Options could land Musser in Minors

Options could land Musser in Minors

PHOENIX -- All Neal Musser kept pleading for was for somebody -- anybody, really -- to look at him as a relief pitcher.

Nobody would.

Teams kept trotting Musser out to their mound as a starter, despite his insistence that he could pitch better out of the 'pen.

"But you gotta do what they tell you to do," he said, smiling and shaking his head. "Yeah, it's frustrating, but you still gotta go out there and do your job as best you can."

So Musser did. He took the ball every fifth day and pitched, although not with the kind of success that made organizations think he had a future with them.

Left-handers, however, always seem to be in demand, and when one team decided Musser wasn't in its future, another team thought otherwise. That team was the Royals. They did what Musser's last team wouldn't do: let him pitch in relief.

As a starter, Musser's fastball settled in around 89 mph. As a left-handed reliever, his fastball is registering 93 or 94 mph on the radar gun. The extra giddy-up on his fastball, a pitch that as a starter he learned to command, has made Musser a more effective reliever.

His effectiveness this Spring Training hasn't gone unnoticed.

Judging eyes have put his work under scrutiny. Coaches are nitpicking and poking at his relief work, and if not for another set of circumstances, Musser might be a shoo-in to break camp with the team.

But this isn't a Spring Training of Royals past, and Musser finds himself on the bubble here, as unsettling a place to be in baseball as it is in college basketball.

The uncertainty of not knowing can drive a man crazy.

And uncertainty surely is a maddening companion to Musser. He's one of a handful of pitchers trying to show manager Trey Hillman that they deserve a spot on his Opening Day roster.

Nothing Musser's done in camp has shown he doesn't.

Yet, this Spring Training, his performances might not have been enough. They have been all that Hillman could ask for; they have been all that Musser could ask for himself.

Still, those circumstances might have conspired against him.

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Things started to fall against him when Musser opened camp with a bad back, which he hurt in an offseason workout. The bad back stopped his progress cold.

"Nobody wants to be that guy coming into Spring Training hurt," he said. "It managed to happen to me. It's the first time it's ever happened to me."

His back problem soon sorted itself out. It feels good now; it's healed, he said.

"It doesn't feel like I've missed any time," Musser said. "It doesn't seem like there's any lingering effect from it. I'm throwing the ball great."

Others agree.

"Since the third time he came up last year, he was very good and he's continued on," pitching coach Bob McClure said. "I think he's been pretty good."

Musser's latest outing illustrates how good. Musser pitched an easy 1-2-3 inning on Monday against the Athletics. He's yet to allow an earned run this spring.

Yet as well as he's pitched, he might not make the Opening Day roster. He's a lefty, and Royals have a glut of left-handed relievers. He's the least experienced of the group of lefties.

He's also one of the few with Minor League options left.

"They've stockpiled left-handers, and that's always a good thing for Major League clubs," Musser said. "At the same time, it hurts guys like me that are trying to get a spot.

"But, like they say, every time you step on that field, you're always playing for every baseball team out there. There's always a chance of a trade or whatever."

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.