Flanny's five keys to the Royals' 2012 season

Flanny's five keys to the Royals' 2012 season

Published Apr. 4, 2012 3:06 p.m. ET

The secret is out now about just how tougher it will be to beat the Kansas City Royals in 2012.

Actually, the secret has been out since the second half of the 2011 season.

Several opposing managers took notice of the Royals in 2011, but it was Detroit's Jim Leyland who said it publicly: “Those kids on Kansas City really look good and give them some energy. This is a good team. This is a team that will be real dangerous in the near future."

Royals fans, of course, are hoping that future is now.

Is there a chance the Royals could sneak into the postseason, or are they still a year away? Baseball Prospectus certainly believes they're not ready – the publication declared the odds of the Royals getting into the postseason at 0.04 percent. Only Houston – at zero percent – had worse odds.

I disagree, at least with those odds on the Royals.

The Royals could find themselves in contention for a playoff spot in September, but they will have to resolve several issues.

Here's a look at the five keys to the Royals' season:

1. Starting rotation must hold up: By far, this is the weakest link. Bruce Chen has been a terrific story and a great addition to the Royals, but he is far from a legitimate No. 1. Luke Hochevar has shown signs of beings an ace, and he will have to demonstrate that his strong second half last season was a turning point. General manager Dayton Moore tried to upgrade the rotation with the addition of Jonathan Sanchez, a lefty who has great stuff but who also has a history of suspect command. The real wild cards – Luis Mendoza and Danny Duffy – are at the bottom of the rotation and they could flip the season for the Royals. If Mendoza pitches the way he did in September, and if Duffy, another gifted lefty, turns the corner, the Royals will have a significant edge over their divisional opponent's lower-end starters.

2. Replacing Soria: I'm not terribly concerned because the Royals have depth in the back of the bullpen. But let's face it: A marginal team cannot afford to blow leads late. A struggling closer can crush the spirit in the clubhouse, especially a young clubhouse like the Royals. It is vital the Royals have no drama on this issue. It would not appear that the moment will be too big for Greg Holland, but until he has done the job consistently, the verdict will remain out. If Holland falters, free-agent signee Jonathan Broxton is there, along with Aaron Crow. If Holland can handle the duties, the back of the Royals' bullpen becomes a great weapon.

3. Hanging on without Sal: Truth be told, the loss of catcher Salvador Perez for half the season to a knee injury was a bigger body blow to the Royals than losing Soria. Perez probably wasn't going to hit over .330 again but his defense was perhaps the best in the league. And the Royals were counting on that superb defense to help out an iffy rotation. Perez had the ability to shorten baserunners' primary and secondary leads because of his rocket arm. With Perez, and the terrific outfield, and shortstop Alcides Escobar, and first baseman Eric Hosmer, the Royals are maybe the best defensive team in the league. They're still well above average without Perez, but his absence directly affects the rotation. Brayan Pena and Humbert Quintero will have to elevate their games somehow – Pena defensively and Quintero offensively.

4. Get something out of second base: A lot of Royals' fans' hearts sank when the Royals abruptly optioned prospect Johnny Giavotella to Triple-A. Giavotella eventually may hit well enough in the bigs to off-set his defensive shortcomings, but the Royals weren't willing to take that chance to start the season. So Johnny G will start the season at Omaha, and the Royals will live with a combination of Chris Getz and Yuni Betancourt. Skipper Ned Yost thinks Getz will be much improved offensively, but if Getz has developed more pop in his bat, he didn't flash it in Arizona. Betancourt is on his second tour with the Royals and while he doesn't go to his left as well as Getz, he is the better overall option. Betancourt still won't take walks, but he will deliver the long ball on occasion and represents a much bigger offensive threat than Getz. The Royals need Yuni (and Getz) to give them something, anything, that represents above average play.

5. Hitting and scoring when it matters: The Royals put up a lot of offense in Arizona, but that rarely means a whole lot when April arrives. The Royals do have the potential to be a solid offensive team, but they still will have to get creative offensively because they do not wield any true hammer throwers. Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Billy Butler, Jeff Francoeur, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will all hit their share of homers, but they don't have a 40-homer, 120-RBI guy (though, yes, Hosmer may become that kind of talent). On paper, the Royals have a nice mix of speed and pop in the order, one through six. But those six will have to carry the weight because the bottom third of the order, especially when Getz and Quintero are playing, won't produce all that much. While their 1-6 looks impressive to Royals fans, remember that this is the American League – every team can hit. The Royals' top hitters can't afford any long slumps.