Royals have high ceiling despite key losses

Royals have high ceiling despite key losses

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It's been trendy, if such a word applies to baseball, to consider the Kansas City Royals the handsome but tough new kid on the block.

Alex Gordon emerged from the ashes. Jeff Francoeur was reborn. Luke Hochevar is about to erupt. Billy Butler is a hitting machine. Alcides Escobar is his own department of defense. And how about that rookie invasion of 2011 -- with Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Aaron Crow, Danny Duffy, Greg Holland ... wow!

So the Royals became the rising star, the underdog darling, the sleeper of the American League Central, the feisty team with a future. OK, maybe the Royals won't mute the snarl of the Detroit Tigers just yet but they'll be fun, exciting to watch and just maybe ...

Then came two events that slowed this babble of happy talk. Perez, the young catcher so prized that he was given a five-year contract, caught his spikes reaching for a pitch in the bullpen and will be out for half the season with knee surgery. Joakim Soria, the premier closer and inspirational leader of the bullpen, felt his elbow give out as he threw a pitch to Cleveland's Shin-Soo Choo and he'll miss the season with Tommy John surgery.

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"I'm not sure that you can replace players of that caliber in Joakim and Salvador. It's not what we envisioned when we put our team together in the offseason," general manager Dayton Moore said. "It's difficult to replace players of that caliber, but the obvious answer is we expect the players that are filling in to give us a chance to win."

What the Royals envisioned was the terrifically talented Perez guiding the pitching staff to new heights and providing a new defensive dimension behind the plate. Instead, they'll have to rely on a tandem of backup catchers in Humberto Quintero, snagged from the Astros, and the returning Brayan Pena.

What the Royals also envisioned was Soria, supremely successful in the four years before an off-and-on 2011, to recapture his "I'm here, this game is over" mystique. Instead they'll have to rely on the guys they planned to be his setup men: Jonathan Broxton, the ex-closer for the Dodgers, the hot-handed Holland, and All-Star Crow.

Even so, the team left Arizona with Hosmer, Gordon, Butler and Lorenzo Cain among the hitting honchos of Spring Training. Luis Mendoza had a miniscule 0.54 ERA and Hochevar was among the strikeout leaders.

"I'm extremely happy," manager Ned Yost said after finalizing his 25-man roster. "I think we've got a very well-balanced power bullpen. I like our two catchers. I like our bench guys. I think we've got versatility both right- and left-handed. I like our extra infielder and I like our starting lineup. I think we've got power, we've got speed, we've got athleticism, we can play defense, we can run the bases. I'm happy with our team."

He likes the makeup of the rotation, too, which intersperses three left-handers with two right-handers, and so does Moore.

"I think our rotation performed pretty well in Spring Training," Moore said. "We like the way Hoch, [Jonathan] Sanchez and [Bruce] Chen have been throwing. Mendoza's been terrific this spring. And we're committed to run [Danny] Duffy out there every fifth day and allow him to continue to get better."

There was one glitch in the rotation preparation when Felipe Paulino came down with left forearm tightness late in camp, not a serious matter but enough to put him on the disabled list to start the season. That meant Mendoza and Duffy got the final two spots.

With right-handers Broxton, Holland and Crow in the bullpen are left-handers Everett Teaford, Jose Mijares and Tim Collins along with rookie righty Kelvin Herrera.

"We do have some depth in the bullpen but to replace Joakim Soria is a very challenging task," Moore said.

With Perez out until around the All-Star break, Yost plans to alternate Quintero and Pena, probably pairing each with a specific pitcher.

"Pena has gotten a lot better. I feel a lot better with him behind the plate than I did last year. I think he's doing a really good job with the improvements he's made in his defense," Yost said. "And Quintero I've been very pleased with since he's been here."

Butler will swing out of the cleanup spot as the designated hitter, although he's likely to see more time at first base this year, with Hosmer getting an occasional break from the field to DH.

Chris Getz's defense at second base bumped offensively strong Johnny Giavotella back to Triple-A. But Getz is likely to share time with Yuniesky Betancourt, signed as the backup infielder but unexpectedly impressive at second.

Escobar, signed to a long-term deal because of his exceptional play at shortstop, is expected to pick up his pace at the plate, and he showed encouraging signs in the Cactus League.

Moustakas, the heralded hope at third base, had a tepid spring at the plate, somewhat reminiscent of his plodding progress after reporting to the Royals last year. But, as Yost keeps reminding folks, Moose caught fire at the end and that's the kind of hitter he expects to see.

Cain, with a torrid camp, gave every indication he'll be a rousing replacement for Melky Cabrera in center field. The two wings of that formidable 2011 outfield, Gordon and Francoeur, return with visions of reruns in their heads. Cain covers more ground than Cabrera and should be a good addition to an already efficient defense.

The backup outfielders, Mitch Maier and Jason Bourgeois, provide a left-right option off the bench. Bourgeois, obtained with Quintero from the Astros, also offers a burner's speed on the bases.

So there's plenty of upside to counteract the losses of prize players Soria and Perez.

"We feel we have a very talented group of young players," Moore said. "However, the next step is for those talented young players to produce consistently at the Major League level. That's been our expectation in the baseball operations staff. We can't predict wins and losses and it'd be reckless for us to do that.

"The truism about this team is they should continue to improve based on their level of talent combined with their level of experience."

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