Royals will enter 2012 with great expectations

Royals will enter 2012 with great expectations

Royals will enter 2012 with great expectations
KANSAS CITY -- The one prevailing and perhaps overly presumptuous assumption about the 2012 Royals is that their starting lineup is set.

The in-season invasion of first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, second baseman Johnny Giavotella and catcher Salvador Perez, rookies all, meshed rather nicely among more veteran position players.

It was a trying year in the loss column, yet invigorating in terms of the future for manager Ned Yost.

"We've got a pretty good basis of guys here," Yost said. "We like what we've done, we like the improvements that we've made and we like the experience they've got. You're always looking to improve your lineup. I don't know how much another player would improve it right now. We've got areas that we've got to continue to address -- Giavotelli's defense, Moose getting more and more comfortable at the plate and continuing to polish his defense -- but, all in all, I think it's a pretty good nucleus of a lineup."

Shortstop Alcides Escobar, in his second full season, made the Zack Greinke trade look very good on his own with steady and often spectacular defense. Designated hitter Billy Butler, moved off first base, adapted well and hit with his usual effectiveness.

The outfield of Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur was a trio that experienced career surges in happy unison. So that's not likely to change.

The key question, of course, is do the Royals have enough to morph from a fourth-place finisher to a legitimate contender?

The one major need for the 2012 Royals would seem to be starting pitching, although general manager Dayton Moore believes that perhaps that department got a bad rap.

"There's been a lot of criticism directed at our starting pitching, but our record is what it is because we've lost games in multiple ways," Moore said in mid-September, citing among other things a lack of big hits early in the season, bullpen failures in the second half and some errors at crucial moments. "As of a couple of weeks ago, 54 percent of our games had been decided by one or two runs. So that would lead you to the conclusion that the starting pitching has kept you in a lot of games."

Even so, Moore and his staff are expected to scan the trade and free-agent markets to beef up a rotation expected to be built around right-hander Luke Hochevar and left-hander Danny Duffy. Depth in the Royals' much-praised Minor League system gives them a talent reservoir to use in trades.

There is ample pitching in the Royals' rich system, too, from which to draw, including left-handers Mike Montgomery and Will Smith among others. Trouble is, as Duffy demonstrated after being called up, a starting pitcher doesn't develop instantly. It takes time, so the Royals can be expected to look for more experienced starters.

"Of course, we have to look at starting pitching, as do 29 other clubs in baseball. The New York Yankees are going to be looking at starting pitching," Moore said. "But I'm proud of the work our starters have done this year. They've given us great effort."

Included were top winner Bruce Chen and top loser Jeff Francis, both left-handers eligible for free agency. Big Felipe Paulino showed big promise.

Moore has his search plan prioritized: "We'll look internally first, then we'll look to execute trades that make sense for willing partners, then look at the free-agent market."

All-Star reliever Aaron Crow and lefty Everett Teaford, who spent most of his time in the 'pen, are among those who'll get looks as starters.

Closer Joakim Soria can be expected to rebound from what was, for him, a down year with a rush of blown saves early and a hamstring strain late. The rest of the bullpen, comprised primarily of rookies, showed an abundance of good arms that should only be better in 2012.

Toward the end of the season, Yost was asked if his team was where he expected it would be.

"I expected us to be about right where we're at, I really did," Yost said. "I knew it would be a process this year, getting these kids up here, getting them experience, getting them at-bats, getting them innings -- knowing that you have a thousand mistakes to make before you get better, and hopefully, we've made a good deal of those, and we've learned from each and every one of them. You get to the point where you can compete, and you've got that experience."

Contract issues
Free agents: Bruce Chen, LHP; Jeff Francis, LHP; Jason Kendall, C.
Eligible for arbitration: Melky Cabrera, CF: Alex Gordon, LF: Luke Hochevar, RHP; Felipe Paulino, RHP; Brayan Pena, C: Mitch Maier, OF; Chris Getz, IF; Joakim Soria, RHP (if club option not exercised).
Player options: None.
Club options: Soria.
Non-tender possibilities: None.

• Perez: Figures to catch almost every day.
• Pena: Leading candidate to back up Perez.
• Manny Pina: Will battle Pena for the reserve role.

Perez arrived ahead of schedule in August due to an injury, and his defensive wizardry was apparent. His hitting was much better than expected. Yost sees him as playing as many as 135 games a year, not leaving much time for whoever is the backup. Pena, a solid switch-hitter, got better on defense, but his game-calling is sometimes suspect. Pina is a catch-and-throw guy. Shoulder surgery is expected to keep free agent Jason Kendall out all year.

First base
• Hosmer: His job for years to come.
• Butler: DH, can fill in when needed.

Hosmer established himself quickly as an accomplished Major League hitter with the ability to deliver clutch hits, pound homers and drive in a lot of runs. A big plus was his smooth play at first base, scooping up low throws and leaping for high ones to make the rest of the infield better and pitchers feel secure. Batting third or fourth didn't faze the rookie. He pushed Butler into the DH role, but Butler can play first at times.

