For decades, the Kansas City Royals headed to spring training full of uncertainty.
They would hope their young first baseman would be ready for the big leagues. Or their next big pitching prospect would earn a spot in the rotation. Or some other longshot project would play so well that there was no way the front office could keep him off the club.
But after capturing the American League pennant last season, the Royals headed to Arizona this spring in a decidedly different place. The few holes created by free agency had been plugged, and the rest of the squad figures to look a lot like it did last year.
Very few positions are up for grabs. There's very little drama in the clubhouse.
"That's the whole picture, the big picture — you develop all these guys through the minor leagues and one day they come up and hold that spot down," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
"I think we've developed that core group where most positions are set in stone," he added, "and you have a bunch of prospects coming up that are ready to fill in if someone goes down. That is how you create an organization that is in October every year."
It sounds simple in theory, but it's much more difficult in practice.
Especially for a small-market club like Kansas City.
Take the designated hitter spot. The Royals would have loved to keep homegrown DH Billy Butler around, but the option on his contract was too expensive, so he ultimately signed with Oakland. Same story with James Shields, their staff ace, who signed with San Diego.
But the Royals are in the midst of a rare stretch of years where many of their bright young players are on reasonable contracts, before they hit free agency. Several others, such as All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, have signed long-term deals that are club-friendly. The upshot of it is that manager Ned Yost could probably pencil in his opening-day lineup right now.
Or rather on Wednesday, when the Royals play their spring opener against Texas.
"It's totally different than any spring that we've had since I've been here," said Yost, who was an assistant with Atlanta in the 1990s, when that club had a relatively stable roster.
So what jobs are up for grabs this spring?
Well, a better question is how many relievers will be kept for the bullpen?
With all of the starting positions locked down, and the five spots in the starting rotation set, the big question is whether Kansas City will keep seven relievers or eight. And whether there will be three players or four left on the bench.
Speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson, a defensive dynamo and valuable late-game sub, is a lock for the roster. So is backup catcher Erik Kratz and infielder Christian Colon, who is valued for his ability to play multiple positions and thus giving multiple guys a day off.
In the bullpen, the trio of Kelvin Herrera, setup man Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland is back, along with veteran reliever Jason Frasor. Luke Hochevar will occupy another spot, assuming he has no setbacks in his return from Tommy John surgery. Tim Collins and Louis Coleman both have had plenty of big league experience and figure to slot into the bullpen.
In other words, there aren't many jobs for the taking.
"You still have to go out and perform," Colon said. "There's other guys here that can play, too, so you can't just assume anything. ... There's going to still be competition, that's how it goes. It may seem on paper like it's all set, but you know, anything can happen."
NOTES: Speaking of Hochevar, he took another step in his recovery by throwing to hitters on Tuesday. "It's the next step in his progression," Yost said. "His stuff was very good." ... LF Alex Gordon continued his recovery from wrist surgery by hitting in the cage. Yost said that he could by hitting on the field by Tuesday. "No setbacks," Yost said. "Feels great."
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