Kansas City Royals

Time for Royals to sort out questions

Got the winter blues? Take heart. Spring training is just around the corner. Really. Pitchers and catchers officially report Monday to the Royals' year-round complex in Surprise, Ariz.

Actually, many are already on hand and taking part in early optional workouts.

The first full-squad session is 10 days away, and the Royals open their 32-game Cactus League schedule Feb. 27 against campus neighbor Texas at Surprise Stadium.

Feeling any warmer?

For Royals' fans, this should be a fascinating spring. Many of the organization's top prospects, generally viewed as baseball's best collection, will take part in big-league camp. Most for the first time.

Sure, it's likely all but a few will head back to the minors prior to opening day, but make no mistake: This is a club in transition, and a number of those prospects will work their way onto the roster at some point this season.

How soon? Those answers should crystallize, at least somewhat, over the next seven weeks.

The clock is also ticking for everyone else. It is a primary goal this season, club officials stress, to determine which current players can be part of a productive core group in coming years. That process starts now.

These issues will takes weeks to sort out. For now, here's a quick primer on the key issues and questions awaiting the Royals in spring training. Think of it as a hand warmer on a cold day.

* Rotation: Lots of questions here. Can Luke Hochevar replace departed Zack Greinke as an effective the No. 1 starter? Will free-agent signee Jeff Francis return to top form in his second full year back from shoulder surgery? Was Bruce Chen's strong closing kick last season a fluke? Is Kyle Davies, at age 27, any closer to finding consistency? Will Vin Mazzaro, acquired from Oakland in an offseason trade for outfielder David DeJesus, reach his high-end potential in new surroundings? Can Sean O'Sullivan solidify his spot in the rotation? Does minor-league signee Zach Miner have anything left? Will a rookie or two emerge to make a strong challenge? Aaron Crow, Danny Duffy and Everett Teaford should get a look.

* Bullpen: Prospects have a greater chance here, more than anywhere else, to make an immediate impact because everything behind All-Star closer Joakim Soria and veteran Robinson Tejeda is up for grabs. Returnees Blake Wood, Jesse Chavez, Kanekoa Texeira and Greg Holland are in the mix. But so are hard-throwing newcomer Jeremy Jeffress (acquired in the Greinke deal) and Rule 5 draftee Nate Adcock. Now the prospects: Tim Collins should get a long look as the late-inning lefty, but Blaine Hardy could also fill that role. So, too, could Duffy or Teaford by shifting to the bullpen as an acclimation process from the minors. Crow might also open the season in the bullpen, while Louis Coleman is another righty who bears watching.

* Catching: The landscape shifted recently when the Royals moved Wil Myers, viewed by some as the organization's best hitting prospect, to the outfield in order to accelerate his timetable. Salvador Perez is now the presumed long-term answer, but he's probably two years away. The battle this spring centers on Brayan Pen~a, Lucas May and minor-leaguer Manny Pin~a because veteran Jason Kendall is still recovering from shoulder surgery.

* Infield: Start with the definites — newcomer Alcides Escobar (the key acquisition in the deal that sent Greinke to Milwaukee) replaces departed Yuniesky Betancourt as the starting shortstop, while Billy Butler, armed with a new four-year deal, and Kila Ka'aihue split time at first base and designated hitter. But Butler and Ka'aihue are also in competition to be the long-term DH if, as the prevailing view suggests, Eric Hosmer becomes the starting first baseman whenever judged ready for big-league duty — although Hosmer's time might not come until next year. In contrast, club officials expect Mike Moustakas to step in at some point this year as the regular third baseman. That probably won't be until June or later, but Moustakas could goose the process with a strong spring. Until then, Mike Aviles should start at third, but he could shift to second if Chris Getz, a better defender, stumbles — especially since Wilson Betemit and minor-league signee Pedro Feliz can play third. Bottom line is Getz needs a strong spring.

* Outfield: The starting unit, left to right, appears set with Alex Gordon and free-agent signees Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur regardless of how they perform in spring training. Versatile Mitch Maier seems a likely fixture as the fourth outfielder, which could put Gregor Blanco, who is out of options, on the bubble. Speedy Lorenzo Cain and speedier Jarrod Dyson do have options and, consequently, are probably on the outside looking in. Injuries could scramble everything, of course. Also, Cain projected as Milwaukee's starting center fielder prior to his acquisition in the Greinke trade and, with a strong spring, could position himself a ready early-season alternative if Cabrera gets off to a slow start.

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