Kansas City Royals
The growing feeling in Kansas City is that it’s time to expect more. Last year’s transition season saw 12 players make their big league debuts from a well-stocked and much-praised farm system. More are on the way. Playing .500 now seems a reasonable goal after reaching that plateau just once in the previous 17 years. Doing so would mark a 10-game improvement over last year’s 91 losses — no small thing, right? — but the Royals are aiming higher. Manager Ned Yost set the tone in December by declaring, “I think we’re going to play much better than .500. … I think we’re at a stage in our development as an organization that these kids are ready for (increased expectations).” Maybe so. These young Royals showed numerous positive signs a year ago and now appear good enough to dream. They just might, with a little luck, be good enough to make some serious noise in the American League Central.
Nearly all hopes for a breakthrough summer hinge on a rotation that lacks a proven No. 1- or No. 2-caliber starter. While an early spring trade remains possible, the unit, as currently projected, should still be better than a year ago — particularly if lefthander Jonathan Sanchez, the club’s biggest offseason addition, marshals his high-grade gifts. He battled injuries last year in San Francisco and has been an enigma throughout his six previous seasons. But Sanchez helped the Giants reach the postseason in 2010 by posting a 2.61 ERA after the All-Star break, including a 1.04 mark in his last seven starts. If the Royals get that guy, this rotation suddenly looks a whole lot saltier. The same goes for righthander Luke Hochevar, who hopes to build on a solid second half (6–3 and 3.52) that marked the best sustained stretch of his career. Veteran lefty Bruce Chen returns after signing a two-year deal as a free agent. He garners little respect for reinventing himself after Tommy John surgery despite going 23–15 with a 4.00 ERA in 48 starts since entering the rotation in late May 2010. Those are the rotation’s three certainties. Then it gets interesting. Righthander Felipe Paulino and rookie lefty Danny Duffy closed last season with jobs but face stiff spring competition. Two to watch: lefty Mike Montgomery and righthander Aaron Crow. Montgomery was inconsistent last season at Class AAA Omaha but has legitimate No. 1 potential and will get a long look. Crow made the All-Star team last year as a rookie reliever, but he was drafted (No. 12 overall in 2009) as a starter and will get a chance to win a job. Another possibility is righthander Luis Mendoza, who resuscitated his career at Omaha before pitching well in two late-season starts. Righthanders Vin Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan are still around. Lefty Everett Teaford showed potential last season as a rookie swingman.
The Royals strengthened an already strong bullpen by signing free agents Jonathan Broxton and Jose Mijares to one-year deals. Broxton is a former closer and a two-time All-Star but will serve as a setup man for Joakim Soria. Mijares fills the need for a situational lefty. Broxton and Greg Holland also provide the Royals with alternative closers if Soria can’t rebound from an inconsistent 2011. Sidearmer Louis Coleman seems certain to hold a job; the same goes for Crow, if he fails to win a spot in the rotation. Adding Mijares means durable lefty Tim Collins must show better command to keep his spot. Paulino will switch to the bullpen if he fails to make the rotation. The same is likely true for Mendoza, who is out of options. Teaford and Mazzaro could also make the club as long relievers but could easily get squeezed out. The crowded competition makes it even harder to find room for Blake Wood, Kelvin Herrera and Jeremy Jeffress. All five have options.
Defensively, shortstop Alcides Escobar was everything the Royals envisioned after he arrived in December 2010 from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke deal. Escobar proved to be a durable, acrobatic playmaker and perked up at the plate after a dreadful first two months. He ended the season with a .254 average after hitting .324 in the final month of the season. Second base, meanwhile, looms as the only real spring battle among position players. It’s Johnny Giavotella’s job to lose, but he needs to show sufficient offensive production to offset severe defensive limitations and mediocre speed. Giavotella, the Royals’ second-round pick in 2008, hit .247 in 46 games as a rookie in 2011. The alternative is Chris Getz, who offers no pop (nine extra-base hits in 380 at-bats) but steady defense and plus speed. Since both have options, the loser probably heads to Omaha.
It is on the corners, more than anywhere else, where the future is on display. First baseman Eric Hosmer, the third overall pick in 2008, arrived May 6 and often resembled an MVP in waiting. Third baseman Mike Moustakas, the second overall pick in 2007, got the call June 10 and, after a miserable start, showed every indication of becoming a productive middle-of-the-order hitter for years to come. Fans in Kansas City are already fretting at how long either will hang around. Since neither will be eligible for free agency until after the 2017 season, that effectively sets the timetable for the Royals’ current window of opportunity.
Alex Gordon’s emergence last season as a reliable run-producer and Gold Glove leftfielder was a measurable reward for the organization’s patience. He was a can’t-miss prospect as the No. 2 overall pick in 2005 who, prior to last season, came to be widely viewed as a bust. Gordon admits that the question now is whether he can validate his turnaround with another big season. Rightfielder Jeff Francoeur similarly revitalized his career after arriving as a free agent and earned a two-year contract extension. Melky Cabrera was another free agent reclamation project who had a career year, and the Royals responded by selling high and sending him to the Giants for Sanchez. Cabrera’s departure creates an opening for Lorenzo Cain, who offers a defensive upgrade. Cain batted .312 last season at Omaha but will be hard-pressed to match the offense that Cabrera provided.
