Top starters to ease into Cactus League action
Front four in rotation expected to get six starts; Smith to start opener
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The centerpiece of this Royals Spring Training, the front four of the pitching rotation, won't be on display for a while.
With the Cactus League schedule stretched out to accommodate the World Baseball Classic, manager Ned Yost decided to skip James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis in the first four games.
At any rate, in Yost's mind there's no way that any of the four could pitch themselves out of the rotation before the regular season opens on April 1 at Chicago. So there's no urgency for them to pitch.
"These are our starters," Yost said.
The goal is to work the four right-handers into game shape methodically. Each of them will make six starts, perhaps seven, in Arizona.
"Forget the innings, you want the pitch count," Yost said. "I want to get them up past 90 pitches so when he starts his first game in the rotation, he's ready to go 100 or 105. So you incrementally build him up. We'll start two innings, 30 pitches; then three innings, 45; then four innings, 60; five innings, 75, and then go six innings at 90 or whatever and then maybe have a little back-down and he's ready to go 100."
So when the Royals take on the Texas Rangers in their Cactus League opener at 2:05 p.m. CT on Friday (broadcast live on Gameday Audio) at Surprise Stadium, left-hander Will Smith -- one of several candidates for the No. 5 starting job -- gets the starting call. The Rangers, though, will counter with one of their rotation regulars, left-hander Derek Holland. The Rangers aren't fooling around.
"We're not fooling around either, we're here to win this year," Smith said. "We're excited with the moves that we've made, the people that we re-signed and the people that [we] brought in. So we're going to be competing, too. Even though our front four guys aren't throwing the first four games, we're still out there trying to win a ballgame."
The first front-four pitcher expected to start is Davis, on Tuesday against Cleveland. The Royals will start Guillermo Moscoso on Saturday and Luis Mendoza on Sunday, both against Texas, and Chris Dwyer on Monday against Arizona.
Smith is expected to pitch two innings in Friday's opener; Others on the pitching list are Yordano Ventura, Justin Marks, Nate Adcock, Sugar Ray Marimon, Michael Mariot and Blaine Boyer.
Clearly, in the early games, the Royals are looking at Minor League kids and Major League hopefuls. Not even their bullpen regulars are scheduled to work in the first two games.
Smith, who started 16 games last year for Kansas City, is in a battle with several pitchers, including Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Mendoza, for the fifth starting job.
"It's a little more intense this Spring Training, I would say," Smith said. "You're a little more competitive this year. You've just got to go out and do your job, you can't worry about that."
The Royals will trot out a starting lineup that, except perhaps for center field and second base, might approximate their Opening Day batting order: Alex Gordon, LF; Alcides Escobar, SS; Eric Hosmer, 1B; Billy Butler, DH; Salvador Perez, C; Mike Moustakas, 3B; Jeff Francoeur, RF; Johnny Giavotella, 2B, and Jarrod Dyson, CF.
Giavotella is dueling with Chris Getz for the second-base job. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain is out with a hand injury, giving Dyson a chance to make a bid.
For the first couple of weeks, Yost said the starting position players will play about half the game and then give way to others.
"We're ready, man," Yost said. "The only thing you wait on is the pitchers. The hitters are ready to go, the fielders are ready to go. For the next two weeks, these kids will be playing four or five innings and we'll swap 'em around."
The Royals warmed up with two intrasquad games.
"No one likes to do these intrasquad games, no one likes to play against each other," Gordon said. "We want to play against other teams. It's good to get your feet wet out there, especially for the pitchers to get comfortable facing live hitting, but we really just want to get out on the field and start playing games."
The Cactus League games proved especially beneficial to Gordon two years ago when, after a slow start, Yost got him in games at every opportunity -- even as designated hitter -- to give him as many at-bats as possible. Gordon was told not to worry about results, just get his timing down.
"It was about feeling comfortable, and I did and I started off great to start the season," Gordon said.
That was 2011 when he had the best season of his career and blossomed into a star.
For Smith, the change from practice into games marks another step of progress for what the Royals feel will be a contending team.
"Everybody's clicking real well. There's not really people that don't like each other or anything like that here. Everybody gets along, everybody goofs around and everybody gets their work done when they need to. We're very excited, we've got a good shot this year," Smith said.
"It's an exciting time in Kansas City."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.