The Royals will open their 50th spring training Wednesday under the desert sun here in Arizona. The camp theme will be one of change. A new pitching coach will guide an overhauled staff and a rebuilt bullpen. And this is just the first day. The first full-squad workout is scheduled for Monday.
But for every question, for every rebuilding piece and development method, there are a number certainties. So perhaps that’s the place to start.
“You guys know I’d be lying if I said every position is open,” said Cal Eldred, the Royals’ first-year pitching coach. “That’s not true. We’ve got some guys that have proven they belong here. They’re part of the club. But the challenge really for myself and (bullpen coach) Vance Wilson has been getting to know the new guys we have.”
Among the more proven commodities: The Royals enter camp with Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel penciled into their starting rotation. Nate Karns is returning from season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Jakob Junis will seek to build on a strong rookie season.
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All five will have an opportunity to begin the season in the starting rotation. Yet Karns and Junis could have competition from right-hander Jesse Hahn, acquired from Oakland in a January trade, and right-hander Trevor Oaks, acquired from the Dodgers in a three-team deal that sent Scott Alexander to Los Angeles and Joakim Soria to the White Sox.
For Eldred and the Royals, the more challenging puzzle could come in the bullpen, where the club must replace Alexander, Soria and left-hander Ryan Buchter and fortify a once-dominant unit. The club finished ninth in the American League in bullpen ERA in 2017, posting a 4.24 mark, its worst mark since 2010. In the offseason, the unit also lost Mike Minor to free agency while veteran Peter Moylan remains available.
The process, Eldred said, will begin with right-handers Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer at the back end of the relief corps. The rest of the formula is less certain, more open to competition.
“Well, I think you look at two guys initially, both Kelvin and Brandon,” Eldred said. “They’ve both done that. They both have the kind of stuff that can play at the back end of the bullpen.”
Eldred said Tuesday that the Royals will be open to looking at a number of starters as bullpen pieces. The group will likely include newly acquired right-hander Wily Peralta, who began his career as a promising starter in Milwaukee before his performance waned across the last three seasons. It could also include Hahn, who is out of options and must make the 25-man roster or be exposed to other teams on waivers.
“We may or may not have to do that,” Eldred said. “We got a nice long list of relievers and guys that have done it. And if they’re going to step up, and they can do it, then that’s who will be doing it.”
The Royals will also look at relievers Kevin McCarthy and Brian Flynn, who have spent parts of the last two seasons with the club. And two other bullpen options exist in Rule 5 picks Burch Smith and Brad Keller. Smith, 27, made his major-league debut with the Padres in 2013 before missing all of 2015 and 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Keller, 22, spent last season in the Diamondbacks organization, posting a 4.68 ERA for Class AA Jackson. As Rule 5 selections, both must be carried on the 25-man roster all season or be offered back to their respective teams at half the selection price.
The other pitchers on the 40-man roster include a cadre of young prospects and new faces. Among those: Scott Barlow, who joined the club on a major-league deal after spending his entire career in the Dodgers organization; Heath Fillmyer, who was acquired from Oakland along with Hahn in the deal that sent Brandon Moss and Buchter to the A’s; Sam Gaviglio, who returns after a stint in the rotation late last season; and former top prospect Kyle Zimmer, who is hoping for better health.
For now, Eldred is still learning each pitcher, he said, studying his pitches and style. The process will include many stages of development. But as the Royals prepared for their first workout on Wednesday, Eldred said he was ready for the challenge that awaited.
“We have some guys in camp that need growing pains in Triple-A or Double-A yet,” he said. “But if they’re ready, and we think they can handle the good days and the bad days on the big-league level, then they’ll be a part of the staff.”