Royals spring training preview

KANSAS CITY, MO — Hard to believe, but the Royals begin spring training in three weeks.

Yep, pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 20.

Wow, doesn’t it seem like that fun, winning September of 2011 just wrapped up a few nights ago?

When you’re expecting really exciting things, you can’t wait to get started – and that’s pretty much how everyone in the Royals organization is feeling right now.

General manager Dayton Moore insists that he’s almost certainly done doing business for the off season, and that the 2012 Royals now have been constructed, so…

What should we be watching when the gang gathers in Arizona?

What are the keys that might propel this young, talented team upward – perhaps into contention in the AL Central?

Well, it’s always safe to start with the baseball gospel according to Whitey Herzog – the Hall of Famer who managed the Royals to their first few division championships.

“People make the game too complicated,” Herzog has said over and over. “You only have to do three things well to win.

“You’ve got to pitch it, catch it and hit it.”

The good news is that the Royals, building from within and making a key acquisition here and there, have two of those three items covered quite nicely.

This season’s Royals will hit, they’ll run to complement the offense, and they very well could score runs at a championship level.

There’s no reason to believe that guys like Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Jeff Francoeur – essentially the heart of the order – should be any less productive than they were last season.

In fact, kids like Hosmer, Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez figure to improve as they settle in for long and exciting careers.

Switch-hitting Melky Cabrera is gone from center field, but scouts  love Lorenzo Cain – an even better defensive player who looks very much as though he can hit at any level.

Last year, the Royals won a lot of early-season games using the off-the-charts speed of Jarrod Dyson — but then he was shipped to Omaha to get regular at-bats.

“But if last year was about development, this one is about winning ballgames,” said Yost, which almost certainly means that Dyson will be Cain’s caddy in center – and a game-changing pinch-runner when he’s not in the starting lineup.

The Royals have speed elsewhere, too, and were a tremendous base-running team a year ago. They won’t be slowing down this season.

Scoring?

Over 162 games, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Defense, meanwhile, is such a strength that you could argue the Royals will win more games with their gloves and arms than any team in baseball.

Perez is already one of the game’s premier defensive catchers. Alcides Escobar is a magician at short. Gordon won a Gold Glove in left and every outfielder on the roster is terrific defensively. Hosmer could start a streak of Gold Gloves at first any time now.

The only major question mark in the starting lineup is at second base, where Johnny Giovatella’s bat and hustle make him the incumbent.

Gio does lack range and finesse in the field, however – in truth, the only place where the Royals don’t have a defensive whiz – but Moore retained veteran Chris Getz and re-acquired Yuniesky Betancourt to make sure there’s some leather available.

Youngster Christian Colon, who has shot up through the minor-league system, could force his way into the picture at second, as well.

Colon has played short for most of his brief career, but he was moved to second base late last season and that could be his ultimate destination.

Moustakas was far better than expected at third, but in case he should struggle offensively against some left-handed pitchers, Kevin Kouzmanoff and his lively bat were brought aboard as insurance.

It will be interesting to watch how the newcomers fit in – Cain and Dyson in center, Betancourt and Kouzmanoff someplace around the infield, perhaps even Colon.

Can Yost keep them all on the roster, and still hang on to enough arms in the bullpen?

That could be a changing picture throughout spring training and right on into the regular season.

Bottom line, hitting it and catching it should not be a problem.

What almost every fan – not to mention the Royals management – will be watching intently from day to day is whether or not this team can pitch it.

If somebody asks you if the Royals might actually make it into September with a shot to unseat the slugging Tigers in the AL Central, tell them it might well depend on two pitchers – Jonathan Sanchez and Joakim Soria.

Let’s start with Soria and work backwards.

If the guy teammates call “Jack” returns to his career form as the Royals’ closer, everything else gets easier.

Soria struggled for parts of 2011, which was something of a shock since he’d been almost invincible in the ninth inning from the day he was snatched away from the Padres in the Rule 5 draft to the time he strode calmly to the mound in a Royals uniform – unruffled and almost unbeatable.

Yost insists he’s not the least bit concerned about Soria, and new pitching coach Dave Eiland – who served a spell with the Yankees – compares him to future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera.

Eiland pointed out that even Rivera had a few shaky moments here and there, but as with all the great ones, those mini-slumps never lasted.

Eiland believes Soria will return to being Mr. Automatic at the back end of the bullpen – which would make the Royals a much, much better team.

If Soria is solid, free agent signee Jonathan Broxton can help as a set-up guy – along with super-successful Greg Holland, last year’s rookie All-Star Aaron Crow and right-handed sidearmer Louis Coleman.

You might want to add right-hander Kelvin Herrera to that group. He was the best closer in the Royals’ system a year ago, and could fit just about anywhere.

The Royals had one huge bullpen hole a year ago, with no left-hander to summon in those late-inning situations where somebody had to get out a dangerous left-handed hitter.

Everett Teaford and Tim Collins both have talent – plus Teaford also proved he could be an effective long man – but neither was particularly deadly against lefties.

Moore hopes he solved that issue with the addition of Jose Mijares, a lelty specialist who could make a lot of one-batter appearances in close games.

As long as Soria is the real Soria, the pen looks as tough as any in the league – and that’s critical, because there are question marks all through the starting rotation.

