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Royals head to camp ready to take next step

Royals head to camp ready to take next step

Royals head to camp ready to take next step
KANSAS CITY -- If 2011 was a germination year for the Royals, a time to assess just what these young sprouts could offer, then 2012 might the time for a growth spurt. And Spring Training is always a good time to spread a little fertilizer in the garden.

The prize picks of the crop arrived in Kansas City last season, the team clicked and had a winning final month, the fans got revved up and that excitement and momentum should carry into camp at Surprise, Ariz. While Royals general manager Dayton Moore welcomes optimism, he greets it with a note of caution.

"We have a very young and what we perceive as a talented group of players and a roster that exists with a lot of upside, but our players have to prove they can go out and perform and produce over 162 games," Moore said.

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There's always that "but" in the equation, not a bad buffer when your club has finished over .500 just once in the last 17 years and hasn't won anything since 1985. However, that's also the reason Kansas City fans are so hungry and ready to embrace this young, very promising team.

"Our fans have been very generous with their support, and it's important that we continue to work hard to put a good product on the field, and I believe that they will see steady improvement over the next one to five years with this group of players," Moore said. "Where that improvement gets us, whether it makes a contender or what-have-you remains to be seen. But I think what we'll continue to see is improvement as we become more comfortable and ready to produce."

This 2012 bunch goes to camp with the starting lineup pretty well set, except maybe for second base and center field. The pitching staff has the usual uncertainties, but a big plus is all those bullpen kids have a year of experience behind them.

Spring camp should be high-spirited and fun, dominated by players who have grown up together in the Minor Leagues.

"They have won at that level and have enjoyed being around each other," Moore pointed out, "and one of the reasons they enjoyed being around each other is they won and when you're winning, everybody's happy. So they've got to take it to the next level, the next step of which is winning in the Major Leagues and that's the hardest challenge in all of baseball."

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 20

Full squad reports

Feb. 24

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Rangers, March 4, 1:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day

Away vs. Angels, April 6, 9:05 p.m.

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. What will be the makeup of the bullpen?
Jonathan Broxton's arrival makes for some interesting scenarios. If the former Dodgers closer is healthy, he could team with or take over the setup spot from Greg Holland. Broxton's history as a two-time All-Star also provides an option at closer if Joakim Soria falters again. Soria, though, will open as the anchor with Broxton, the hard-nosed Holland, and 2011 All-Star Aaron Crow at his side. Louis Coleman, Blake Wood and Nate Adcock are right-handed returnees. Kelvin Herrera adds a spectacular season in the Minors to the right side.

The left-handed issue is open with seasoned Jose Mijares, a free agent from the Twins, a strong challenge to 2011 rookies Tim Collins and Everett Teaford. Mijares figures as a specialist because he's held left-handed batters to a .212 average. And don't forget hard-throwing righty Jeremy Jeffress or newly-acquired lefty Ryan Verdugo. Or those kids coming up from the Minors. Or who might be left after the rotation battle is settled. There are many possibilities for just seven or eight spots.

2. Who'll fill out the starting rotation?
Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez are figured as the top three starters with Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy the leading candidates for the last two spots. But Spring Training is all about competition, and assumptions are a risky business. At the back of the rotation, if someone disappoints and someone catches fire, who can tell? The possibilities are many.

Crow will get a reappraisal as a starting pitcher. Luis Mendoza was a new man as Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year. Mike Montgomery is the left-handed hope off the Omaha squad. Another lefty, Teaford, can start as well as relieve. Adcock's future is probably as a starter. Sean O'Sullivan has a history of 23 starts for KC. Vin Mazzaro has a history of 35 starts for Oakland. Will Smith, Chris Dwyer and Jake Odorizzi are hotshots up from Double-A. Let the battle begin.

3. Who'll start at second base and center field?
Seven lineup spots appear definite -- Alex Gordon in left field and Jeff Francoeur in right, Billy Butler as the designated hitter, Eric Hosmer at first base and Mike Moustakas at third, Alcides Escobar at shortstop and Salvador Perez catching. Manager Ned Yost has indicated that Johnny Giavotella is the leading choice at second base and Lorenzo Cain is the likely successor to Melky Cabrera in center field.

