Baird, Bell upbeat despite setbacks

Baird, Bell upbeat despite preseason setbacks

Near the end of Spring Training, general manager Allard Baird sat in a lunch room at Scottsdale Stadium and was asked about the state of the Royals.

"I don't think it's any different than when we talked in January," Baird said.

"The whole key, No. 1, is health. And No. 2 is going to be our starting rotation getting deep into the games. I don't think anything has changed with that."

Take Nos. 1 and 2, though, and immediately you can see cause for concern.

Various health issues have taken away three of the five starters that, in January, Baird envisioned in his rotation.

Not only that, his closer is down.

That's not a good beginning for a club that is trying to unbind the shackles of last place and distance itself -- by a wide margin, hopefully -- from 106 losses.

Manager Buddy Bell said from the outset that his starting rotation was his top concern. Since then, he's lost Zack Greinke to unspecified personal reasons, Mark Redman to knee surgery and Runelvys Hernandez to conditioning issues.

All three will be out until after the season opens. Hernandez could be ready by mid-April and Redman around May 1, but there's no date for Greinke.

Meantime, closer Mike MacDougal, anchor of the much-acclaimed bullpen, will be out another month or so. Setup man Ambiorix Burgos moves into the closer's role for now.

"Bullpen-wise, getting hit with MacDougal early on -- that's baseball," Baird said. "I'm not downplaying the fact that we lost our closer, but I do think we have some depth there and we do have some guys that, in the heat of the battle, have proved successful at it. I still think that's a strength."

Also available to close is left-hander Andrew Sisco, the other third of last year's young triumvirate.

The Royals stocked up the middle of the bullpen by adding Elmer Dessens and Mike Wood who, in truth, pitched well enough to win a starting role. Jimmy Gobble added lefty strength.

Yet, the real area of concern is the starting rotation. Instead of starting Hernandez, Greinke, Redman and Scott Elarton as planned, it's Elarton, Joe Mays, Jeremy Affeldt and Denny Bautista.

At least those will be the four for the first two weeks or until the space-providing open dates run out. Then Hernandez should be ready.

Elarton not only will be the Opening Day starter, but he's expected to be a staff leader.

"I'm excited about it. I feel I'm in a better position to be successful this time. Just more confidence. I feel like I know what I'm doing now, and I've been around enough to know that there's going to be ups and downs and I've dealt with a lot of that," Elarton said.

Mays, in his second year back after reconstructive elbow surgery, needs to regain the promise he showed with the Minnesota Twins.

Affeldt, a reliever last year, moved up to the No. 3 job when Hernandez was dropped for lack of stamina. Affeldt has started before with mixed results.

Bell still has hope that Hernandez will find his rythtm with Triple-A Omaha.

"Runelvys, in my eyes, can be our No. 1 guy. We just need to get him in shape," Bell said. "Unfortunately the guy came in in not-too-good shape."

Bautista, too, has the potential to be a No. 1 starter. He wasn't given that chance in Spring Training because the Royals didn't want to risk straining the shoulder that kept him out most of last season.

Here's how, in edited capsules, pitching coach Bob McClure sees the top five starters:

Elarton: "He can keep you in games. He's not a big strikeout guy, not a groundball or flyball guy. He's just learned how to compete and, through all the adversity he's gone through with injuries, has been able to get back to compete at the Major League level. He's got a big heart."

Mays: "We should see a lot more quality. Joe said when he hit 100 innings last year, his arm felt really dead. It's not unusual for that to happen. With sinkerballers, you just never know. They usually throw fewer pitches, they'll keep you in games. He's also a blue-collar guy, a 180- to 200-inning guy."

Affeldt: "The main progression I've seen is, from a mental standpoint, he's learning not to break. When things start going bad, he's not compounding it. He keeps it minimal and is concentrating on pitching to the next hitter. That was his basic issue -- being able to focus on what's important."

Bautista: "Denny's the same thing, just wondering who he is. We have some issues with his slider. What he's learning is the velocity he can pitch at and what we're finding is it's around 92 to 96 mph, whereas before he threw at 100. I told him, 'I know you can throw at 100, but can you pitch at 100?'"

Hernanadez: "Runelvys may be our most pitchable pitcher -- a tremendous feel for the game and very competitive. He has all the attributes to be really good. Right now his arm speed isn't the same because he's two weeks behind as far as Spring Training goes. So we're hoping to get that cleared up."

Regardless of who originates the innings as starters, all those innings are going to have to come.

"Now, do we have the talent to do that? Yes. Now we're going to have to execute it," Baird said.

That's the difficult part.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.