Forty-six days after pitchers and catchers reported here to spring training, the Royals are set to break camp on Thursday. They will board a charter jet and fly to Texas, where they’ll face the Rangers in two exhibition games at Globe Life Park. One more off day on Sunday, and the 2017 Royals season will open against the Minnesota Twins on a Monday afternoon at Target Field.
The travel schedule has been in place for months. The team the Royals take to Minnesota remains in flux. As the end of camp looms, the club must select a starting second baseman, fill out its bench and settle on a final reliever for its seven-man bullpen.
The final roster pieces are not as important as Alex Gordon bouncing back or Lorenzo Cain’s health or Eric Hosmer putting up an MVP-caliber season. But decisions on the periphery can still be compelling — as well as offer a window into the challenges of roster construction. Barring injury, the current 25-man roster projection features 21 locks — 10 position players and 11 pitchers — and four open slots. The roster math mostly hinges on a four-man competition at second base.
The battle has raged all camp, featuring Whit Merrifield, Cheslor Cuthbert, Christian Colon and Raul Mondesi. The final decision will be performance-based, though that will be far from the only consideration. (More on that in a moment.)
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In some ways, the roster framework has been set since the winter. In the infield, first baseman Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas and shortstop Alcides Escobar surround the vacant spot at second. In the outfield, newcomer Jorge Soler will join Cain and Gordon. Drew Butera will back up Salvador Perez behind the plate.
Offseason acquisition Brandon Moss will see plenty of time at designated hitter, while Paulo Orlando will make starts in the outfield and fill in as a late-game defensive replacement on a regular basis. That leaves three openings: second base and two open bench spots.
The pitching staff is slightly more settled. Danny Duffy will start on opening day, with Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Jason Vargas and Nathan Karns following. The bullpen features closer Kelvin Herrera, Matt Strahm and Joakim Soria at the back end and Chris Young in a long relief role. Left-handers Travis Wood and Mike Minor could be multi-inning weapons or settle into back-end roles if needed. We don’t know for sure, yet, but we know they’re on the team. That leaves one opening.
The Royals are expected to set their 25-man roster before departing for Texas on Thursday. But as camp winds down, here’s a look at the final openings and last-minute decisions.
Who starts at second base?
Mondesi, a five-tool prospect who debuted last season, has been a breakout performer, entering Sunday batting .372 (16 for 43) with three homers and five runs scored this spring. The 21-year-old infielder has also struck out 12 times. But after looking overmatched at the major-league level last year, and beginning spring on the fringes of the competition, Mondesi played himself into the conversation for every-day duty at second base.
Here’s the problematic roster math: Mondesi and Merrifield — the versatile 28-year-old who had a strong rookie season last year — both have “options” remaining, the esoteric phrase that means they can be sent to Class AAA Omaha without being exposed to other teams through the waiver system.
Cuthbert and Colon, however, do not have options, meaning they must be on the 25-man roster or placed on waivers. For the Royals, this is an especially pressing issue regarding Cuthbert, who is still just 24 years old and displayed promising talent while filling in for Moustakas last year.
It sets up the following two scenarios. If the Royals wish to keep Mondesi, they must either send Merrifield to Omaha or designate Colon for assignment. The Royals could also look to move somone in a trade to create roster space.
Neither scenario is ideal. The Royals covet Merrifield’s versatility and steadiness. Colon is a former first-round pick who is responsible for one of the most important hits in franchise history.
The Royals, of course, could also send Mondesi back to Class AAA for continued development, a move that would preserve inventory by allowing Merrifield, Colon and Cuthbert to remain on the roster. In that scenario, Merrifield and Colon could command most of the starts at second. Cuthbert would mix in around the infield, and the Royals could re-evaluate in a month.
For now, the Royals are not tipping their hand. Royals general manager Dayton Moore has stressed the importance of player inventory, though he told ESPN’s Buster Olney the club “wouldn’t hesitate for Raul to be our opening day second baseman if indeed it ends up playing out that way.”
The Royals also want Mondesi playing every day for development reasons, whether in Kansas City or Omaha. The club also has a history of retaining inventory, which means the decision could come down to sending either Merrifield or Mondesi to Omaha. In an interview on Thursday, Moore maintained that the Royals were still weighing the decision.
“You want players to force your hand,” Moore told The Star. “We’ll see. He has options. We’re not completely sold at this time at what the opening day roster should look like. We have more time, and we’re not going to make those decisions until we need to.”
So then who fills out the bench?
Once you inspect the second-base competition, you can see that the final two bench spots will likely be filled by the same cast.
The Royals have sought to make Cuthbert more valuable by playing him at second base and first base this spring. He could spend April making spot starts at third as Moustakas is returning to full-time action after a season-ending knee injury last year.
If he is on the roster, Merrifield offers another outfield option, solid speed and the ability to bunt and hit-and-run. Colon can play second and third base — and shortstop in a pinch.
Barring injury, though, the current roster makeup leaves little room for outfielders Billy Burns or Terrance Gore, who could provide a late-inning speed weapon; or outfielder/designated hitter Peter O’Brien, who has hit seven homers in 26 games this spring.
In the case of O’Brien, 26, there are other factors to consider: While the coaching staff has marveled at his raw power, homers are rampant in the thin air of Arizona. And the competition is often other minor-leaguers. This spring, O’Brien has homered off a group of pitchers that includes Robbie Ray, Patrick McCoy, Anthony Bass and Hiram Burgos. Rival scouts do not question his power, yet they do wonder about his ability to hit consistently at the major-league level. In 2016, O’Brien batted .141 with a .179 on-base percentage and five homers in 67 plate appearances for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He’s struck out 18 times this spring, tied for the team lead.
By contrast, Soler has delivered a sluggish start. He’s batting .143 with two homers and 18 strikeouts in 47 at-bats. Yet his track record is slightly more proven. He’s posted a .328 career on-base percentage in three seasons with the Cubs. He’s homered 27 times in 765 career plate appearances.
For O’Brien, though, the spring success will not be in vain. Like outfielder Jorge Bonifacio and infielder Ramon Torres, O’Brien has positioned himself to be the next man in line should the Royals need a power bat at the major-league level.
“You get to the point where if there’s a need, then you find out who’s producing,” Yost said. “But because we know O’Brien, we know Bonifacio; because we know Torres, obviously they’re the first ones you’re going to look at.”
What about the bullpen?
For now, Yost has set just one role in the ’pen: Herrera as closer. It appears likely that left-hander Strahm and right-hander Soria will serve as the late-inning bridge to Herrera, though left-handers Minor and Wood could also be in the mix. In addition, Young appears best suited for a long-relief role. Yost would prefer to wait before anointing specific titles.
“I’ve always found that the roles define themselves once you get going,” he said.
The roles still remain somewhat fluid. So does the final bullpen slot.
“There’s really one spot open,” Yost said.
The two favorites, based on track record and spring performance, would appear to be left-hander Scott Alexander and right-hander Peter Moylan. Each pitcher comes with a caveat. Moylan returned to the Royals on a minor-league deal after recording a 3.43 ERA in 50 appearances last season. To add him to the team, the Royals would have to make a corresponding subtraction from their 40-man roster.
Alexander, meanwhile, posted a 3.32 ERA in 19 innings last season. He is also another left-hander in a bullpen that already has three lefties in Strahm, Wood and Minor. Can a relief corps have too many lefties?
“Well, yeah, honestly, you can,” Yost said. “But again, you just want to make sure you have your best arms out there.”
Beyond Moylan and Alexander, right-handers Yender Caramo and Al Alburquerque and left-hander Eric Stout remain in camp. The decision, like the others, could come down to the final days.