Nomo eliminated from crowded field of rotation candidates

SURPRISE, Ariz. | The Royals scrubbed veteran Hideo Nomo as a candidate for their rotation this morning, one day after his rough outing against Milwaukee, but continued to dangle the possibility that he could continue his comeback as a reliever.

“The simple and short part of it,” manager Trey Hillman said, “is that we’re not going to consider him as a starter anymore.”

Hillman told Nomo, 39, that club officials place him behind Kyle Davies, John Bale, Brett Tomko, Jorge De La Rosa and Luke Hochevar in evaluating candidates for the rotation’s two vacancies.

“I asked (Nomo) what his wishes were,” Hillman said. “Is starting the only option? Or would he be comfortable in continuing to compete for the possibility of filling a bullpen role for us?

“His reaction to that was, `I like the atmosphere here very much. I like the coaching here very much. I want to continue to compete. If it’s for a bullpen role, that’s fine with me.’”

Nomo allowed eight runs and 17 hits in 11 innings over four spring appearances but intrigued club officials by registering 11 strikeouts. He took part in pregame workouts but declined interview requests.

The Royals were prepared to release Nomo, if he desired, in order to enable him to pursue starting opportunities with other clubs.

“If that were the case,” Hillman said, “now would have been the time for him to have that opportunity because there is still a little time left in Major League camps.”

The battle to determine the final two rotation spots remains the fiercest competition in camp. The favorites appear to be Bale, a converted reliever, and Tomko, a veteran free-agent acquisition with a proven ability to eat innings.

But Davies and Hochevar are generally viewed as better long-term fits. Some club officials also contend Bale and Tomko would be more valuable in the bullpen as power relievers.

De La Rosa continues to exhibit the inconsistency that has plagued his career, but he is out of options and club officials doubt he would clear waivers if not retained on the 25-man roster.

Davies and Hochevar each have options remaining, which mean each can be sent to the minors without being exposed to other clubs through waivers.

Hillman confirmed Saturday that Gil Meche will pitch the season opener March 31 in Detroit. It appears Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke are lined up to start the second and third games on April 2-3.

A decision on the fourth and fifth starters might not come before the Royals break their Arizona camp after a March 27 game against Texas at Surprise Stadium. The club then concludes its spring schedule March 28-29 in Milwaukee before traveling to Detroit.

“We want to take guys with us,” Hillman said, “who give us the best possibility of winning games, starting Opening Day, in the rotation and in the bullpen.”

Nomo underwent major elbow surgery in 2006 and has not pitched in the big leagues since 2005. While hit hard at times, his strikeout ability prompted the Royals to view him as a possible reliever.

“Every outing that he’s pitched,” Hillman said, “he’s continued to show the ability to miss bats.”

Nonetheless, Nomo faces long odds to make the club as a reliever even if Bale and Tomko remain in the rotation. Four of seven projected bullpen jobs appear set: Joakim Soria, Ron Mahay, Yasuhiko Yabuta and Jimmy Gobble.

Joel Peralta is regarded as a near-lock because of his versatility, and swingman candidate Leo Nuñez is out of options. Lefty Neal Musser is also getting a long look.

Nomo is in camp as a non-roster invite, but Hillman said he didn’t broach the possibility of Nomo opening the season in the minors.

“I wanted to keep it as simple as possible for right now,” Hillman said. “As we progress through the next week to 10 days, if we feel the need to go there, then we’ll go there.”

Braun cut: Reliever Ryan Braun was optioned to Class AAA Omaha before Sunday’s game against a San Francisco split squad at Surprise Stadium.

Braun, 27, made just spring appearances and allowed one run, two hits and three walks in two innings. He split last season between the Royals and Omaha. He was 2-0 with a 6.64 ERA in 26 big-league games.

The Royals have 43 players remaining in camp, including 21 pitchers. Injury updates: The news is all pretty good.

Second baseman Mark Grudzielanek minimized concerns over the strained muscle in his lower back, and catcher Miguel Olivo declared himself ready to play today after suffering a strained right groin in Friday’s game.

Flu victims Jose Guillen and Billy Butler also took part in morning workouts.

Grudzielanek traveled last week to Kansas City to undergo an examination on his back by Dr. Steve Joyce, the club’s chief physician.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Grudzielanek said, “and it’s not. Just take it slow for a couple of days. There’s lots of time (before the season opens).”

Hillman said Olivo, despite his optimism, isn’t likely to play for a few days.