SURPRISE, Ariz. —Joakim Soria is the other sure thing who needs to be a sure thing if the Royals are to climb back toward relevancy this season in the American League Central Division.
This isn't exactly news, but it explains why he spent the winter freezing in Kansas City instead of enjoying the more moderate climes of his home in Montclova, Mexico.
"Ohhh, I picked the worst winter to stay in Kansas City," Soria recalled with a shudder. "All that snow. I'm not used to that. I was freezing all winter."
He saw little choice, though.
The Royals' training staff — strength-and-conditioning coordinator Ty Hill and physical therapist Jeff Blum — were in Kansas City. So Soria was there, too, along with his wife, Karla, and their new daughter, Angela.
"I needed to work on my conditioning," Soria said, "and it's easier to work when you've got your (trainer) with you. He was always pushing me, and that was good for me. I feel I needed that work."
That work emphasized strengthening his right shoulder and toning his overall body. He arrived in camp some 10 pounds lighter than last year at 195.
"I don't see a lot of the baby fat anymore," pitching coach Bob McClure said. "All young guys have some of that, and he's lost most of it. He's in very good shape."
Soria's reliability at the back of the bullpen might be just as pivotal to the Royals as Zack Greinke's presence at the front of the rotation. Recall the mess the bullpen became last season when Soria nursed a strained rotator cuff for more than a month.
The relief corps recorded one save in 39 games from May 8 through June 21.
One. In roughly one-fourth of a season. Precisely one.
"We've got to have him," manager Trey Hillman said. "Just got to. A reliable closer like Jack is worth as much to your team as a reliable No. 1 or No. 2 starter. We've got to keep him healthy."
That hasn't always been easy.
The Royals acquired Soria as a Rule 5 selection in December 2006 from the Padres largely because his career prospects plummeted after he missed the 2003 season following reconstructive-elbow surgery.
Soria spent most of 2005-06 pitching in Mexico, and it was in the Mexican Pacific League where Royals scout Louie Medina spotted him in winter ball after the 2006 season.
Shoulder problems surfaced in Soria's rookie year and forced him the disabled list in late May 2007. Last year's strained rotator cuff was an ongoing problem even after he returned to action.
"Yes, I can say that now," he said, "but baseball players always have something (that's hurting). If you're not hurting, then you probably don't deserve to be here. Everyone has some problem.
"Last season was a tough season for me, but I feel pretty good right now."
Soria, 25, still managed to record 30 saves last season on a 97-loss team despite his extended absence. He has, as he enters his fourth season, established himself as one of the game's most-reliable closers.
The numbers are irrefutable. Soria has a 2.09 ERA in 172 career appearances with 89 saves in 99 opportunities. His 89.9 percent success rate trails only Mariano Rivera (94.2) and Jonathan Papelbon (91.3) over the last three years.
Soria's saves percentage jumps to 91.9 from the point he became the Royals' full-time closer following the July 31, 2007, trade that sent Octavio Dotel to Atlanta. He is also the club's first closer to post successive 30-save seasons since Jeff Montgomery's three-year run from 1991-93.
And despite his shoulder problems, Soria led all relievers in both leagues last season in recording five saves of six outs or more. That speaks to the general collapse by a bullpen that, minus Soria, compiled a 5.37 ERA.
"I don't want to be in that position again," Hillman said. "I'm hopeful that we've got guys who can step up that we're comfortable with (in the later innings).
"We've discussed that in-depth. A four-out save is different from a six-out save. You might still see the four-out (save). I'd like to stay away from the six-out (save)."
Soria required just 11 pitches, including 10 strikes, last Thursday in making his spring debut with a one-two-three inning against the Dodgers. He was the Mexicutioner in top form: unflappable, efficient and reliable.
And best of all: pain-free.
"All of that work in the off-season helped me," Soria said. "I don't feel anything in my shoulder. I'm feeling the way I want to feel. And I think I'm going to be fine."