Countdown to Royals’ opener starts in earnest as pitchers and catchers report Friday

02/13/2014 5:12 PM

02/14/2014 12:37 PM

The leader of the most anticipated Royals team in two decades shook his head. On the eve of pitchers and catchers reporting to camp, a milestone on the calendar that occurs Friday, Ned Yost pondered the question for a moment. Then he batted it aside.

Here in the desert, this is the season when hope springs, when optimism blooms, when poetry is written — unless, of course, you are the major-league manager of a club with more pressing concerns.

“That’s your job,” Yost told a pair of reporters. “That’s not my job. My job is to get this team ready.”

Forty-six days before this season begins, before the Royals convene in Detroit on the final day of March, much work remains. Pitchers must build arm strength. Hitters must shake off the rust. But for Yost, many major questions have already been answered.

His lineup is set. His starting rotation features just one vacancy, with a quartet of able bodies willing to fill the void. The overflow from that competition will shift into the bullpen, a group that features a dynamic anchor in closer Greg Holland and a collection of other appealing options.

With so much decided, the organization has little incentive to rush. Pitching coach Dave Eiland explained the schedule was tweaked to give pitchers more time to prepare for sessions of live batting practice. Both Eiland and Yost mentioned the group’s experience, a relatively new term for this franchise.

“We’re a more experienced team,” Yost said. “They understand now, going at it for a couple years, what it takes for each and every one of them to be ready. That’s a good thing. You know that when the time comes, they’re all going to be ready to go.”

That time is fast approaching. An 86-win campaign in 2013 both infused energy into the organization and heightened expectations. Team officials have admitted this year will be a little different.

Detroit has won three consecutive division titles. Cleveland stunned observers with its 92-win campaign in 2013. But the Royals have earned the right to consider themselves contenders. The prospect excites general manager Dayton Moore.

“The thing I like about our team is it should perform consistently in all phases,” Moore said.

In a conversation this week at Kauffman Stadium, Moore provided a series of reasons for his optimism:

• The addition of outfielder Norichika Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante solidified the top of the lineup, enhanced the club’s ability to make contact and avoid strikeouts, and added depth to a batting order featuring younger talents like Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.
• The bullpen is stocked with late-game weapons, and poised to reign once more as one of the best in baseball.
• Moore trusts his starters, even without Ervin Santana, to command the baseball. “That’s all you’ve got to do in this park, with our defense,” he said. “Just throw strikes.”

The group may provide more than that. The Royals hope to receive contributions from rookies Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, with former top pick Kyle Zimmer slated to arrive midseason.

Plus, there is James Shields, the rotation’s leader. Shields has yet to surface in Surprise, but Yost expects him to arrive Friday. Yost does not anticipate any players being delayed due to either visa issues or weather troubles.

The majority of pitchers and catchers are already present. As a group gathered on a quartet of mounds in the back of the complex, Yost ambled over and watched beneath the shade of a golf cart. New additions such as Jason Vargas and Jon Rauch mingled with familiar faces like Holland and Aaron Crow.

Holland reveled in the intrigue of last season, even if a playoff berth appeared futile. As 2014 creeps ever closer, the team intends to build off that success.

“Hopefully, it’ll get more exciting this year,” Holland said.

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