SURPRISE, Ariz. —Here it is, Royals fans, just what you need as this grim, gray winter grinds along: The first real sign of spring. Pitchers and catchers report today for work at the Royals' year-round complex.
Many are already here for early work as a revamped roster looks to reverse last year's slide and return to what had been steady (albeit unspectacular) progress since Dayton Moore became general manager in June 2006.
For his part, Moore likes what he and his staff have put together for the 2010 season. More than likes it, really.
"I love the moves that we've made this offseason," he asserted. "We wanted to get more athletic, and we wanted more team speed. (We wanted) guys who could play better defense. And for a little over $8 million, we've added Chris Getz, Josh Fields, Rick (Ankiel), Scott Podsednik, Jason Kendall, Noel Arguelles and Brian Anderson.
"All of those guys are very athletic and defensive-oriented players. They're baseball players in the sense that they come to play. They're winners. They've got great reputations in the game of being competitors. We like the moves a great deal."
Any unit that starts with Cy Young winner Zack Greinke has a chance to be a pretty good rotation. (No guarantee, certainly, as last year proved.) But let's say Gil Meche, who appears healthy, rebounds from a year of arm and back troubles to become the guy who posted a 3.82 ERA as a workhorse over 68 starts in 2007-08.
That's a pretty good No. 2.
Brian Bannister was sailing along last year with a 3.59 ERA through 20 starts before his shoulder began acting up. If his shoulder is fine, and all indications are encouraging, he's a guy any team would love for the middle of its rotation.
Meche and Bannister will be watched closely over the next 6 1/2 weeks to see whether either exhibits anything more serious than the routine soreness that hits all pitchers in spring training. If both are sound, the rotation shifts from a big question to a legitimate strength.
Luke Hochevar was a puzzle of maddening inconsistency last season in producing a messy 6.55 ERA despite occasional brilliance. He seems a lock for the rotation because he's out of options, which means he can't be sent to the minors unless all other teams pass on the chance to claim him on waivers.
The final spot projects as a free-for-all battle that won't likely be decided until the camp's final week. Kyle Davies is out of options and the early favorite. But swingman Robinson Tejeda will get a long look after a strong September.
Anthony Lerew, also out of options, showed some potential in three September starts. Rule 5 pick Edgar Osuna must make the club or be offered back to Atlanta. He's a lefty, which is a plus in an otherwise righty mix, but could also claim a spot in the bullpen. Even veteran reliever Kyle Farnsworth will be given a chance to stretch out.
Like the rotation, the relief corps has a bankable star in Joakim Soria, who owns a 1.99 ERA in 94 games since becoming the club's closer in late July 2007. He has also converted 92 percent of his save opportunities in that span.
So the Royals just need to be able to get him the ball with a lead.
They did that effectively two years ago. They failed miserably last year with Juan Cruz, Farnsworth, Jamey Wright and just about everyone else.
It will be a key project this spring to find at least two dependable setup relievers from a cast that returns Cruz, Farnsworth and Tejeda (if they're not in the rotation) and Roman Colon.
Get ready for an interesting spring in watching club officials determine which 13 non-pitchers are in uniform for the April 5 season opener against Detroit at Kauffman Stadium. Let's start with the absolutes (barring injuries):
Manager Trey Hillman leaves no doubt that Billy Butler, one of the game's best young sluggers, is the first baseman and not a DH candidate.
The Royals signed veteran free agent Jason Kendall in the expectation that he will catch 125-plus games over each of the next two years. Brayan Pena is the clear backup.
Two more free-agent signees, Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel, will join David DeJesus from left to right as the starting outfield.
That makes six. Now add veteran Willie Bloomquist, a true utilityman who can play everywhere but catcher and pitcher. He also has a guaranteed contract.
Then it gets interesting because the spring roster contains at least nine other strong candidates for the remaining six openings. How Hillman allots time in the 31 Cactus League games will draw heavy scrutiny.
Yuniesky Betancourt seems a lock as the starting shortstop because Mike Aviles is still just 7 1/2 months removed from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Aviles figures to open the season on the disabled list, but his progress will be closely monitored.
The big issue is what do the Royals do with Alberto Callaspo? He was the club's second-best hitter last season and, seemingly, must be in the lineup. But where?
Probably not back at second, which club officials acknowledge now belongs to newcomer Chris Getz. But if Getz flops, he has options remaining. (No, Callaspo does not.)
Callaspo could play third, but that belongs to Alex Gordon — unless Gordon plays his way out of the lineup and, with options remaining, possibly into the minors. Even then, newcomer Josh Fields, who is out of options, seems the more likely replacement.
Moore, Hillman and others suggest Callaspo could spend some time in the outfield, but that would downgrade a defense the club spent the offseason working to improve.
Callaspo was a likely DH candidate until Guillen shifted to that role after the club signed Podsednik and Ankiel. In fact, any likely lineup leaves room for only one of the following three players: Callaspo, Guillen and Fields.
Anderson faces longer odds because he has an option remaining. Maier is out of options.