If “Jack” should struggle, the Royals have to hope that either Broxton regains the pre-injury form he displayed as a two-time All-Star with the Dodgers, or that Holland can be as unhittable in the ninth inning as he was as a set-up man.

Or heck, maybe Herrera can step straight into a major-league closer’s job. Neftali Feliz did it two years ago for Texas, and totally transformed the Rangers into a World Series team.

No matter what, though, there are enough quality arms in that bullpen that the only possible problem – in a worst-case scenario – would be depth.

And depth matters, at least until the Royals prove they’ve put together a starting rotation that can produce strings of quality starts and go deeper into games.

At least there’s legitimate hope, with no shortage of live arms.

Luke Hochevar, the opening-day starter a year ago, seemed headed for another frustrating season until August, when he began throwing inside more often and suddenly looked like the lights-out prospect he was thought to be when he was the first player drafted in 2006.

If Hoch picks up where he left off at the end of 2011, the Royals are off to a flying start in piecing together a rotation.

Yost already has penciled in Hochevar, Sanchez – the strikeout machine obtained from the Giants in a trade for Cabrera – and ageless schemer Bruce Chen as his automatic top three.

Sanchez is almost unhittable when he’s right, as he was while pitching the Giants into the World Series two years ago. The lefty with electric stuff struggled at times last season, and then injured his ankle.

Eiland has been given the task of getting Sanchez back on track, and helping two other probable rotation candidates – Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino – throw enough strikes to be as effective as their power arms suggest they should be.

In other words, the ability is all there. But until this group proves it can be consistent, well…

The jury remains out.

On the plus side, there are plenty of potential starters waiting in the wings if pre-season plans spring a leak.

Luis Mendoza, for instance, was the best starter in all the minor leagues a year ago, and looked every bit the part during two terrific starts once he was summoned to Kansas City.

The Royals also want to look at Crow as possible starter during the spring. The right-hander from Topeka has nasty stuff, but he needs to develop some kind of off-speed pitch if he’s going to face big-league hitters two or three times through the lineup.

There’s also a truly dynamic wild card lurking around in lefty Mike Montgomery, another starter with an awesome arsenal. Montgomery was erratic at Omaha last year, fighting his command and mechanics – but what if Eiland can teach him a reliable arm slot and all the other things that breed consistency?

The Royals also have an army of live young arms waiting behind that group – though most are likely a year or two away. But who knows?

Somehow, out of that huge group of possible starters, Yost needs to find five guys who can take the ball when it’s their turn without causing his blood pressure to rise every couple of innings.

There’s really no telling how good the Royals could be if they stitch together an effective rotation.

If you’re going to follow this team closely during spring training, obviously all those pitchers would be the place to start.

That pun was accidental.

More than anything, Yost and Eiland want to see their guys throwing strikes. The Royals walked everyone in the ballpark last year, and you simply can’t give away that many free bases and expect to be a title contender.

Eiland has spent more hours than he can count looking at tape of his pitchers, and believes he has some answers.

If he does, 2012 could be remembered for a lot more than simply the season that the All-Star Game came to Kauffman Stadium.

Beyond the huge squadron of pitchers, keep an eye on the second base situation.

Giovatella looks like he can hit, but if the Royals are going to preach pitching to contact, they need excellent defense up the middle.

Perez, Escobar and Cain (or Dyson) are all outstanding and then some – but maybe the Royals will have enough offense elsewhere in the lineup that they’ll opt for a glove at second.

Giovatella is a willing learner, though, and he’s going to scrap like crazy to improve defensively.

Another spotlight will focus on Cain, who can run down anything but hasn’t yet hit over a full big-league season. Batting coach Kevin Seitzer loves Cain’s stroke and his approach, and believes Lorenzo will hit – and with a bit of power, too – but for now he remains untested.

If Cain struggles, the Royals always have an interesting Plan B at their disposal – putting the blazer Dyson in center and letting him lead off, which would free up Gordon to bat in a run-producing spot.

“Sure, we’ve got questions,” Yost said just a few weeks ago, “but it’s a lot more fun looking for answers when you know you’ve got talent – and we’ve got it.

“This is a better group overall than the team I had in Milwaukee (the kids who grew into a playoff team last season), and that’s saying a lot.

“But who knows the upside for this team? It’s pretty darn high, I know that.”

Moore certainly has made a few non-headline additions that could turn out to be critical – guys like Kouzmanoff, Mijares and Betancourt, all of whom have specific roles and possess plenty of major-league experience.

The Royals almost certainly will be a chic dark-horse pick for a lot of those so-called experts who want to find a surprise team – this year’s version of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“We won’t be sneaking up on anybody now,” said Hosmer, who has a chance to be an MVP-level player sometime soon. “No one’s going to take us for granted.”

That’s certainly a step up for a Royals franchise that has managed just one winning season in 17 years.

“The thing is, just being competitive isn’t the goal anymore,” Yost said. “Our guys have bigger goals than that.”

Detroit manager Jim Leyland has noticed.

“That’s going to be a championship level team over there,” Leyland said of the Royals. “The only question is when.”

Could it happen quickly? Like this year?

Questions will become answers soon. Really soon, beginning in just three weeks.