

Strikeouts.

The offense provided such drama in the bottom of the ninth inning that you could almost gloss over the fact that the Royals led after seven innings — before the Padres beat the very best the Royals bullpen has to offer. It was a death-by-a-thousand-singles variety. The first seven Padres hitters in the eighth reached on singles. Four more reached (three of those too were singles) in a 10-run inning.

And you couldn’t help but realize precisely what the Royals needed: a punchout.

Leave the perfectly placed defenders out of the equation.

“They put every ball in play,” Royals manager Matt Quatraro said.

A Padres trait.

A trait of the Royals bullpen too.

The Royals’ pen is dead last in strikeouts per nine innings (7.02) this season. In fact, not a single reliever on the team has thrown at least five innings and averaged at least one strikeout per inning. A power arm — and let me note that doesn’t have to mean a closer — provides a get-of-a-jam-quickly option.

The Royals found themselves forever stuck in the jam Friday. Or, heck, all of May. As a whole, the Royals just finished May with a 5.55 earned run average from their relievers.

But that specific need — the power arm — is not lost the front office.

A phone call Friday gathered together members of the Royals organization from across the country — general manager J.J. Picollo in Kansas City and the team’s professional scouts to his east, north, south and west.

Part of the conversation analyzed potential acquisitions, or at least types of potential acquisitions, but first Picollo asked aloud the simplest of big-picture questions.

Is this sustainable?

Picollo is a believer that the Royals’ first two months of the season is an indicator of their capability over the next four — and perhaps even one extra.

But the answer to his prompt? Unanimous.

Yes.

Turns out, he was setting up his next point.

“Then we’re in a position when we’re going to have to make some hard decisions — like real decisions,” he told the group.

The MLB trade deadline sits eight weeks away, and the Royals are in an unfamiliar position: They’re hunting for the present, not simply the future.

For the first time in, oh, seven years, the Royals reach the summer pondering what and how they can best add to the roster than than which pieces could bring back talent.

The what is a pretty obvious answer, if we’re being honest — a bullpen arm (or two) and an outfield bat. That was long before this week. While Friday is only one game for a team that makes a point of not underscoring any single result, it does underscore that the order of priority rests with those asked to protect some leads.

I know that might not be universal or even popular, given that the Royals outfielders have collectively posted an .604 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), second worst in baseball.

But the Royals have been too heavily dependent on John Schreiber and Angel Zerpa to bridge the gap to closer James McArthur. And there’s a flashing warning sign of the trickle-down effect to it.

Schreiber and McArthur were leading characters in the Padres’ 10-run eighth inning. They’ll survive. But the Royals don’t have a Plan B for when they do not.

Nor an obvious plan for this...

Zerpa appeared in nine games, albeit starts, across all levels a year ago. He made his 25th appearance on Friday.

A year ago, Schreiber had a 2.12 earned run average through mid-July and a 4.85 ERA afterward. In 2022, he had a 0.60 ERA through mid-July, and a 3.60 ERA afterward.

That doesn’t make him unique. It makes him human. Nearly all relievers could benefit in September from some rest in June and July. The Royals’ best bullpen arm is one of them.

How can the Royals offer him some?

The argument here isn’t that they don’t require outfield help — they do. It’s that they need both, and the priority and availability slants toward the bullpen help, and probably toward a very specific type of bullpen help.

But when? How?

The Royals are ready to push forward as buyers — as soon as yesterday — but they’re not ready to significantly alter their farm system. What do I mean by significantly? Well, earlier this month, the Padres traded last year’s first-round pick (outfielder Dillon Head) to acquire leadoff hitter Luis Arraez.

As Picollo remarked to me, “I wouldn’t trade Blake Mitchell,” a reference their own 2023 first-rounder.

That leaves the Royals with a phrase you might hear more than once during June — working to improve in the margins.

That doesn’t mean they’re without urgency, and, again, Friday is a reminder of the need for some help sooner rather than later, even if it’s not the final answer.

Think a sixth- or seventh-inning reliever to help dull the stress of Schreiber, McArthur and Co., rather than an eighth- or ninth-inning reliever to replace them.

For now. The Royals will increase the urgency in July, after a month that requires they play 20 of their 28 games against teams with winning records. They should have a better idea of where they stand in July — and that’s not just a reference to the standings but also a realization that they will have likely exhausted their evaluation on internal options.

Will Klein, who has dominated minor league pitching this year, was also mixed up in the inning from hell. Kris Bubic is pushing toward a return and might alter the options.

The Royals have already tipped their toe into the markets, though they haven’t been greeted with a line of teams ready to throw in the towel on 2024.

Which is exactly why they are focused on the margins. Even if the final picture of relief doesn’t come until later, once more Friday the result sent a pretty clear message for a team that believes it can sustain this success.

They still need a bit of relief now.