As the Royals congregated at their spring-training complex on Sunday morning, a mere fortnight separated the club from its season opener against the New York Mets on April 3.
On a Sunday night at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals will raise a World Series championship flag and kick off the season on national television. Mets starter Matt Harvey will toe the rubber in a rematch of last season’s final game.
The opener will feature pageantry and pomp. For now it still offers intrigue. Even as a now veteran club prepares to defend its title, Royals officials say they do not know the final composition of their 25-man roster.
Some key decisions, manager Ned Yost says, could come down to the final days of spring training. The deadline is looming. In the next two weeks the Royals must make final decisions at second base, in the outfield and in the bullpen. At least two or three roster spots are still up in the air.
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“I can’t see into the future,” Yost said Saturday while finishing up a two-game exhibition trip in San Antonio. “I’m not setting my roster right now.”
Still, a solid framework appears to be in place, beginning with the pitching staff: Right-handers Chris Young and Kris Medlen appear well positioned to fill out the rotation behind Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy. The bullpen features four locks — Wade Davis, Joakim Soria, Kelvin Herrera and Luke Hochevar — and some rotation spillover.
As of Sunday, Yost was still waiting to name his opening-day starter. The assignment will likely fall to Volquez or Ventura, but to this point Yost has sidestepped questions about the subject. He said Saturday that the club was still evaluating right-handers Dillon Gee and Chien-Ming Wang as possible rotation options.
Gee, a former starter in the Mets organization, signed a minor-league deal in the offseason before being added to the 40-man roster this month. He appears a safe bet to make the roster as a bullpen swingman if he is not needed in the rotation. Yost has praised his “pitch-ability” and his experience. He offers depth should the Royals need another starter in April.
Likewise, left-hander Danny Duffy appears slotted for bullpen duty when the club breaks camp, soaking up another bullpen role. If the Royals choose to carry 12 pitchers when the season starts, that would leave just one vacant bullpen spot.
The competition for the final spot (or spots) is crowded and for the moment muddled. Wang, a 35-year-old reclamation project, has been one of the surprises of camp, his sinker consistently hitting 93 to 94 mph on radar guns. Left-hander Brian Flynn hasn’t matched his sterling 2015 spring training, but he still possesses upside in his 6-foot-7 frame. He also still has options remaining and could be sent to Class AAA Omaha to bolster inventory.
In addition, left-hander Scott Alexander, who received a September call-up last season, has thrown 7 1/3 scoreless innings with eight strikeouts, elevating his stock. Then there is a cast of veterans, including nonroster invitees Brian Duensing, Ross Ohlendorf and David Huff.
For now the Royals are not tipping their hand on the makeup of their bullpen or how many pitchers they will carry when the season begins.
In the field, there are other priorities. The Royals still must name a starting second baseman and solidify their bench. Second baseman Omar Infante appears positioned as the favorite to hold off Christian Colon and begin the season as the starter.
Infante has returned from offseason surgery on his elbow and entered Sunday batting .263 (5 for 19) with two doubles and a .333 on-base percentage this spring. He is owed $7.75 million this season and $8 million in 2017. He will likely have the opportunity to rebound after his offensive production flatlined in 2015. Infante also lacks the flexibility of Colon, who can play three infield spots and projects as the club’s backup infielder.
If Infante slots in at second, Colon will join likely backup catcher Drew Butera on the bench. Assuming the club carries 12 pitchers, the Royals would need to fill two remaining bench spots — a reserve outfield spot behind Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Paulo Orlando, and a final spot that could be a fifth outfielder or extra infielder.
As Jarrod Dyson recovers from a strained oblique, outfielder Reymond Fuentes has emerged as a solid reserve candidate, batting .370 with two homers and two doubles in his first 10 games this spring. Travis Snider, a nonroster invitee, and speedster Terrance Gore also remain in camp.
Utility man Whit Merrifield is a candidate for a final spot, but his addition would require a corresponding 40-man roster move. Merrifield, a ninth-round pick in 2010, possesses the ability to play all three outfield spots and all four infield positions, and has drawn plaudits for his versatility. But he entered camp as a nonroster invitee and would need to be added to the 40-man roster. The Royals’ 40-man roster is currently full.
The answers will come in the next two weeks. As the Royals enter the final days of spring training, club officials appear content to wait and evaluate to the end.
“We’re having discussions,” Yost said last week. “And we’re getting together as an organization, as we always do, and (we’re talking) about all aspects of our club.”
The Star’s projected 25-man roster
Starting rotation: Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura, Ian Kennedy, Chris Young and Kris Medlen
Bullpen: Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria, Luke Hochevar, Dillon Gee, Danny Duffy and ?????
Infield: Eric Hosmer, Omar Infante, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas
Designated hitter: Kendrys Morales
Catcher: Salvador Perez
Outfield: Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Paulo Orlando
Bench: Christian Colon, Drew Butera, Reymond Fuentes and ?????