Giavotella's hot bat in the Minors cooled off when promoted to the Majors, but he had less than two months to adjust. And who knows how much his right hip, which required offseason surgery, affected him? For that matter, will that surgery have any hangover this spring? Smooth-fielding Chris Getz is ready to resume the job at any time and backup Yuniesky Betancourt will be learning the position. Cain showed he could hit well at Triple-A last year and in a 2010 big league trial with Milwaukee as well. But speedy Jarrod Dyson and veteran Mitch Maier are lurking in the background.

2011 record
71-91, fourth place in the AL Central

Projected batting order
1. LF Alex Gordon:
  .303 BA, .376 OBP, .502 SLG, 23 HR, 87 RBIs in 2011
2. 2B Johnny Giavotella:
  .247 BA, .273 OBP, .376 SLG, 2 HR, 21 RBIs in 2011
3. 1B Eric Hosmer:
  .293 BA, .334 OBP, .465 SLG, 19 HR, 78 RBIs in 2011
4. DH Billy Butler:
  .291 BA, .361 OBP, .461 SLG, 19 HR, 95 RBIs in 2011
5. RF Jeff Francoeur:
  .285 BA, .329 OBP, .476 SLG, 20 HR, 87 RBIs in 2011
6. 3B Mike Moustakas:
  .263 BA, .309 OBP, .367 SLG, 5 HR, 30 RBIs in 2011
7. CF Lorenzo Cain:
  .273 BA, .304 OBP, .318 SLG, 0 HR, 1 RBI in 2011
8. C Salvador Perez:
  .331 BA, .361 OBP, .473 SLG, 3 HR, 21 RBIs in 2011
9. SS Alcides Escobar:
  .254 BA, .290 OBP, .343 SLG, 4 HR, 46 RBIs in 2011

Projected rotation
1. Luke Hochevar, 11-11, 4.68 ERA in 2011
2. Bruce Chen, 12-8, 3.77 ERA in 2011
3. Jonathan Sanchez, 4-7, 4.26 ERA in 2011
4. Felipe Paulino, 4-6, 4.11 ERA in 2011
5. Danny Duffy, 4-8, 5.64 ERA in 2011

Projected bullpen
Closer: Joakim Soria, 28/35 saves, 4.03 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Greg Holland, 1.80 ERA in 2011
LH setup man: Tim Collins, 3.63 ERA in 2011

The new guys
LHP Jonathan Sanchez: A mound star for the Giants down the stretch for their 2010 run to the World Series title, Sanchez's 2011 ended a month and a half early with a left ankle sprain. A hard strike thrower, he'll need to mind his control to be an effective middle-rotation starter.

RHP Jonathan Broxton: Another guy coming off injury, the physically-imposing Broxton underwent minor right elbow surgery in September. He was heralded as a setup man for closer Joakim Soria, but he'll have to shoulder past Greg Holland for the primary role.

CF Lorenzo Cain: Obtained in the winter 2010 Zack Greinke trade, Cain is projected as the new guy in center with Melky Cabrera dealt to the Giants. Cain is seen as a defensive upgrade and the right-handed hitter had a .312/16/81 line for Triple-A Omaha with 16 steals.

IF Yuniesky Betancourt: An old "new" guy who went to Milwaukee in the Greinke trade, he's back in a projected role as the backup infielder. He not only could provide a break at shortstop and third base, but could also be an option if Johnny Giavotella and Chris Getz falter at second.

IF Kevin Kouzmanoff: A vet in the Majors, Kouzmanoff took a Minors deal for a shot which could develop at third if Moustakas has trouble getting his bat in gear. He's a right-handed hitter who popped 59 homers in a three-year span (2007-09) for the Padres.

LHP Jose Mijares: A stocky specialist from Venezuela, Mijares was signed to provide left-handed depth and experience to a young bullpen. In his career, he's held left-handed batters to a .212 average, although that slipped to .253 last season. He pitched four years for the Twins.

Prospects to watch
RHP Kelvin Herrera: The organization's Pitcher of the Year rocketed through three levels with combined bullpen numbers of 7-1, 14 saves and a 1.60 ERA in a total 45 games. He made it four levels by reaching the Majors in September and appearing in two games.

LHP Mike Montgomery: An eye-opening camp a year ago earned Montgomery an extra-long look. But that success morphed into an up-and-down Triple-A season as a starter that left him 5-11 with a 5.32 ERA. Now he needs to show how much he learned last year.

