SURPRISE, Ariz. — Preseason baseball excitement for Royals manager Ned Yost escalates at certain mileposts.
He’s thrilled to arrive at the training facility, smiles when the pitchers and catchers report, and may be happiest when the full squad checks in.
The next gleeful moment comes Thursday with the first game of the Cactus League season against the Texas Rangers. First pitch is 2:05 p.m. Central time. But there’s an expiration date to the feeling.
“That lasts about three days,” Yost said.
Because the stage that ultimately matters remains a month away, when the regular season begins — and in this case, the most anticipated Royals’ season in a generation — and Yost thinks about that moment regularly.
With the Royals’ posting a quarter-century best 86 victories last season, 2014 debuts with promise.
“It’s a very positive group in here,” designated hitter Billy Butler said. “Very confident. I think everybody is ready to get the games going. It’s time.”
But the promise also means making the right decisions, and although the Royals have fewer questions about positions heading into this year than at any point in the eight-year regime of general manager Dayton Moore, pressing the right buttons never has seemed more important.
“I’ve got fewer questions,” Yost said. “But the questions I have are larger than they’ve ever been.”
Yost began to ask them, without providing answers.
• Do the Royals keep five outfielders or four?
• Two backup infielders or one?
• Can the team find enough spots on the pitching staff for all the quality arms?
“They’re tough decisions, and you got to wait as late as you can before making them,” Yost said.
Several factors play into the calls.
The starting outfield is set with Alex Gordon in left, Lorenzo Cain in center and Nori Aoki, acquired in a trade with the Brewers, in right.
Speedster Jarrod Dyson and power hitter Justin Maxwell fall in as top reserves, with slugger Carlos Peguero, who bombed an opposite-field home run in the Tuesday scrimmage, as a possibility.
None of the top reserves has options left. An option allows a team to send a player to the minor leagues without having to clear waivers first.
The Royals are convinced that Dyson and Maxwell would be lost if not kept on the active 25-man roster.
But keeping five outfielders means possible limits elsewhere. If the Royals kept 12 pitchers, they’d only have five infield spots left after accounting for catcher Salvy Perez and a backup, and Butler, the DH.
The team is set around the horn: Eric Hosmer at first, Omar Infante at second, Alcides Escobar at shortstop and Mike Moustakas at third.
Danny Valencia, a solid hitter capable of playing third and first, came from Baltimore in a trade with David Lough. Valencia also doesn’t have an option, making his spot on the team likely.
But that would leave the Royals without a reserve middle infielder. If the Royals carry one, the top candidates are Christian Colon, a former first-round draft selection, and Pedro Ciriaco, who is expected to start at shortstop Thursday with Escobar taking a couple of days off for the birth of his son.
The Royals might be able to manage without a reserve middle infielder, but it’s not an ideal situation.
“These are the big questions we have to answer,” Yost said.
But the Royals have more answers this year than a year ago, when second base was up for grabs between Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella, and the fifth starter was a battle among Chen, Luke Hochevar, and Luis Mendoza.
The fifth starting pitching’s spot is undecided again but besides Hochevar and Wade Davis, the candidates include two of the organization’s most prized prospects, Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy.
That’s why Yost, despite appearing to hold a stronger hand this year, said he doesn’t approach spring differently based on promise.
“I always come into spring real positive, thinking about what good can happen,” he said. “I adjust to the bad, and this year is no different.
“I know a lot of things have to happen for us to be a success. But our players are ready.”