For the first time in more than two decades the Kansas City Royals may become relevant again.
For years we have heard how deep the Royals' farm system was. Little by little we have seen the fruits of their labors with the development of Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer.
Although their 72-90 record from a year ago may indicate otherwise, things are on the uptick for the Royals, who have improved their win total in each of the last four seasons. Their third place finish in the AL Central in 2012 was also the team's highest since 2003.
General manager Dayton Moore realized that the Royals are getting close and this offseason overhauled the starting rotation, acquiring righties James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana. That group combined with returning right-hander Jeremy Guthrie and lefty Bruce Chen gives Kansas City as talented a rotation as there is in the American League.
The pieces are in place and if it's not this year it won't be long before the Royals are contending for a division title.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Royals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
Royals Projected Lineup
(72-90) - Third Place (AL Central)
Key Offseason additions
James Shields (RHP), Ervin Santana (RHP), Wade Davis (RHP), George Kottaras (C), Elliot Johnson (UTIL)
Key Offseason subtractions
Will Myers (OF), Jeremy Jeffres (RHP), Jake Odorizzi (RHP), Joakim Soria (RHP), Mike Montgomery (RHP)
CAN ERIC HOSMER BOUNCE BACK?
A lot of the optimism surrounding the Kansas City Royals this season centers around Eric Hosmer bouncing back from what was perceived as a sophomore slump in 2012.
After a tremendous rookie season that saw him hit .293 with 19 home runs and 78 RBI, Hosmer saw his average dip to .232 with his home run (14) and RBI (60) totals both dropping, despite playing 24 more games. Even worse, Hosmer batted .255 last season on balls in play, a statistic that just figures to go up.
Manager Ned Yost believes that Hosmer is a No. 3-hole, All-Star-type hitter just waiting to get a second wind. Most agree and are expecting a huge season from the 23-year-old burgeoning star.
Even if things break right and Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas take their game to the next level and Jeff Francoeur can avoid being an out- machine, the lineup still needs more, especially from the heart of the order where Hosmer figures to be slotted.
IS THE ROTATION STRONG ENOUGH?
A huge area the Kansas City Royals needed to improve this offseason was in the starting pitching department. They ranked near the bottom in ERA (4.30), WHIP (1.41) and BAA (.265) last season, so they went out and acquired James Shields and Wade Davis from Tampa Bay in the Will Myers trade, and Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels.
Shields may not have the dominating stuff that Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez or even his former teammate David Price has. But he is a genuine staff leader who eats innings and can anchor a rotation.
Santana had an off year in 2012 (9-13, 5.16), but in the past, he's had a pattern of bouncing back the next season. He has extra incentive this year as he approaches free agency next winter.
After being acquired from Colorado Jeremy Guthrie pitched well for the Royals, going 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts.
Davis, who has only 64 starts to his credit, and last year's Opening Day starter, Chen, will round out the rotation, with Luke Hochevar lurking in the bullpen, provided another deal is not made.
Put it this way, if it turns out that the rotation isn't strong enough, this offseason was an epic fail for Moore.
IS THIS FINALLY THE YEAR?
It's been 10 years since the Royals have finished better than .500. It's been 28 years since the team last played in the postseason. There are some who think both streaks may end this season.
Last season, they were closer to first place on Sept. 1 than in any intervening year, 13 games behind. So that's progress.
The biggest problem with winning a division title is that the Detroit Tigers may not just be the best team in that the AL Central, they might be the best team in baseball. But, the division as a whole figures to be the weakest overall of the three in the AL.
It's not crazy to think that the Royals are contending for a wild card spot this season.
X-FACTOR: SALVADOR PEREZ: It's no surprise that the lineup struggled as a whole last season without catcher Salvador Perez in it for the majority of the season. Perez only played in 76 games following knee surgery to start the year, but still batted .301 with 11 home runs. Despite catching just 74 games, Perez executed a major league-best five pickoffs, two more than anyone else. He now has eight pickoffs, which is already a career record for a Royals catcher. The Royals believe he is going to be a superstar. This year he'll be counted on even more as he handles an entirely new rotation. His biggest problem is staying on the field, though. Yost has to find a way to keep him healthy. If that means using him as DH for a day or two a week then so be it. Given his injury history he should catch no more than 125 games. But, when he plays Perez is a difference maker, not only at the plate, but behind it as well.
We have all heard this before that the Kansas City Royals are on the cusp of breaking out only to be burned. This year, though, the Royals should be a very competitive team. Now, they may not be able to snag the AL Central title away from the Detroit Tigers, but they may just be able to sneak their way into a wild card spot. At the very least, the team should crack the .500 mark for the first time since 2003. Regardless of how things end up, this team will be one to watch in 2013.