RHP Jake Odorizzi: Another gain from the Greinke trade, the Illinois product had a 2.87 ERA and a 5-4 mark in 15 starts for Class A Wilmington and, promoted to Double-A, had a better record (5-3) but a higher ERA (4.72) in 12 starts. A fast climber, he has a great feel for pitching.

LHP Will Smith: Acquired from the Angels in mid-2010, Smith led the Texas League last season with 13 victories and was Northwest Arkansas' Pitcher of the Year with a 3.57 ERA in 27 starts. His control was a big asset, issuing just 45 walks in 161 1/3 innings.

LHP Chris Dwyer: Dwyer also made 27 starts for Northwest Arkansas with less impressive results, 8-10 record and 5.60 ERA. His 78 walks were just two from the Texas League high, but his 126 strikeouts were just four shy of the lead.

1B Clint Robinson: This big guy is blocked by the first base-DH combo of Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler, much in the way that now-departed Kila Ka'aihue was thwarted before him. Robinson had a second straight big season at .326 with 100 RBIs and 23 home runs for Omaha before being stopped by a sports hernia.

OF David Lough: One of those under-the-radar types, Lough sometimes reminds people of David DeJesus because he does a lot of things well. Last year for Omaha, he hit .318 in 114 games with 46 extra-base hits, 65 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. He's well down the outfield depth chart, though.

On the rebound
RHP Luis Mendoza: Mendoza, 28, after parts of five seasons and 38 games in the Majors, has reinvented himself. His 12-5 mark and 2.18 ERA for Omaha made him PCL Pitcher of the Year and then he was 2-0 in two late-season starts for Kansas City. He could shove his way into the rotation.

2B Chris Getz: After beginning the season as the starting second baseman, Getz eventually lost some playing time to Mike Aviles and then became a defensive replacement after Johnny Giavotella was called up on Aug. 5. Getz will be trying to win back his job in camp with the loser possibly going to Omaha.

C Brayan Pena: Taking a back seat to Salvador Perez when he arrived in mid-August, Pena had to be content with an occasional start just to give the rookie a break. Earlier in the season, Pena shared time with Matt Treanor who was later dealt to Texas. Pena will duel Manny Pina for a backup role.

RHP Vin Mazzaro: It was a nightmare season for Mazzaro, obtained from the A's for DeJesus. He won the fifth starter job in Spring Training, then quickly lost it with poor performances in Triple-A tuneups. Back in the Majors, he gave up 14 runs in just 2 1/3 innings of relief against the Indians. One plus: his 7-2 record for Omaha.

RHP Jeremy Jeffress: Another acquisition in the Greinke deal, the hard-throwing Jeffress started last year in the Majors but didn't make it through May. His lack of control was a problem and he also bounced from Omaha down to Northwest Arkansas. He wound up walking 51 in a total 71 innings.

RHP Zach Miner: With some solid big league credentials -- 25-20 record and 4.24 ERA in 157 games (35 starts) for Detroit -- Miner is in the Royals' camp for the second straight year. Working his way back in the Minors last summer after Tommy John surgery, he'll try to prove he's ready for the Majors again.

Long gone
CF Melky Cabrera: Rescued from the castoff pile last winter, Cabrera joined right fielder Francoeur with a terrific turnaround season. He did so well that the Royals realized Cabrera would command a stiff salary or leave anyway as a free agent in 2013, so they decided to trade him for a starting pitcher in Sanchez.

LHP Jeff Francis: A very serviceable starter, Francis probably pitched more effectively than his 6-16 record indicated. He made 31 starts and contributed 183 innings with just 39 walks but the Royals scored an average of just 3.9 runs for him. With Sanchez coming in, there was no spot for Francis and he went to the Reds on a Minor League deal.

RHP Robinson Tejeda: Tejeda was supposed to be Kansas City's primary setup man for Joakim Soria last year but he was unable to rediscover the velocity on his fastball. Tejeda went on the disabled list and spent most of the season with Omaha, going 0-3 with a 3.80 ERA in 31 games. A Minor League free agent, he signed with Cleveland.

1B Kila Ka'aihue: Once the Minor League home run darling of Royals fans, Ka'aihue couldn't pull off the same magic in his Major League chances (11 homers and a .216 average in 283 at-bats). Eric Hosmer's arrival ended his hopes and Ka'aihue was traded last Sept. 27 to Oakland for pitcher Ethan Hollingsworth.

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

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