Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 3/1/12

2011 was the official transition year for the Kansas City Royals. How does a team that went 71-91 in 2011 and hasn’t had a winning record since 2003 put the baseball world on notice? Simple: you parlay the best farm system of 2011 into everyday players such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Johnny Giavotella, and Salvador Perez.

Getting a bounce back year from Alex Gordon and stellar production from Jeff Francouer and Melky Cabrera didn’t hurt either. Add it all up and you had the 6th highest run-producing team in the American League. The youthful Royals trailed only Detroit, New York, Boston, Toronto, and Texas in runs scored. Not bad.

Danny Duffy

The hiccup that kept this team from being truly scary to the opposition was their below average starting pitching. KC coughed up the 3rd most runs in the AL, beating out only Baltimore and Minnesota. The best thing the Royals had going was Bruce Chen and they made the right move by bringing him back for another go-around.

[2012 MLB Preview Central]

GM Dayton Moore went out and got Jonathan Sanchez in the Melky trade. Sanchez will frontline the rotation followed by Chen, Luke Hochevar, and probably Danny Duffy and either Felipe Paulino or converted reliever Aaron Crow. Vin Mazzaro will also get a long look in camp. It ain’t sexy, but it’s slightly better than what they went to war with last year. Look for Mike Montgomery and John Lamb to get a taste of the Bigs at some point this year to see if they can solidify Ned Yost’s rotation for the future.

3 Up

Best Case Scenario for 2012

The AL Central will belong to the Detroit Tigers in 2012 but the Royals, if their sophomore studs can hit with confidence, have the upside to finish as high as 2nd in the division. The Twins, Indians, and White Sox all have a laundry list of problems and nowhere near the explosive talent that KC brings to the table. If Sanchez can regain his form from 2010 and solidify the staff, the bullpen remains strong behind Joakim Soria, Greg Holland, Tim Collins, and Louis Coleman, and the combination of Hosmer and Moustakas can live up to the marquee billing, it is going to be an awfully fun season in Kansas City. The bandwagon isn’t full, but it’s time to buy a ticket if you want to save face when this team starts making serious noise.

Most Important Royals

Offensively, Eric Hosmer has the ability to be a superstar. He hit .293 as a rookie with 19 homers and 73 RBI’s, playing lock-down defense at 1st base on top of it. If Hosmer can figure out how to hit lefties (.237 avg., 1 HR, 13 RBI’s in 152 at-bats in ’11) as well as he hits righties (.315, 18, 65, 371 ab’s) he will be a top-tier force for the next 15 years. As important as Hosmer is, I’d argue that Alex Gordon is even more vital. Gordon, at 28-years old, is one of the oldest players on the Royals’ offense. He finally broke through his career recession with a .303 average, 23 homers, and 87 RBI’s a year ago. Veteran leadership like Gordon’s will be invaluable on a team as young as the Royals. On the mound, Greg Holland wasn’t just one of the best kept secrets in baseball last year; he was simply one of its best relievers. If a starting pitching staff has holes like this one does, it needs stars in the pen, and Holland is a star in the making. His 1.80 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 60 innings was impressive. The 74 K’s simply added to the dominance. He owns both lefties (.187 batting average against) and righties (.171) and is the future of the Kansas City bullpen. Don’t expect Joakim Soria to be around much longer.

Potential Breakout Players

Melky Cabrera was able to be traded because Lorenzo Cain is ready to get busy. The soon-to-be 26-year old center fielder came over in the Zack Greinke trade and is the key to making that deal not seem like a total disaster. Cain has been toiling away in the minors since 2005 and after a rough stretch in 2009 he really flipped the script over the past 2 years. 2011 was his best all-around season as he played exclusively at AAA Omaha. He hit .312 over 487 at-bats with 16 homers, 28 doubles, 81 RBI’s, and 16 steals. Cain has all of the tools. His time is now. Look for him to hit in the bottom 3rd of the order initially and a final stat line of .270, 10 homers, and 20 steals seems very doable.

Pitching-wise, look for Danny Duffy to take the next step as a starter. He had a pedestrian 4-8 record with a 5.64 ERA covering 20 starts for the Royals last year, but he has the goods. He has strikeout/inning upside at the major league level.  In parts of 5 seasons in the minors, he had an overall ERA of 2.65 and 407 K’s in 350 innings. Along with Sanchez and Chen, Duffy potentially gives the Royals 3 talented left-handed starters heading into 2012.

3 Down

Lorenzo Cain

Worst Case Scenario

The 2nd year players get a case of the jitters, Alex Gordon falls on his face again, and Cain proves not ready. And on the bump, Jonathan Sanchez remains erratic and unreliable, Hochevar continues to disappoint, and Duffy isn’t the real deal. All of these things won’t happen but some of them certainly could. If the snowball rolls downhill on this team, we’ll find out a lot about the character of the youngsters, but another 70-win season and 4th or 5th place finish could be in the works.

Areas of Concern

Youth will either rule the day or rear its ugly head. The average age of the 9 projected starting lineup members for KC is just 24.5. Wow. The Royals, whatever their record ends up being, will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch in 2012 simply due to the unknown potential of their young roster.

My hunch is that these guys will do just fine; it’s the starting pitching that remains the biggest concern. The Royals desperately need Bruce Chen to keep up his stellar production. Sanchez must regain his potentially dominant form and Hochevar needs to find it. And whoever the last 2 end up being will be counted on to at least pitch respectable baseball and win 8-10 games.

Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2011

Last year in this column I predicted a big bounce back year from Alex Gordon and he delivered. This year, Joakim Soria needs to reclaim his All-Star form. It’s not because the Royals must have him at the back-end of their bullpen, but more for the potential of trading him for even more prospects at the July 31st deadline. Holland can close games. Soria needs to be moved while Dayton Moore still can. His 2011 ERA and WHIP ballooned to 4.03 and 1.28 respectively, both career worsts. The best thing he can do for KC this year is to have a dominant first half and then get shipped to a contender in an effort to keep the stockpiled farm system from becoming depleted. Also, don’t sleep on Mike Moustakas. He struggled mightily upon his call-up but then caught fire in September (.352 avg.). As recently as 2010, Moose put up 36 homers and 124 RBI’s between AA and AAA. By comparison, Hosmer’s best minor league season was also 2010 when he hit 20 homers and knocked in 86. The corner infield spots for KC are officially on lock down.

Follow me on Twitter @isportsJoe

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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