SURPRISE, Ariz. — Veteran right-hander J.C. Gutierrez won the final spot in the Royals’ bullpen Thursday morning, but the decision on a backup catcher appears certain to go down to the wire.
Gutierrez, 29, secured the job with strong outings in his final two spring appearances. He worked a one-two-three inning Wednesday night against the Chicago Cubs with two strikeouts.
“He really stepped up the last couple of times,” manager Ned Yost said. “Inventory plays into it, but we were taking the best team that we could take. Gutierrez stepped it up the last two times. He showed us what we can be.”
The Royals’ bullpen is now set with closer Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Gutierrez.
Gutierrez was the only player among the final three candidates who is out of options, which gave him an edge because he could not be sent to the minors without clearing waivers.
The Royals effectively chose not to risk losing Gutierrez by optioning Louis Coleman to Triple-A Omaha and reassigning Dan Wheeler to minor-league camp prior to their game against Cincinnati in Goodyear.
“Coleman was very good,” Yost said. “Wheeler was very good. Both of those guys were in contention for that last spot.”
The Royals remain undecided in their choice between Brett Hayes and George Kottaras to serve as the backup to starting catcher Salvy Perez.
Yost said that decision probably won’t be made until Friday — the final day in camp. The club heads for Chicago for Monday’s season opener after closing out its spring schedule Friday against Cleveland at Surprise Stadium.
“It’s a coin flip,” Yost said. “It’s going to go down to do we want a right-handed bat (Hayes) or a left-handed bat (Kottaras). They’ve both done a nice job. So what fits our team better?”
Hayes and Kottaras are each out of options, which means they must clear waivers before they can be sent to the minors. Even then, Kottaras (but not Hayes) would have the choice of becoming a free agent.
Several teams are searching for backup catchers, which means it’s unlikely either player would clear waivers. The decision could hinge on which player brings the greater return in a trade.
The Royals also reassigned catcher/first baseman Max Ramirez to minor-league camp prior to their departure to play Cincinnati in Goodyear. Ramirez and Wheeler will each join the Omaha roster.
Players on a club’s 40-man roster must be optioned when sent to the minors. Players in camp on a minor-league contract are simply reassigned.
Gutierrez appeared in 150 big-league games over parts of four seasons from 2007-11 with Houston and Arizona before undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2011 to repair a torn elbow ligament.
The Royals signed him Dec. 13, 2011 and nursed him through his rehab efforts. Gutierrez appeared last season in 19 minor-league games before compiling an 0.81 ERA in 24 games in the Venezuelan Winter League.