The Kansas City Royals open spring training Feb. 18, when pitchers and catchers report to their complex in Surprise, Ariz. The full squad is due on Feb. 22.
The first game will be March 2 against the Rangers at Surprise Stadium. The regular season begins against the New York Mets at Kauffman Stadium on April 3, when the franchise will raise its second World Series championship flag.
Before the Royals report to spring training, The Star is looking at five key questions heading into the 2016 season. On Monday, we looked at the position battles in right field and second base. On Tuesday, we looked at the re-tooled starting rotation. On to question three:
3. Do the Royals have this year’s version Chris Young or Ryan Madson in camp?
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The Royals struck gold last season with a series of under-the-radar pickups, turning reliever Ryan Madson into a shutdown reliever and right-hander Chris Young into a valuable cog in the rotation and bullpen. Madson was a nonroster invitee who hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2011; Young was a veteran who remained unsigned until early March. Can the Royals tap into a similar market inefficiency this season?
If you’re looking for candidates, there are (at least) four pitchers to track heading into camp. Right-hander Dillon Gee, who spent 2011-14 as a starter with the Mets, will head to Surprise as a nonroster invitee after signing a minor-league deal. So will left-hander John Lannan, a former starter with the Nationals who spent all of last season in the Rockies organization, posting a 5.39 ERA as a starter at Class AAA Albuquerque. The Royals also agreed to minor-league contracts with veteran right-hander Chien-Ming Wang, 35, a former Yankees starter who hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2013, and veteran left-handed reliever David Huff, 31.
Of all four pitchers, Gee, 29, appears to have the most upside. He recorded a 3.62 ERA over 32 starts in 2013 and posted a 4.00 ERA in 22 starts in 2014 before getting squeezed out of the rotation by a horde of young, hard-throwing starters who carried the Mets to the World Series last season.
For now, Gee is positioned as a possible bullpen piece behind mainstays Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar and Joakim Soria. And with left-hander Tim Collins finishing his rehab from Tommy John surgery, the Royals could desire another lefty in the bullpen. That could be Danny Duffy, or it could be someone like Lannan or Brian Flynn, who was acquired before last season from Miami in the Aaron Crow trade.
Collins, who underwent elbow reconstruction surgery last March, may not be ready to join the big-league club until April or May. That could leave an opening, and if recent history is any indication, the Royals have proven one thing: Sometimes ineffective starters can make valuable relievers.