I’m officially over spring training.
As I sat passively watching a 16-10 exhibition game on Tuesday, the realization struck me these contests just aren’t all that fun. Sure, it’s great to get a look at the guys after five months of no baseball. But coming from the high and the tension of the postseason, it’s just weird that there’s baseball on my television and I’m not emotionally invested. You want to celebrate a Mike Moustakas moon shot to center, but in the big picture, what does it really matter? Hot springs seldom carry over to a cold regular season afternoon in Detroit. And even if it did, would you remember?
About the only thing that interests me at this point in the spring is the battle for roster spots coming down to the end of camp. The Royals always bring a little bit of the unknown on this topic. This year, it appears the surprise is Chien-Ming Wang. Wang hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013, is 36, and found new life on a sinker. It’s like he dove into the Fountain of Youth and it was filled with Red Bull.
Most teams will invite a major league veteran to camp on a minor league deal that gives the player an opt out at some point if they’re not going to be placed on the 40-man roster. It’s a courtesy to these guys who may not want to spend a few months in the minors, waiting for a shot that may never come. We’ve seen the opt out exercised in the case of Dillon Gee, who was placed on the roster. Most recently, it was Brian Duensing, who was let go by the team.
It was in this flurry of Duensing moves (Peter Moylan and Clint Barmes were released on the same day) that put Wang in the pole position to make the roster. It’s a bit of a surprise given that, as chronicled on this site, there was a way to keep plenty of pitching inventory. Wang, befitting his veteran status carries an opt out. Given his most recent independent league pitching status, that opt out isn’t until May 1.
So the Royals have a couple of ways to look at their roster as they pull it together for Opening Day. Given the plethora of off days early in the month, they can ride with just 11 pitchers. That seems heretical in this day and age of specialization. It’s the 12-man bullpen or bust. Count me among the legion who thinks that 12th pitcher is surplus. I’d rather see some flexibility on the bench. But this is Ned Yost’s club. And Ned Yost doesn’t give a damn.
Even early in the season, an extra bat on the bench would be wasted. Yost pinch hits less than any other manager. Give him another bat, he probably wouldn’t use it. The arm, though. That’s different. Remember early last summer how some were worried that the vaunted bullpen was overworked? How they may break down because the starters weren’t going deep into games? Well, it didn’t. (Aside from Greg Holland, who was already pitching on a shredded elbow.) Yost’s deep pen allowed him to mix and match to keep guys fresh. By the time October rolled around, the key arms didn’t have any more mileage on them than necessary. We can complain about how the manager is leaning too heavily on a player like Salvador Perez, but when it comes to his bullpen, Yost has really seemed to have figured out optimal usage.
The Royals always like to throw a curve, though and maybe they will break with 11 pitchers. Wang’s May 1 opt out means they can stash him in Triple-A for the first handful of games and then bring him up when they need their fifth starter for the first time.
So who are the bench bats? We already know Drew Butera will get the backup duties behind the plate. Which means we will see him maybe once every three weeks. Good work if you can get it. It looks as though Reymond Fuentes and Paulo Orlando will form the right field platoon. Christian Colon gets the backup infield role. Word is the final spot could come down to pinch-runner Terrance Gore or all-around utility man Whit Merrifield. Normally, it would make sense to rail against the insanity of carrying a pinch-runner on the roster at the start of the season. But this is the Royals and this is Yost’s team. As noted, he doesn’t pinch hit. He does like to pinch run. With Merrifield not on the 40-man, but Gore already on the roster, that scenario of carrying the speedster over the Swiss Army knife has a better chance of happening.
With the Tim Collins injury, the Royals will have one spot open on their 40-man. They have two players they are considering adding. See how it can be difficult building the end of the bench and the end of the bullpen?
If you forced me, I’d wager the Royals will start with Wang and Gore on the roster. Merrifield (along with Cody Decker and Travis Snyder as other bench options) are victims of the numbers game at least to start.
But predicting how the Royals will stack their roster is usually foolish. At this point in the spring, it’s about all we have to do until the real games start.