SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Any other spring in which a Kansas City manager talks about how he will use his closer in the upcoming season might elicit a yawn or a shrug of the shoulders. But after the Royals compiled a baseball's-best 18-8 record last September and added leadoff man Coco Crisp and first baseman Mike Jacobs over the winter, who knows?
Nobody is predicting an AL Central title for the Royals, but things do seem to be headed in the right direction. Which is one reason why skipper Trey Hillman thinks the time and place are right to lengthen the leash on All-Star closer Joakim Soria.
In his first full season as Royals' closer in 2008, Soria essentially was a one-inning guy. His 42 saves ranked second in the American League, and of those, only two came in games in which he was asked to obtain more than three outs (he also had one blown save during which he entered the game in the eighth inning).
"Now, with more innings, we're going to be more aggressive with him," Hillman says. "We'll let the situation dictate, but maybe there will be times this year when we ask him to get four or five outs."
The Royals are very optimistic that they've improved their bullpen. The additions of right-handers Juan Cruz, Kyle Farnsworth, Doug Waechter and Jamey Wright, the return of Ron Mahay and John Bale (who is sidelined until late March with a thyroid condition) and the hot spring Robinson Tejada is having, combined with Soria, should give Hillman some dependable late-game options.
And the more consistent the Royals pitch in the sixth and seventh innings, the more games they should be in position to win in the eighth and ninth.
"It's a matter of being ready for situations," says Hillman of Soria, whom the Royals plucked from San Diego in the 2006 Rule V draft. "I think you need that one year of solidification without taxing him too much and putting him at risk."
That came last year, a breakout season in which Soria converted 42 of 47 save opportunities and became one of only 14 closers in major-league history (minimum 30 saves) to record more saves than hits allowed (39) in a season.
In 2007, Soria's quick ascension began in the bullpen, continued when he quickly became the Royals' set-up man and then went into overdrive when he became the primary closer.
The Royals were very aware of protecting Soria last season, with Hillman usually opting for somebody else on the third day if Soria had closed two consecutive games.
"During our 12-game losing streak (May 19-30), we had fans yelling at us, 'Where's Soria?!'" Hillman says. "But if he had pitched two days in a row, we were not going to pitch him a third day.
"I think we have more coverage for him this year. At least, from an experience standpoint."
Likes: Hall of Famer George Brett, upon hearing details of Team USA's mercy-rule loss to Puerto Rico, saying he was going to immediately call fellow HOFer Mike Schmidt, third-base coach for Team USA. "Oh, I'm going to call him and get all over him about this," Brett cackled. "I'll ask him, 'Are you guys even trying?'" ... The groundskeepers hard at work manicuring the field at 9:30 a.m. in a quiet Scottsdale Stadium on Sunday morning. One of them was taking grass clippings from a bucket and sprinkling them in bare spots, filling in areas where the sod was worn. "Shhhh," he said. No need to keep it quiet, though: Scottsdale Stadium is a beautiful place, the grass more consistently lush than anywhere else in the Cactus League and the trees on the other side of the outfield fence adding to the beauty. ... Padres broadcaster and former Yankees infielder Jerry Coleman busting into San Diego manager Bud Black's office the other day and expounding on the "lost art of the pop-up slide." ... The MLB Network is far better than I expected. More legitimate analysis, less propaganda. ... Seeing actor Timothy Busfield in Los Olivos, a Mexican joint in Oldtown Scottsdale, on Saturday night. I do miss The West Wing.
Dislikes: Arizona is loaded with those sneaky cameras not only looking to aid in ticketing drivers for running red lights, but also to catch them speeding. I've seen the red light cameras before, but I've never seen cameras rigged along freeways looking to catch speeders without a cop in sight. We're reaching the point where we need a citizens' uprising in our Big Brother society. If a cop can't catch you in a traffic violation, there should be no ticket.
Sunblock Day? Another in a streak of gorgeous Arizona days. Hot sun, 80ish, many girls wearing their summer clothes here in Scottsdale Stadium. Wish you were here.
Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:
"It’s a cartoon town,
"I play my part,
"And I ain’t spoke her name in years"
-- Drive-By Truckers, Marry Me