Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 2/4/12
If you told your average Royals fan before nearly any season in recent memory that the team was about to contend, you'd almost certainly encounter more than a few chuckles and rolling eyes. This year, however, they might take you seriously. As spring training approaches, the Royals appear closer than they have in a long time to contending in the AL Central. That said, close might more accurately translate to a year or two away -- especially after the Tigers made life much more difficult for every team in the division by shelling out huge bucks for superstar first baseman Prince Fielder. The Royals do have all the ingredients of an improving team, starting with pitching potential. Luke Hochevar looked in the second half last season like a pitcher poised to take the next step. Journeyman Bruce Chen also returns after a solid 2011, but most intriguing of the Royals' rotation is its newest addition. Kansas City took more than one gamble in dealing Melky Cabrera to San Francisco for starter Jonathan Sanchez. Not only are they counting on prospect Lorenzo Cain to become an everyday big league centerfielder, but they're also betting that the inconsistent Sanchez can be the pitcher who helped the Giants win a World Series in 2010. Sanchez missed time with a sprained ankle last year but was largely ineffective when healthy. Making 19 starts, he went 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA. The Royals are hoping the change of scenery can bring out the Sanchez who won 13 games and posted a 3.09 ERA in 2010. Infielder Yuniesky Betancourt makes his return to the Royals this spring after a season in Milwaukee, though his role is yet to be determined, as shortstop belongs to Alcides Escobar, the very player acquired from the Brewers when Betancourt was traded. Kansas City also is taking a chance on Jonathan Broxton, the former Dodgers closer looking to come back strong after an elbow injury sidelined him for most of 2011. The real buzz in Royals camp, however, doesn't figure to be generated by the few new additions. More eyes will rightly be on the budding stars in Royal blue, and there are plenty to see. First baseman Eric Hosmer had a big rookie season in Kansas City, hitting .293 with 78 RBI and a .334 on-base percentage after starting the year in Triple A. At just 22 years old, he's a long way from reaching his ceiling. Left fielder Alex Gordon, still just 27, is coming off his best season as a Royal (.303, 72 extra-base hits) and earned a Gold Glove last year after moving off the hot corner. And designated hitter Billy Butler drove in 95 run last year and has already established himself at age 25 as a bona fide run producer in the middle of the lineup. Surrounding those three could be Escobar, Cain, third baseman Mike Moustakas, second baseman Johnny Giavotella and catcher Salvador Perez, all checking in on Opening Day at 25 or younger. If all the youngsters prove ready, the Royals could field an Opening Day lineup with an average age of 24.4. With that kind of youth, it will be hard not to enjoy watching the Royals develop this year, even if they won't win their division. If nothing else, they offer a refreshing change from the many teams building contenders with their checkbooks. Whos new: Jonathan Sanchez, SP (trade, San Francisco); Jonathan Broxton, RP (free agent); Yuniesky Betancourt, SS (free agent); Juan Gutierrez, RP (free agent); Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B (free agent); Jose Mijares, RP (free agent). Whos gone: Melky Cabrera, OF (trade, San Francisco); Jeff Francis, SP (free agent, Cincinnati); Jason Kendall, C (free agent); Aaron Laffey, RP (free agent, Toronto). Battle ground: Center field is Cain's job to lose after the Royals dealt Cabrera, and team officials have expressed confidence in his ability to step up. But if Cain doesn't look ready for the job, speedy Jarrod Dyson could be next in line. ... Giavotella is coming off hip surgery and appears the favorite to play second base on Opening Day, but he has competition in Chris Getz and Betancourt. Health watch: Broxton might be the biggest question mark health wise coming off elbow surgery. If the former closer, who pitched in just 14 games last year, can return to form, the Royals have a solid setup option as well as a fallback at closer, giving them some flexibility to field offers for Joakim Soria. ... Giavotella is expected ready for spring training after hip surgery. ... Chen missed about seven weeks last season, and Kansas City needs him to stay healthy. Sneak preview: Left-hander and 2008 first-round pick Mike Montgomery might soon be part of the extreme youth movement in Kansas City, perhaps this season, but he struggled in Triple-A last season. The 22-year-old went just 5-11 at Omaha last season with a 5.32 ERA, but is still considered one of the Royals' best prospects ... Expectations are high for 21-year-old starter Jake Odorizzi, acquired in the Zack Greinke trade. Odorizzi won 10 games in the minors last year while throwing 147 innings and might not be far from earning a place in the majors. Spring training info: Surprise Stadium, 15960 N. Bullard Ave., Surprise. First workouts: Feb. 21 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 25 (full squad). First game: March 5. Tickets: www.royals.com.
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