With a week left at their complex in Arizona, the Royals have winnowed their bullpen competition effectively down to a two-man race, with newcomer Brian Flynn vying against four-year veteran Louis Coleman.
Manager Ned Yost indicated southpaw Franklin Morales is still considered a favorite to make the team despite a recent dip in his effectiveness. Yost has identified both Luke Hochevar and Ryan Madson as candidates to make the opening-day roster, but he conceded on Thursday that each man requires additional time in the minor leagues to sharpen up and rebuild arm strength. Hochevar likely will begin the season on a rehabilitation assignment, while Madson will return to live competition for the first time since 2011.
The situation involves a variety of factors, ranging from contractual status to physical readiness to actual on-field performance. In deciding between Coleman and Flynn, the club faces the risk of losing a player they value (Coleman) while elevating a player they have limited history with (Flynn).
Coleman is out of options. Flynn is not. In years past, this reality may have hampered Flynn’s chances of making the club, Yost said. But in 2015, the plain has shifted. The team placed Rule 5 pitcher Jandel Gustave on waivers earlier this week and let San Diego claim him. The time for development at the big-league level has passed.
“You go into starting the year, winning game one is just as important as winning game 162,” Yost said. “So we’re going to have to look at it and try to decide what’s best.”
Flynn, 24, spun another scoreless inning on Wednesday night and trimmed his Cactus League ERA to 1.59. A few innings prior, Coleman yielded his second homer of the spring. His ERA rose to 3.72.
The Royals don’t treat spring-training statistics as sacrosanct. But Flynn continues to open eyes with his pitching. He converted into a bullpen role after years as a middling starter in the minors for Detroit and Miami.
“He looks really good,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He’s been our best pitcher in camp, if you want to break it all down.”
Coleman turns 29 in April. He played a sizable role in the team’s bullpen from 2011 to 2013. He bruised a finger on his pitching hand at the outset of spring training last year and never regained his form. He posted a 5.56 ERA, spent parts of the season in the minors and did not earn a spot on their postseason roster.
Yet the organization still tendered Coleman a contract worth $725,000 for this coming season. The Royals still could designate Coleman for assignment and hope he clears the waiver wire. At this time of year, clubs often lack space on their 40-man rosters. A team would most likely need to covet Coleman enough to cut loose another player from its roster. It is a gambit the Royals completed successfully last spring with Carlos Peguero, who snuck through waivers and spent the entire season in Kansas City’s organization.
Yost was not exactly effusive when asked about Coleman’s status in the competition.
“Still competing,” Yost said. “He’s in the mix.”
He offered an almost identical assessment of Gustave, who had already been claimed by the Padres when Yost spoke on Thursday morning, but the move had not yet been announced.
Yost expressed little concern about the recent outings from Morales. The White Sox tagged him for four runs. After six scoreless outings to start the spring, Morales lugs around an 8.00 ERA. Yost insisted the club still had faith in Morales’ ability, given his history.
“Spring training’ll fool you,” Yost said. “So you go back on track record, a little bit.”
The Royals also expect both Hochevar and Madson to contribute to the club in 2015. Hochevar is scarcely a year removed from Tommy John surgery. He can still best hitters with his fastball and his curveball, but Yost harbors concerns about his readiness for everyday action. Yost indicated “odds are” Hochevar will start the season on a minor-league rehabilitation assignment, most likely in Class AAA Omaha.
“We have to build the endurance in his arm so that we’re not fearful of using him on back-to-back days,” Yost said. “I’m still not there, in my mind, yet. Because he is so important to us. So we just have to go through this next week and decide ‘Can we protect him early?’”
Hochevar likely will team with Madson in Omaha. At 34, Madson has spent the past three seasons in purgatory wrought by Tommy John surgery in 2012. He sat out all of 2014 and has intrigued Kansas City officials with his play. Madson indicated that he still feels rusty competing during at-bats. At times, he said, he has been throwing without thinking.
Madson yielded three runs in his last outing, which swelled his ERA here to 4.50. Yet Yost and Royals officials remain confident in his potential. Madson believes his contract contains an opt-out clause at the end of camp and another around the middle of May. He said he was unsure of the exact dates, because it is not an option he has much considered. A Royals official declined to reveal the dates.
Yost agrees that Madson needs more time to refine his approach. Yost has been impressed with Madson’s occasional ability to fill up the lower half of the strike zone with 92-mph fastballs and wicked change-ups.
“When he does it, he pops your eyes,” Yost said. “When he makes those pitches, you think, ‘Man, if he could consistently do that, there’s no telling what our bullpen’s going to be like.’
“He’s still in the mix for us. And I really think he’s going to help us this year.”