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Royals roster coming into focus

We will soon know the 25 players headed north.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Chicago Cubs Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

A week from Monday, the Royals will begin their season in Target Field against the Twins, playing real baseball games that count. We don’t know which 25 men will be available to play for that contest, but we have a pretty good idea of how the roster will end up, and what questions still remain.

Here is what we know and which questions remain for the roster.

The starting rotation

The starting rotation will be Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Jason Vargas, and Nathan Karns. Ned Yost named Karns as the fifth starter last week over Travis Wood, praising Karns’ "power stuff" which has led to a lot of strikeouts in his career. Yost has not officially named his Opening Day starter, but with Duffy starting yesterday, he is in line to start Monday’s game in Minnesota, and everyone expects him to get the nod.

The starting lineup

Eight spots in the starting lineup are set, we just don’t know what order yet. Most of the regulars are well known to Royals fans - Salvador Pérez at catcher, Eric Hosmer at first, Alcides Escobar at shortstop, Mike Moustakas back at third, Alex Gordon in left, and Lorenzo Cain in center. Jorge Soler will almost certainly start in right field despite a rough spring. Brandon Moss will start at designated hitter. The only real question is who will start at second base.

Whit Merrifield seemed to have the inside track as the incumbent, but Raúl Mondesí has opened things up with a strong spring. Ned Yost has suggested that there will be no regular at second base, with playing time split among two or three players. However the Royals also want Raúl Mondesí to get everyday playing time.

"Whatever happens," Yost said, "we want Mondi playing every day. That's important to his development."

Complicating things is the fact that Christian Colón and Cheslor Cuthbert are out of options, meaning they cannot be sent to the minors without risking another team claiming them on waivers. The Royals will likely carry 13 position players - the other eight starting players, backup catcher Drew Butera, and reserve outfielder Paulo Orlando are locks. The Royals will likely carry Colón and Cuthbert on the roster in some capacity. That leaves just one roster spot available to Merrifield, Mondesí, outfielder Billy Burns, or slugger Peter O’Brien, who has been the talk of camp with his seven home runs. Merrifield seems like the favorite due to his versatility, but he has options remaining and could be sent down to give Mondesí - or perhaps even O’Brien - a chance on the roster.

As far as the order, the leadoff job seems to be between Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar. Gordon has historically hit well in the leadoff spot (.277/.352/.449 in his career) and is the best hitter the Royals have at drawing walks, but is coming off a down year and has a high strikeout rate. Yost strayed from hitting Gordon leadoff late in the 2014 season and only gave Gordon nine games their last year after demoting Escobar in the lineup.

"We get input from our analytical people. We get input from our eyes. We get input from the coaches before we sit down and decide as a group what our best lineup is going to be."

-Ned Yost

The only thing Escobar really has going for him is that the Royals won with him in the leadoff spot in 2014 and 2015. Escobar has a career .291 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot (just .303 leading off a game) and has been one of the worst-hitting regulars in baseball over the last three seasons. But Ned Yost has praised Escobar’s "ambush" approach and may favor having a right-hander lead off with lefties like Moustakas and Hosmer high up in the order, since he likes to alternate lefties and righties.

Mike Moustakas will likely hit second with Cain and Hosmer behind him. Perez, Moss, and Soler will likely hit 5/6/7, with whoever does not lead off - Gordon or Escobar - and the starting second baseman hitting at the bottom of the lineup.

The bullpen

We know Kelvin Herrera will serve as closer, a role he filled in well last year when Wade Davis was injured, converting 12 saves in 15 opportunities last year. Unless Ned Yost is very stubborn, Joakim Soria will likely have to earn his way back to being the eighth inning guy, with Matt Strahm instead taking that role.

Travis Wood will be a lefty specialist, a role he excelled in with the Cubs last year, allowing lefties to hit just .128. Mike Minor is finally healthy and throwing well and will serve as a left-handed reliever. Chris Young will serve in a long relief role, mopping up when needed. Brian Flynn is already on the disabled list and Seth Maness seems likely to join him, having not pitched this spring. The Royals are very likely to carry 12 pitchers, which means one spot is still available.

Veteran Peter Moylan fared well for the Royals last year with a 3.43 ERA in 44 23 innings. The sidearmer pitched mostly in lower leverage situations, but can be a versatile arm. He also has an opt-out on March 28, so the Royals seem likely to add him to the roster to avoid losing him. Other possibilities for the last bullpen spot include lefty Scott Alexander, who has drawn praise for his performance in camp, right-hander Yender Caramo, who has opened eyes with his heavy sinker despite no Major League experience or prospect pedigree, and veteran Al Alburquerque, who has one of the highest strikeout rates among relievers the last few years.

Locks to make the team
Position Players (12) Pitchers (11)
Drew Butera Danny Duffy
Lorenzo Cain Jason Hammel
Christian Colon Kelvin Herrera
Cheslor Cuthbert Nathan Karns
Alcides Escobar Ian Kennedy
Alex Gordon Mike Minor
Eric Hosmer Joakim Soria
Brandon Moss Matt Strahm
Mike Moustakas Jason Vargas
Paulo Orlando Travis Wood
Salvador Perez Chris Young
Jorge Soler
One spot for One spot for
Billy Burns Al Alburquerque
Whit Merrifield Scott Alexander
Raul Mondesi Yender Caramo
Peter O'Brien Peter Moylan