Royals manager Ned Yost looked incredulous. The announcement had been a mere formality, and still he had to answer questions about it.
Why did he choose James Shields as his Opening Day starter? “Come on,” Yost said.
“You know why,” he said on Saturday morning. “He’s the ace of our staff.”
Yost bestowed an honor on Shields that had long been expected. It may have been the most predictable decision made this spring, choosing Shields to take the ball on March 31 in Detroit.
The other choices were far more interesting. Yost picked Jason Vargas as his No. 2 starter. He tabbed Jeremy Guthrie for the home opener on April 4. And he left Bruce Chen unassigned for the first week of action.
Chen could either pitch the third game or the fifth. In general, Yost prefers to alternate right-handers after left-handers in his rotation. Yost is still deciding between right-hander Yordano Ventura and left-hander Danny Duffy as his fifth starter. Wade Davis shifted to the bullpen on Saturday morning.
Vargas will replace Ervin Santana in the rotation. The free-agent saga of Santana has yet to be decided, but on Saturday afternoon, a report linked him to a one-year deal worth about $14 million with Toronto. The Royals would recoup a compensatory draft pick in that scenario, because Santana rejected the club’s $14.1 million qualifying offer after the 2013 season.
For now, Santana is not officially a Blue Jay. But the Royals insist they have moved on. General manager Dayton Moore told The Star on Friday “the candidates for our rotation are in-house.” That means they’ll move forward with veterans such as Guthrie, who signed a three-year, $24 million deal last winter. Yost wanted to reward him for his performance in 2013.
“He’s done it before,” Yost said. “He’s had experience at it. It’s a good matchup. And it’s an important day for our fans. Jeremy had a tremendous year last year.”
Guthrie pitched a career-high 211 2/3 innings with a 4.04 ERA. But his peripheral numbers indicated cause for concern. He allowed 236 hits, the most in the American League. His strikeout-to-walk ratio fell to 1.88, his lowest since 2009.
While the team traveled to the Brewers’ complex here, Guthrie remained behind. Saturday marked his day to pitch, but the team suggested he throw a simulated game against minor leaguers. Guthrie did not object.
For Shields, this will be his sixth chance to start Opening Day. He did it four times in Tampa Bay. This could be his final opportunity as a Royal. He insisted he worries little about the opposing pitcher, likely either Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer.
“I have to face (Miguel) Cabrera either way,” Shields said. “What is he, a two-time MVP now? He’s pretty good.”