KANSAS CITY -- For the first time in many years, the Royals will enter Spring Training with a 25-man roster that is excitingly wide open.
There will be camp battles everywhere, from the rotation to the bullpen to the outfield to even first base, where Eric Hosmer manned the position for the last seven years, but he remains a free agent (and still on the Royals' radar as of this writing).
So, here's a very early and very bold prediction of the Opening Day 25-man roster.
Catchers (2): Salvador Perez, Andrew Butera
While the Royals have talked much this offseason about dealing virtually anyone to accelerate the rebuild, general manager Dayton Moore has made it clear that the return for Perez in a trade likely would never be enough to move him. Butera will be in the final year of his two-year, $3.8 million deal, and the club feels he remains one of the top backup catchers in baseball.
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First base (1): Eric Hosmer
OK, this is why these are called early 25-man projections. But the longer Hosmer stays on the free-agent market, the greater the chances are that the Royals can land him. It's probably a long shot but, it's still a possibility if he remains unsigned by another club. The fallback plan is Hunter Dozier, a right-handed-hitting former first-round pick that put up nice numbers at Class A and Double-A before scuffing a bit at Triple-A.
Second base(1): Whit Merrifield
Merrifield exceeded all expectations, having a breakout year in 2017 at age 28. After being sent to Omaha to start the season, he laid claim to second base after being recalled, hitting .288 with 19 home runs while leading the American League in stolen bases with 34.
Shortstop(1): Alcides Escobar
The Royals recently signed him to a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the belief that Raul Mondesi isn't quite ready to take over for a full year at shortstop. And Moore believes that especially in a rebuilding process, the shortstop position is vital in terms of consistently getting outs when possible.
Third base(1): Cheslor Cuthbert
Cuthbert had a solid 2016 (.274/.318/.413 in 475 at-bats) filling in for the injured Mike Moustakas. As a backup in 2017, he played in 58 games and hit two homers with a .231 average. The Royals believe he will shine again in 2018 as a full-time starter getting regular at-bats.
Starting outfield(3): Alex Gordon, Paulo Orlando, Jorge Bonifacio
Gordon admitted he had an abysmal year offensively in 2017 (.208, nine homers), but he did win his fifth Gold Glove Award, so there was defensive contribution. And he was encouraged by a 20-game stretch in September when he slashed .317/.403/.587, with five doubles and four home runs. Orlando steps into the void of departed center fielder Lorenzo Cain. After hitting .302 with 24 doubles, four triples and five home runs in 2016, Orlando couldn't hold a starting job in 2017. Bonifacio was one of the pleasant surprises of 2017, emerging to hit 17 home runs in 113 games as a rookie. The right field job is his to lose.
Designated hitter/bench(3): Ramon Torres, Jorge Soler, Billy Burns
Manager Ned Yost likes Torres as a utility guy who can switch-hit and play anywhere on the infield. He didn't show it last year in just 33 games, but he has some pop in his bat. Soler -- who is out of options -- needs a breakthrough year after being acquired at the 2016 Winter Meetings for Wade Davis. Soler told The Kansas City Star recently that he shed 20 pounds and developed a change in his swing mechanics (loading his back leg more consistently) that could provide dividends in 2018 as the primary DH or part-time outfielder. Burns, another outfielder out of options, figures to land as the fourth outfielder -- he's a speedy switch-hitter who can pinch-run and play all three outfield positions well.
Rotation(5): LHP Danny Duffy, RHP Ian Kennedy, RHP Jason Hammel, RHP Nate Karns, RHP Jakob Junis
After having a procedure to clean out some "loose bodies" behind his left elbow last fall, Duffy said that he is throwing pain-free for the first time in a long time. If he's good to go, he's the best starter on the staff. Kennedy was hampered by an injured hamstring in 2017 that really destroyed his season (5.38 ERA). He said that he has made steps this offseason in his conditioning to prevent a repeat.
The final numbers (5.29 ERA) for Hammel were obviously not what he or the Royals were looking for when they signed him to a two-year, $16 million deal prior to last season. His name has come up a lot in trade talks as the Royals continue to look to shave payroll (especially if they re-sign Hosmer).
Karns showed flashes of dominance (29 strikeouts during a three-game stretch in May) and he is hoping that thoracic outlet syndrome surgery last summer could be the stepping stone to an injury-free 2018. Junis (9-3, 4.30 ERA) showed that his curveball could be an out pitch in his rookie season. He gave up three earned runs or less in 12 of his 16 starts. He has a bright future.
Bullpen (8): RHP Kelvin Herrera, RHP Wily Peralta, RHP Brandon Maurer, RHP Jesse Hahn, RHP Kevin McCarthy, RHP Brad Keller, RHP Burch Smith, LHP Brian Flynn
Herrera is the likely closer even though he lost his job to Mike Minor last September. Herrera could also be trade bait (he made $7,937,500 in 2017 and is headed toward arbitration). Signed as a free agent from Milwaukee, Peralta almost exclusively has been a starter in his career. He could get that chance again with the Royals, but don't be shocked if the Royals experiment with him as a late-inning guy, even as a closer. He can bring it at 96-98 mph.