Cactus League countdown: Kansas City Royals

For a few seasons now, the Kansas City Royals have left their fans wondering: Is this the year the talent comes together?

With promising talent at nearly every position, the Royals have seemed primed for a rise only to remain a bottom-of-the-division team with just one winning season since 1994.

This offseason, the Royals took the next step toward becoming a contender, addressing their biggest weakness by bringing in three pitchers for the starting rotation. In doing so, they’ve at least put the AL Central’s best on notice.

The centerpiece of the rotation renovation is James Shields, who came over from Tampa Bay along with Wade Davis in a trade that cost the Royals one of baseball’s elite minor-league prospects: Wil Myers. Shields gives Kansas City a legitimate No. 1 pitcher who won 15 games last season and 16 the year before while leading the league in complete games and shutouts.
Davis, 27, also joins the rotation after spending last year in Tampa Bay’s bullpen. As a starter in 2010-11, he won a combined 23 games.

Rounding out the newcomers is Ervin Santana, acquired in a trade with the Angels. Santana is three seasons removed from the 2010 campaign that saw him win 17 games and had a down 2012, but could be a prime comeback candidate. At the very least, he provides rotational depth.

The same could be said for Jeremy Guthrie, who impressed in Kansas City after a midseason trade with Colorado and was re-signed as a free agent.

That leaves one spot up for grabs between former front-of-the-rotation starters Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar. If the everyday lineup continues its development, a rotation that deep ought to be enough to make the Royals a legitimate threat in the AL Central.

Salvador Perez, the man catching that new group, could be an emerging star. Perez suffered a knee injury in camp last year and didn’t return until late June, but he finished with 11 home runs and a .301 average. The 23-year-old is said to have all the tools to put himself among baseball’s elite catchers.

Barring injury, the rest of the lineup is intact, with Jeff Francoeur, Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon in the outfield; Eric Hosmer, Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas in the infield; and All-Star Billy Butler providing power at designated hitter. Escobar is coming off a standout year (.293, 35 stolen bases), but Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain all have room for improvement after inconsistent seasons.

The bullpen could be the biggest question mark hanging over camp in Surprise. Longtime closer Joakim Soria has moved on to Texas after missing all of last season following arm surgery, and Kansas City traded fill-in closer Jonathan Broxton to Cincinnati, meaning Greg Holland enters his first full season in the role. Holland converted 16 of 20 save chances last year after the Broxton deal.

If everything comes together, the Royals finally appear on the brink of a breakthrough — but they’ve been here before and have a lot of ground to make up after going 72-90 last year. Spring training will provide this group the chance to build some chemistry and the confidence that comes from a beefed-up starting rotation.

Who’s new: P Wade Davis, trade (Rays); P Ervin Santana, trade (Angels); P James Shields, trade (Rays); C George Kottaras, waivers (A’s); P Guillermo Moscoso, waivers (Rockies); OF Endy Chavez, OF Xavier Nady, P Brian Sanches, P George  Sherrill, IF Miguel Tejada, P Dan Wheeler, minor-league free agents.

Who’s gone: SS Yuniesky Betancourt (Phillies), OF Jason Bourgeois (Rays), P Jeremy Jeffress (Blue Jays), OF Mitch Maier (Red Sox), OF Wil Myers (Rays), P Jake Odorizzi (Rays), C Brayan Pena (Tigers), P Joakim Soria (Rangers)
Battle ground: With all the starting pitching the Royals acquired in the offseason, there’s not much room for the returning starters — just one spot, in fact, assuming the front four stay healthy.

Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar will be frontrunners for the final spot, but they’ll also see competition from Luis Mendoza, Will Smith and Guillermo Moscoso. Johnny Giavotella has an outside shot at displacing Chris Getz at second base, and 38-year-old former MVP Miguel Tejada, a non-roster invitee, will try to earn a bench position after sitting out all of last year.
Health watch: Reliever Felipe Paulino is recovering from July 2012 Tommy John surgery and won’t be back until July at the earliest.
Sneak preview: The Royals are bringing 21-year-old right hander Yordano Ventura to big league camp on a non-roster invitation, and fans ought to take notice. Ventura went all the way from rookie ball to Double-A last season, making 23 starts. He has a fastball that can hit triple digits, but his command needs work.
Spring training info: Surprise Stadium, 15960 N. Bullard Ave., Surprise. First workouts: Feb. 12 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 15 (full squad). First game: Feb. 23. Tickets: