Notes: Bell would like to pick a catcher
Priority behind the plate will be best defensive backstop
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Seven catchers are participating in Spring Training workouts, but only two of them are destined to open the regular season on the Royals' 25-man roster.And if manager Buddy Bell gets his way, one of them will leave this six-week camp as the main man behind the plate. "I would personally like to have someone emerge as the No. 1 guy," Bell said Sunday. "That's the way I would like to do it. But if they make it hard on us to do that, and we can't make a decision on who's ahead of the other, we'll just have to be creative enough to give them both enough playing time." The battle to stay off the bench features veteran backstop Jason LaRue in one corner, and younger, bigger John Buck in another corner. "I like them both," Bell said. "Our catching situation is in good hands with either one of them." It figures to be a defensive-minded competition. Bell wants a take-charge catcher that works well with the pitching staff, calls a good game and slows the opponents' running game. "Everything being equal, I would [start] the defensive guy," Bell said. "I would take the one with some energy and calls a good game over someone who can move the ball offensively." LaRue, 32, has a big edge in experience, having played in 715 MLB games with 2,226 at-bats. He has hit 84 home runs and driven in 303 runs during an eight-year career, all with the Reds. Buck, 26, has played in 303 big-league games, accumulated 1,010 hits, slugged 35 home runs and driven in 127 runs over the past three seasons with the Royals. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Buck is four inches taller and 17 pounds heavier. "I guess I'm the older guy here, have been around awhile and will give [Buck] any knowledge that I have," LaRue said. "I'm not going to say I am at the end of my career. I know I can still be as productive as I always have been because I'm healthy now, so I will go in and do whatever I do best and whatever happens, happens." Peppered pitchers: As an old-school manager, Bell basically sticks to the time-tested Spring Training drills. But he added a little wrinkle this spring, introducing "pepper" to the daily workout routine. In pepper, a "batter" stands about 20 feet from a line of "pitchers", who soft-toss pitches to the hitter, whose job is to make contact via a swinging bunt and try to maneuver the ball from one end of the pitching line to the other, preferably hitting the ball on the ground.
"I like pepper," Bell said. "It's a baseball-related activity and I just think it's a good way to start the day. We haven't done it since, well, forever, so we re-instituted it this year."The drill will be a daily staple during Spring Training, but used sparingly, if at all, during the regular season. Most MLB ballparks prohibit pepper from being played. But there are no such restrictions during the spring. "It gets your feet moving and makes you concentrate on putting the bat on the ball. Interleague Play is a little earlier than it has been in the past, so [pepper] gets a bat into the hands of the pitchers."
So far, so good.
"We were a little concerned, but actually they are pretty good at it," he said. "It's nice to see that our pitchers are athletic."Controlled optimism: A deeper pool of pitching talent and improvement of young players during a tough 2006 season gives Bell a sense that much better things are ahead for the team. "We're not over the hump by any means," he said Sunday, "but I expect us to win more games than we did [in 2006]. To me, that would be the only way to judge our improvement." The Royals won 62 games to extend their streak of 100-loss seasons to three and have now hit the three-figure loss mark four times in the past five years. The single-season high in the first 33 years of the franchise was 97 games, which happened three times. But one positive to come out of the rubble was the positive attitude in the clubhouse and on the field. "I think that from May on, we weren't an easy team to play," he said. "Teams we played didn't really know what was going to happen. We had some talented kids that got better. We still have a lot of young players that have to get better. "I don't have any doubts that this team will play as hard as it can. I think they showed that last year under a lot of adversity. That is not a concern of mine at all." Spring soreness: Several of the 15 pitchers that threw off the bullpen mounds during Saturday's first day of workouts experienced the usual day-after soreness.
"If they weren't sore, they probably wouldn't be doing the things we needed them to do," Bell said. "There will be some normal soreness that these guys have to live with for the next week or so."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.