Feb 21, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Donnie Joseph (49) poses for a picture during photo day at the Royals Spring Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Musical Chairs and Royals Relievers

Spring training always brings up the same terms. Players are in position battles. They’re racing each other for a position. It’s a fight for the job.

I liken it more to musical chairs. You gather a group together, start the music, and one by one, they claim a chair, until everyone has won a seat. The Royals bullpen is shaping up like that this year.

Here’s the most likely opening day pitching staff, barring any injuries or trades (assuming 12 pitchers):

Starters (5):

Relievers (6):

Mar 5, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Louis Coleman (31) pitches against the Oakland Athletics during the seventh inning at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

There’s one spot and a handful of pitchers circling it, waiting for the music to stop. The most likely candidates are Louis Coleman, Donnie Joseph, Juan Gutierrez, Dan Wheeler and Francisley Bueno with Nathan Adcock and Everett Teaford as fringe candidates (though they seem more likely to end up in the rotation in Omaha to start the year).

The Royals had high hopes for Gutierrez after a strong winter ball season when he made 24 appearances in the Venezuelan League and put up a 0.81 ERA (winning Reliever of the Year in the process), but his spring performance hasn’t been there in seven appearances. He’s allowed four runs in seven innings. To his credit, he hasn’t walked anyone.

He’s falling behind other pitchers, though.

Wheeler has 11 strikeouts in six scoreless innings after signing a minor league deal this winter. Most of his work has been against minor league competition in late innings of spring training games, but he’s walked only one and he’s not that far removed from the productive seasons he’d had in Tampa Bay and Houston. Wheeler’s 35 years old, though, and would have to be added to the 40 man roster. After the release of Guillermo Moscoso, they have the spot open, at least. Maybe he doesn’t make the team right away, but he could be a ready call up if an injury requires it.

I’ve always been a fan of Coleman’s, and I’d say that he’s probably the favorite for the last bullpen spot if Gutierrez doesn’t get it. In a way, Coleman’s hampered by being on a team with so many standout relievers. Holland drew buzz late last year and it continues today. Herrera’s fastball is eye-popping and his changeup is drool-worthy. Aaron Crow was a first round pick – twice. Coleman just doesn’t have those kinds of items on his resume. On any other bullpen, he’d stand out. In Kansas City, he might start the year in Omaha. This spring, he’s thrown 7.1 innings and given up five hits and two runs. That’s good for a 2.45 ERA.

Of course, the Royals would only have one lefty in the bullpen, and Collins is better against right-handers anyway, so a lefty is also very likely. Bueno drew praise from the Royals last year and so far this spring, he’s gotten a lot of work relative to others in camp – his 8.1 innings as of noon Friday were only less than Shields, Santana, Chen and Yordano Ventura, all of whom are being used as starters. He’s given up three runs, eight hits, and walked two, but struck out six. In his limited time in the big leagues (19.2 IP) he hasn’t shown that he has a big platoon split, so he could be more of a token lefty who could stretch out as a long reliever.

If the Royals go with a lefty specialist, Donnie Joseph is the guy. Historically, he’s done well in that role and his best pitch is his slider, a selection that’s particularly tough against left-handed batters. He’s impressed in spring training, showing great command. He’s walked nobody, given up only two hits, and struck out 11 batters. The running joke on Twitter is that he can strike out anyone at any time, even if he’s not in the game or if the “batter” is an innocent bystander.

What it comes down to, in my mind, is a choice between Coleman and Joseph. If the Royals want to keep a lefty, I give the edge to Joseph because he’s earned the opportunity. There’s not much more he could be asked to do. Bueno had good numbers last year though, and the Royals may lean on that in their decision.

For a while, it seemed like Gutierrez would be the commanding favorite, especially after his VWL performance, but also because he’s out of options, and those guys typically stick around to start the year. The Royals are like many other teams in that they want to keep their inventory protected, so if they can option a player like Coleman, even if he’s probably more talented and has done better, they’ll do so to keep another arm until they show to be ineffective. Gutierrez hasn’t pitched well, though, so it opens the door for any of the other candidates.

Ideally, some trade allows the Royals to keep Coleman and Joseph, who I see as the best options for the last spots. But there’s only one spot to fight for right now, so it’s not apparent who’ll get the last seat when the music stops.

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