A crowd of relief pitchers is vying for a handful of spots in the bullpen of the KC Royals. After the first week of spring training games, the competition is still stiff.
For all its good, spring training is also a time of illusions, a thrower of the proverbial breaking pitch in the dirt that fools us into exaggerating the importance of a perennial weak hitter’s high spring average, a marginal pitcher’s sudden dominance, or a superstar’s uncharacteristically horrid performance.
If there is a lesson to be learned from baseball’s annual rite of renewal and preparation, including that of the KC Royals, it is this: Don’t bet the farm that spring training performance accurately foretells regular season outcomes.
To be sure, the sample sizes are too small and the variables too variable–minor league pitchers face major league hitters, major league pitchers face minor league hitters, all hitters typically take time to catch up to the pitchers. But the closer the regular season gets, the more usable performance data can become; it’s never foolproof, but it gets better with age.
So it is that lifting something meaningful out of just a week’s worth of exhibition game data is hard, a task made more difficult by those small sample sizes and invariably excessive variables, but doing so is the object of this early effort to make at least some sense of the crowded contest for the few spots available in the Royals’ bullpen.
To provide some order to the mess, it’s safe to assume that at least three relievers are locks for jobs–Ian Kennedy is the closer, Scott Barlow the presumptive main setup man by virtue of his sterling performance over the second half of last season, and Tim Hill is the best of the scarce left-handers in the competition, but one deserving of a spot in his own right.
Jorge Lopez is as close to a lock without absolutely being one that he can be–he has occasionally mesmerizing stuff, but inconsistency has prevented him from establishing himself as a starter or reliever. Barring unforeseen mediocrity, he’ll make the club–he’s out of options–and it will likely be as a reliever. With the three locks, Lopez, the 26-man roster and 13-pitcher maximum rules taking effect this season, and a five-man rotation, that leaves four bullpen spots for manager Mike Matheny to award.
Counting Thursday’s game, the KC Royals have seven days of exhibition games under their belts, including two days of split-squad games. Matheny hasn’t seen enough to determine to whom his remaining bullpen spots will go, but we can certainly examine the first week of spring contests and identify who’s doing well, who’s performing badly, and who’s on the bubble.