Second base
• Giavotella: Good hitter, needs better defense.
• Getz: Good defender, needs better offense.

This could be the most contested starting job in the lineup. Giavotella, called up in early August, has good hitting credentials, a hard-nosed reputation and limited range afield. Getz is a smooth fielder who handles bat well with little power. Actually, Getz outhit Giavotella for the season, making a good case for a 2012 battle. Giavotella has worked very hard to improve his glove work, Getz has done the same at bat.

• Escobar: Ace defender who rarely needs rest.
• Yamaico Navarro: Could figure as infield backup.

Escobar, Yost said at one point, could hit .100 and still be an extremely valuable shortstop. Actually, he batted in the .250 range and was a fine bunter, which made him very acceptable considering his electrifying ability to range into the hole and behind second base and his bazooka arm. Navarro, obtained from the Red Sox, is a solid shortstop, who can also play third base or second base.

Third base
• Moustakas: Late surge solidified his hold on position.

Beaten to the Majors and outshined by Hosmer, Moustakas slogged through two tough months at the plate before finally finding the success he'd had in the Minor Leagues. His hit total and his run production jumped in the last month and a half. Moustakas is expected to hit with more power in 2012. His defense was sharp, consistent and actually better than expected, although some polishing would help.

• Gordon: Breakthrough year solidified left field.
• Cabrera: Comeback clinched his center-field standing.
• Francoeur: Right field is his with extended contract.
• Maier: Always prepared as fourth outfielder.
• Lorenzo Cain: Center-field option if Cabrera is traded.
• Jarrod Dyson: Super speed makes him a weapon.
• David Lough: Solid Minor Leaguer, a dark horse.

A hard-hitting and strong-throwing outfield was one of the Royals' big pluses in 2011. The three regulars rarely took a day off, were effective run producers in the top five of the batting order and threw out the most runners in the Majors. Gordon finally fulfilled his promise. Cabrera arguably had the best year of his career. Francoeur was a rebirth of his early success. The capable Maier hardly got a chance to play. The availability of Cain, Dyson and Lough could open the possibility of trading Cabrera, who'll be coming up on free agency, for a starting pitcher.

Designated hitter
• Butler: Good spot for his productive bat.
• Clint Robinson: Omaha outburst spurs interest.

One of the overlooked items of 2011, in Yost's view, was the way Butler adapted to the DH role after years of learning and yearning to play first base. He made the adjustment without noisy complaint and with obvious success, leading the club in RBIs. Robinson's .326/23/100 batting line in Triple-A was impressive, but he's stuck behind Butler and Hosmer.

• Hochevar: Looked like a leader in second half.
• Chen: Crafty lefty won in double figures again.
• Duffy: Lefty leader of the youth invasion.
• Paulino: Big hard-throwing righty has promise.
• Francis: Lefty is healthy going into free agency.
• Crow: All-Star reliever could return to starting.
• Luis Mendoza: Gem as Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year.
• Sean O'Sullivan: Got back into picture at Omaha.
• Vin Mazzaro: Ex-Athletic will get another look.
• Montgomery: Probably the top candidate from Minors.
• Teaford: Late-season showing put him in the mix.
• Nate Adcock: Rule 5 Draft reliever probably starter in future.
• Smith: Dazzling year by tall lefty at Double-A.
• Jake Odorizzi: Fast riser could arrive by midseason.

There's no shortage of in-house candidates, but the club undoubtedly will explore trades and, less likely, the free agent market. They lack a clear-cut No. 1 starter, although Hochevar, long a leading candidate, showed encouraging signs after the All-Star break. Duffy will be given every chance, as will Montgomery, the most impressive prospect of last Spring Training. Chen and Francis are free agents, and both are eager to return. Paulino showed patches of promise. One of the most intriguing possibilities is shifting Crow back to starting, the role that made him a No. 1 draft choice. Mendoza appears to be a late bloomer.

• Soria: Closer needs rebound from an off year.
• Greg Holland: Leaping into late-inning prominence.
• Louis Coleman: Strikeout artist's stature soars.
• Tim Collins: Lefty must improve control to survive.
• Blake Wood: Shows real promise as middle man.
• Kelvin Herrera: Royals' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
• Jesse Chavez: Took his lumps after late callup.
• Jeremy Jeffress: Sizzling fastball but needs control.
• Zach Miner: Ex-Tiger progressing after elbow surgery.

A big concern is that Soria had, for him, an off season, with an early slump, then a late hamstring strain. So the Royals will be looking for possible options if more problems arise and Holland, with a knack for stranding inherited runners, shows potential. The hard-throwing Coleman could figure, as well, and Herrera was the relief whiz of the Minors. The hope is that Soria is his usual self and those pitchers will carry the game to him. All the rookies that dominated the bullpen in 2011 have the advantage of a year's experience, and there are plenty of live arms available.

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