Sal Perez was a huge surprise last season, playing just 39 and batting .331. His advanced defensive skills got him to the majors last August at age 21, but his rapid growth as a hitter has been little short of phenomenal. However, he will miss several weeks after recovering from a torn meniscus that required surgery. In his stead will be Brayan Pena, a tremendous attitude guy who started 72 games last season.
Billy Butler grumbled a bit last year at making the switch from first base to designated hitter in order to accommodate Hosmer. (It was, of course, a move that had to be made given Hosmer’s defensive superiority.) Nevertheless, Butler still finished with a career-high and club-leading 95 RBIs. He also provides a potent right-handed bat in a lefty-heavy lineup. Yost appears likely to again operate, as he did much of last year, with a three-man bench (in order to carry an eight-man bullpen). That means a backup catcher (probably Max Ramirez until Perez is healthy), a backup outfielder (almost certainly Mitch Maier) and a utility infielder (a reacquired Yuniesky Betancourt). If the Royals keep four non-pitching reserves, the final spot should go to outfielder Jarrod Dyson, a pinch-running dynamo.
Last year produced good marks. General manager Dayton Moore and his staff deserve credit for putting together a farm system that shows signs of extracting the franchise from its extended malaise. Yost displayed the same patience in dealing with young players that he used several years ago in helping turn around the once-moribund Brewers. Now it’s time to win.
Everything suggests that the Royals are heading in the right direction, but expectations are ramping up. Anything less than .500 this season will be a disappointment, and another 90-loss season could force major reevaluations. But if a few things go right — i.e., if the rotation proves steady — it could be a fun summer in the Heartland for the first time in ages.
LF Alex Gordon (L)
Not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but his club-leading .376 on-base percentage makes him the best fit.
2B Johnny Giavotella (R)
His minor league numbers suggest he could be Dustin Pedroia-light; the Royals would take that in a heartbeat.
DH Billy Butler (R)
One of the game’s best pure hitters; doesn’t hit enough homers, but has 140 doubles over the last three years.
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
He was good last year as a rookie, and there is no reason to suspect he won’t continue to get better.
3B Mike Moustakas (L)
Didn’t cut it during extended slump — and then produced big closing kick.
RF Jeff Francoeur (R)
The club’s de facto captain; will be interesting to see if he regresses after a career-renaissance year.
CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
Will show what he can do with an everyday opportunity; should be a defensive upgrade in center.
C Brayan Pena (S)
With upbeat attitude Pena will assume catching duties until Sal Perez is healthy.
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
His slick play solidified the infield after years of suspect predecessors.
C Max Ramirez
Is the short-term answer as the backup catcher until Sal Perez returns from knee surgery.
INF Yuniesky Betancourt (R)
Former starting shortstop returns as utility player after failing to draw interest in free agent market as starter.
OF Mitch Maier (L)
Should draw increased playing time this season as an occasional left-handed alternative to Cain in center.
INF Chris Getz (L)
Stole 21 bases in limited action last season.
C Sal Perez (R)
His defense and game-calling skills always drew raves; but he really turned the corner offensively last season. Will miss several weeks after tearing his meniscus.
RH Luke Hochevar
Showed signs in second half of harnessing tools that made him the first overall pick in the 2006 draft.
LH Jonathan Sanchez
Maybe a change of scenery will finally unlock the power lefty’s tremendous potential.
LH Bruce Chen
A veteran finesse lefty who appears to have figured it out; could be this generation’s Jamie Moyer.
RH Felipe Paulino
Shows tantalizing arsenal but needs to deliver; will shift to bullpen if he fails to hold spot in rotation.
LH Danny Duffy
Flashed potential last year in nearly all of his 20 starts but still posted a 5.64 ERA. Needs strong spring.
RH Joakim Soria (Closer)
Struggled last season for the first time in his career but still posted a 2.58 ERA over his final 37 appearances.
RH Jonathan Broxton
Seeking a bounce-back year after an elbow injury limited him last year to just 14 games for the Dodgers.
RH Greg Holland
Blossomed last season into a potential closer by posting a 1.80 ERA while striking out 74 in 60 innings.
LH Jose Mijares
A good fit as a situational guy; has limited lefties to .212 career average.
RH Louis Coleman
Another young reliever with closer potential; sidearm delivery makes him tough against righthanders.
RH Aaron Crow
Will get a look as starter but appears likely to return to bullpen, where he made the All-Star team as a rookie.
LH Tim Collins
Has plus stuff and a durable arm but will be in the minors if walk rate fails to improve.
RH Luis Mendoza
Could win a job in the rotation but, failing that, seems a likely fit in the bullpen as a long reliever.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals