No. 18 Royals: 13th in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Brewers.
When talent comes in waves, good things happen to teams.
The long-suffering Royals believe they have reached the point where their hard work and over-slot spending in the amateur draft will bear fruit on the field.
They became interesting in 2011, when Alex Gordon stopped teasing and started hitting and rookies Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Johnny Giavotella established themselves as long-term regulars in Ned Yost's lineup. They hope to become more than Baseball America's team this season, with the results largely dependent on the emergence of young arms in the starting rotation.
General manager Dayton Moore made two offseason moves that should help a starting rotation that had a 4.82 ERA, the second worst in the majors. Left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, acquired from the Giants, has front-of-the-rotation stuff if he can get hitters to chase pitches. Jonathan Broxton, signed as a free agent after an elbow injury cost him his stopper's role with the Dodgers, takes over setup duties for Aaron Crow, whose power arm could play well as a starter.
But for the Royals to become a contender, they need to get a ton of improvement from their likely No. 1 starter, Luke Hochevar, as well as at least two guys from within their system. Lefty Bruce Chen and right-hander Felipe Paulino are likely to be in the rotation at the start of the season, but Moore knows success depends on lefties Chris Duffy and Mike Montgomery helping the rotation build a feeling of confidence like the Gordon/Hosmer-led lineup did a year ago.
Hochevar, who had just turned 21 when he made his big league debut at the end of 2007, has taken serious lumps (5.29 ERA over 585 innings) but made a step forward with 31 starts and almost 200 innings last year. The Royals will have their ace if he can build off the second half. That's when a 3.52 ERA showed he got stronger as the year went on, the way the tough guys do.
Duffy, who had made only 15 starts above Class A, got 20 with the Royals after starting out strong in Triple-A last season. He was a scared 22-year-old kid, and it showed. His work the second time around will be telling, but long term he's seen only as a middle-of-the-rotation guy. Montgomery, who stands 6 feet 5 and throws in the mid-90s, carries greater expectations.
Baseball America rates him as the best prospect in a loaded organization despite a disappointing 2011, when he stalled at Triple-A. That's the distinction they gave to Hosmer a year ago, and Montgomery could give the Royals a similar lift if he arrives with nearly as much impact. His fastball is his best pitch, but he has shown his changeup can be a plus pitch. The development of a consistent curveball has lagged behind, which was partly why he went 5-11 with a 5.32 ERA last year for Omaha.
The group of pitching prospects behind Duffy and Montgomery includes at least two others with chances to make 10-plus big-league starts this season. Right-hander Jake Odorizzi, acquired from the Brewers alongside shortstop Alcides Esobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain in the Zack Greinke trade, is a power pitcher with a lot of upside. Chris Dwyer, yet another hard-throwing lefty, is like Montgomery in that he needs to smooth out his delivery and pound the strike zone. Lefty John Lamb was ahead of both those guys at the start of 2011 but had Tommy John surgery in June, setting him back at least a year.
The Royals are fun to watch. The development of their starting pitchers will determine if they ever become a team opponents hate to play.
•Thanks to a $250 million renovation, the All-Star Game will be played at Kauffman Stadium on July 10. The event hasn't been in Kansas City since 1973.
•The only two franchises that never have hosted an All-Star Game are Miami and Tampa Bay. The Marlins should get one in the next three-seven years, as they're moving into a highly anticipated stadium this season.
•Manager Ned Yost has a .467 winning percentage with the Royals and Brewers. His best season was 2008, when he got fired. He had Milwaukee 83-67 behind midseason acquisition CC Sabathia when GM Doug Melvin turned the team over to Dale Sveum for the last 12 games. Sveum got the Brewers into the playoffs, but didn't get the job.
•Hosmer, 22 this season, may become the best all-around first baseman in the majors. He probably won't hit quite like Albert Pujols but he's a plus fielder and has good speed for his size (11 stolen bases last year).
•The Royals are turning center field over to Cain after trading Melky Cabrera to the Giants for Sanchez. He has hit .302 in 49 big league games. But something will have to give in the Royals' outfield soon, as converted catcher Wil Myers hit .360 in the Arizona Fall League and projects into the corner outfield spots held by Jeff Francoeur, who is signed through 2013, and Gordon. The DH spot belongs to Billy Butler, who is signed through 2014. Moore may try to move Francoeur to a contender if the Royals falter this season.