Saturday night, Bob Dutton provided us with some tremendous insight into the Royals’ bullpen competition.  What makes Dutton solid, in my opinion, is his ability to dance along the company line while also providing true glimpses of what the organization is actually thinking.  In this case, for those of us love the art of roster construction, this article gives us a number of interesting observations.

First off, for those of you out there that agonize over having a lefty or two, you will be delighted to once more hear confirmation that Ned Yost prefers to have two lefthanders in his bullpen.   I have always opted for a good righthander over an average lefthander (although a great lefty is always preferable), but in this case the Royals appear to have the luxury of at least one southpaw who is also likely to be an effective member of the pen:  Tim Collins.

After Joakim Soria and Robinson Tejeda (both locks according to The Star’s article, by the way), Collins was the next name on most everyone’s bullpen projections over the winter.   Nothing has happened this spring to change any of that and, despite not currently in ownership of a 40 man roster spot, Tim Collins is now closest thing to a lock in this competition.

Although some commenters here have speculated at various times that Danny Duffy or Blaine Hardy might make the team out of spring training, I have always thought the field was too contested and both too inexperienced to actually get a spot.   That, however, was before the zest for a second lefthander became so prevalent. 

If Dutton’s comments are true insights into the soul of the Royals’ organization then this tidbit is rather telling: “The other lefty spot, assuming there is one, shapes up as a battle between Danny Duffy and Blaine Hardy unless the Royals choose to push one of their highly regarding starting prospects into the mix. 

Given that I always counted Duffy as one of those ‘highly regarding starting prospects’, I found that statement rather interesting.   Is that a sign that the Royals view Duffy as less of a prospect than Montgomery, Lamb and Dwyer?   Did his sabbatical from baseball last spring change the team’s perspective of him?   Or, is it truly just a way to get Duffy on a different experience level from the other three?

That last question is what Dutton suggests and is also something I have been advocating since last fall (and it wasn’t exactly rocket science then!).    While the modern philosophy of baseball has moved away from having young starters begin their major league careers as relievers, it seems a good way to get Duffy experience ahead of some of the other prospects and also not expose him to a ton of innings.   Remember, Duffy only saw action in 62 regular season innings last year:   having him get 80 or 90 big league innings in 2011 might be preferable to 140 in the minors.

In the end, it is not cut and dried that the Royals will actually break camp with two lefty relievers and it is very possible that Blaine Hardy will be the second as opposed to Duffy.   If we go with Yost for now, however, then that leaves room for three righthanders behind Soria and Tejeda.   By all accounts, Jeremy Jeffress has a solid hold on the first of those spots, which is fine by most anyone who cares about the final few spots in the bullpen of a team that will not contend in 2011.

Right now, the top three contenders for the final two spots are apparently Greg Holland, Kanekoa Texiera and Louis Coleman.   The interesting thing about that list is who is not on it:  Blake Wood.   

After appearing in 51 games for Kansas City last season and finishing strong (18 strikeouts in his last 18 innings), I figured Wood to be a lock to open 2011 in the big league pen.    As it turns out, Wood’s inability to control the running game is so poor that it could actually keep him off the big league roster.   After some major rework at the big league level last year, Wood allowed just three steals in four attempts in August and September – down from six in seven attempts in the month of July.     If you put stock in the organization’s opinion, that improvement may well have been statistical only.   This is one we will definitely have to defer to the ‘baseball men’.   I think we will see a lot of Wood in 2011, but probably not in April.

The idea that both Holland and Coleman might break camp with the Royals delights me.   Both were college draftees picked with the idea that both would be relievers and both would move quickly through the system.   There is nothing better than when a plan, or a process, works out.  

Holland didn’t really impress anyone in a brief trial late last season, but he has a history of initial struggles at each level followed by a long stretch of effectiveness.    The guy has 243 strikeouts in 229 minor league innings and could be a valuable middle to late inning reliever if he can harness his control.   If anything, it appears Holland might have been throwing ‘too hard’ last year and has been much more accurate this spring.

Coleman has simply gotten people out at every level in his quite brief professional career and has continued to do so this spring.   Getting back to my ‘spread the experience out’ theory, I am all for breaking camp with a handful of rookies in the pen so that when the young starters begin to surface they have a quasi-veteran pen behind them.

The Royals like Texiera more than anyone else in baseball.   To be fair, Kanekoa pitched a fair part of last season hurt, but as a minor league nerd and a Process believer the likes of him, Jesse Chavez and Luis Mendoza getting mentioned as possible relievers seems a little too much like buying retread tires.   Given that both Texiera and Mendoza have been very good this spring, they might well make the team.   Perhaps, as Ned Yost observed, Mendoza will be this year’s ‘Chen’, but I will be surprised to see either make it through June.

As one who has published a monthly update on the projected 25 man roster since last November, Dutton’s article scrambled my thoughts on the bullpen considerably.   As an unabashed, borderline over the edge Royals’ follower, the idea of breaking camp with a bullpen that includes Collins, Duffy, Holland, Jeffress and Coleman is actually quite exciting.   It will be interesting to see if the Royals are as excited about that idea as I am.