SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Joe Nelson's lingering shoulder problems could force the Royals to start the season without one of their best relievers.

Nelson has thrown side sessions, but because of the soreness in his right shoulder has not been cleared to pitch in any Cactus League games.

"I just know that he's still struggling with his arm and they [Royals medical personnel] are trying to come up with some kind of program right now," Royals manager Buddy Bell said Thursday morning. "That's unfortunate too because he was a candidate for the bullpen right now and just because he's had no workload he's probably more than likely not going to start the season with us."

Nelson went 1-1 with a 4.43 ERA in 43 games last season. The right-hander converted nine of 10 save opportunities and finished second on the team in saves behind former Royals pitcher and current New York Mets hurler Ambiorix Burgos (18). In 44 2/3 innings, Nelson struck out 44 and walked 24. He held opponents to a .226 batting average.

Nelson said he has been able to play catch without pain, but pitching off the mound and the downward plane that activity requires, is subject to soreness.

When asked if Nelson would open the season on the disabled list Bell said, "Looks like it. That's where it's all pointing to right now."

German to start: Bell said Esteban German will start the season at second base since Mark Grudzielanek is out after tearing cartilage in his left knee last week in an injury that required surgery. There had been hope that Grudzielanek might be ready to play by Opening Day but Bell put an end to that theory on Thursday.

"I just know he's not going to be ready for Opening Day so we'll just kind of move forward in the next week or so and that will give us a better idea [of when] Grudzielanek might return," Bell said. "Probably by the end of April. Hopefully it will be better than that. I don't know."

Grudzielanek's timetable may be uncertain at the moment, but not his replacement. Bell said the job is German's until Grudzielanek returns.

"That's for sure," Bell said. "It's a great option so at least we have some depth there in Esty. We're going to miss Grud, because you know the other issue is we can't move Esty as much as we wanted to down here."

German's move to the starting lineup opens up a roster spot for an additional utility infielder such as Alex Gonzalez, Andres Blanco or someone else.

"We'll have to carry one of those guys because Esty becomes a regular and we'll need a utility guy to take his place," Bell said.

Spring Training
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The Butler did it, again: Billy Butler continued his torrid hitting with a three-run homer, giving the outfielder a team-high eight hits in 12 at-bats for a .667 batting average.

Can the young phenom hit his way onto the team?

"No, I don't think so, there's just so many other things involved in his game," Bell said. "We just want to be real careful with Billy and his development. There's other things about his game that have to get better. He just turned 20 [years old] so we're going to be careful with him."

Bell, however, conceded that Butler's performance was noteworthy.

"You don't want to get too excited about early [performances] but he's done some things that should excite us," Bell said. "We really haven't seen a lot of weaknesses. Even though it's Spring Training and you're not seeing the same kind of pitchers you'll see during the season, still you're getting a really good clue of what he's doing up there. He's as good a young hitter as I've seen in awhile.

"I can't remember anybody with that kind of power and hit-ability at the same time. He's got a pretty good idea of what he wants to do. He can put the ball in play if he needs to, he can hit it out of the park if he needs to."

Even so, the Royals are taking no chances with Butler. They want to see improvement in other areas before considering bringing him up to the Major Leagues.

"I think there's still some things defensively that he has to do," Bell said. "Some intangible stuff that he has to get better at. I think if he would make this team, those things would be exposed. I'm not sure of that, but I mean just from experience that's usually the case. We really want to be careful with him. [He's a] great kid [and he's] showing what he needs to show us."

Backstop possibilities: Bell said at the Winter Meetings he would prefer to see either John Buck or Jason LaRue take over as starting catcher, but so far both have played so well it would be difficult to choose a winner in the battle.

"Both of them have stepped it up to this point," Bell said. "It will be interesting to see how that turns out. You know, I'm really hoping that we have to move that competition into the season, that might be the best scenario, I don't know. That's not what I initially wished it would be, because I would like a No. 1 guy, but if they both deserve it, we're going to have to figure it out somehow."

La Rue contributed a two-run homer on Thursday against Seattle, his team-high third of the spring. He has four RBIs and is hitting .400 (4-for-10). Buck is hitting .600 with a homer. Neither catcher has committed an error.

Extra bases: Scott Elarton is progressing nicely from the shoulder surgery he underwent last August, but Bell doesn't expect the right-hander back anytime soon. "Middle of May, first of June, something like that is certainly a possibility," Bell said. "We're real encouraged. He's got some extension in his arm that I haven't seen in a while. He's throwing without any pain. In terms of his extension and just feeling about where he's at, it's a great sign." Elarton threw a 51-pitch bullpen session on Wednesday and his next test will be March 13, when he is scheduled to pitch a batting practice session. ... Bell said he hasn't really been surprised by anything in camp yet. "Other than for example, like [Brian] Bannister, I've never seen him before but I'm encouraged by his stuff," Bell said. ... Shortstop Angel Berroa hit his first home run of the spring, a solo shot off Seattle's Sean Green in the sixth inning on Thursday, and is hitting .333 (5-for-15) so far this spring. ... Thursday's game was the 1,000th spring exhibition game in Royals history.

On deck: The Royals have their lone split-squad day of the exhibition season Friday. They will take on the Milwaukee Brewers in Maryvale at 2:05 p.m. CT followed by an 8:05 p.m. game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Surprise Stadium. Luke Hudson will start the nightcap against the Angels and Nick Adenhart. Ryan Braun, Jason Standridge, Roberto Giron, Leo Nunez and Matt Wright are also scheduled to pitch for the Royals.