Relief will be KC's likely Meetings focus

Relief will be KC's likely Meetings focus

KANSAS CITY -- This isn't a call to the bullpen for help. It's a call to add help for the bullpen.

That's Royals general manager Dayton Moore holding the phone as he prepares for next week's Winter Meetings at Las Vegas' Bellagio Hotel from Dec. 8-11.

He was one of the most active GMs in the early trade market, acquiring first baseman Mike Jacobs from the Marlins on Oct. 30 and center fielder Coco Crisp from the Red Sox on Nov. 19.

But here's the thing: those acquisitions cost him, in order, right-handed relief pitchers Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez. They were a couple of hard-throwing setup types that figured as key components in the 2009 bullpen.

No more. The vacancy sign is out.

"We're always looking internally, of course, then for trades and then the free-agent market is the third option," Moore said, "but in some cases it's the best option."

That said, the in-house options are limited, especially on the right-handed side. The only experienced righties who might be candidates include Robinson Tejeda, Joel Peralta, just-signed Franquelis Osoria and Yasuhiko Yabuta, the latter two on Minor League rosters. And who can predict what the trade market might yield?

"We need to focus on our bullpen, and the best way to improve our bullpen, potentially, is through free agency," Moore said.

"I feel like we're in a solid position going into the Winter Meetings than in the previous two Winter Meetings. We've been proactive in acquiring Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp. It doesn't take much imagination to look at what our lineup is going to be. I think it's pretty predictable at this point."

Ramirez leaves a big gap in the 'pen. He worked 71 2/3 innings in 71 games and posted a 2.46 ERA with a 3-2 record, a save and 70 strikeouts. He wasn't acquired until last Spring Training in a swap that eventually sent starter Jorge De La Rosa to the Colorado Rockies. Ramirez was a sleeper who awoke to his full potential.

Nunez's best work came early in the season, giving up runs in just one of his first 20 appearances. Then a strained right lat cost him nearly two months and he wasn't the same afterward, although he finished strong. In 45 games, he posted a 4-1 record with a 2.98 ERA.

The free-agent market includes some right-handed relievers who might pique the Royals' interest, such as Juan Cruz, Brandon Lyon, David Weathers, Doug Brocail, Chan Ho Park, Bobby Howry and Kyle Farnsworth, among others.

Two of the items on the Royals' offseason wish list seemingly have been filled.

"We wanted to find a middle-of-the-order presence, and we feel like we've accomplished that in Mike Jacobs, and a center fielder who can hit potentially at the top of the lineup -- and we've done that [with Crisp]," Moore said.

"We've done that without weakening our starting pitching, but now the No. 1 focus obviously is the bullpen. You look at our team and identify our strengths and weaknesses, and relievers from the right side is our weakness right now."

Also often mentioned has been a seasoned middle infielder to go with shortstop Mike Aviles, who could shift to second base.

And, of course, a starting pitcher to strengthen a rotation headed by Gil Meche and Zack Greinke is never far from the Royals' considerations.

Last year at the Winter Meetings at Nashville, Tenn., the Royals' only major move was signing free-agent slugger Jose Guillen to a three-year, $36-million deal. That turned out all right, in Moore's estimation.

"Yeah, 20 home runs and 97 RBIs," he said. "And I think Jose potentially will have a better year in 2009 with the expected improvement of Alex Gordon and Billy Butler and Mark Teahen and the addition of Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp. I think Jose is in a position right now where he won't have to try to do too much and doesn't necessarily have to be the guy. So I think potentially he'll have a better year."

The Royals also spent some time courting free-agent outfielder Andruw Jones and Japanese pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, but both signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Instead, the Royals wound up with Guillen as their big winter acquisition, and there was some consternation along the way as he caused a few distractions and the team's overall run production actually slipped a bit.

Some criticism was inevitable, but Moore brushed it aside.

"If that's one of my worst mistakes -- to sign somebody who has 20 home runs and 97 RBIs -- I'll take it," he said.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.