|Eric Hosmer is part of a young core that will give the Royals new hope. (Getty Images)|
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- What I like, and don't like, about the Royals:
• Young position players. Eric Hosmer. Mike Moustakas. Salvador Perez. Lorenzo Cain, who will break in in center field this year. Johnny Giavotella could break in at second base. When will the Royals start winning? "I feel like we're right there," starter Luke Hochevar says. "I feel like we've got the pieces to compete. Obviously, the talent is there. We have a lot of young talent. Now, it's getting everything together."
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• Alex Gordon. The Royals waited for what seems like forever for their top pick (second overall) in the 2005 draft. After a series of false starts, Gordon finally took off last year, blasting 23 homers, producing a .376 on-base percentage and showing why the Royals stuck with him. If he's here for good, and Hosmer, Billy Butler and Jeff Francoeur continue to produce, Kansas City could win sooner rather than later.
• Solid blueprint. Because of the influx of young talent over the past couple of seasons, the Royals are more set in the field than they've been in a long time. What manager Ned Yost and his coaches are watching this spring is second base, where three men are in hot competition, and the bullpen. Otherwise, barring injury, things are locked down. Most interesting battle is at second, where rookie Johnny Giavotella and veterans Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt are squaring off.
• Last September. While the Red Sox and Braves were coughing up playoff spots -- you might have heard -- chances are, unless you live in Kansas City and regularly dine on fantastic barbecue, you missed what the Royals did. Try this: They went 15-10 over their last 25 games, and their lineup finished fourth in the AL with a .275 batting average and fifth with a .415 on-base percentage. "They were so focused," Yost says. "And it was nothing I had to tell them. It was a mindset: Play good, hard baseball and bring momentum into this year. They played their ass off." That bodes really, really well for the future: Not only is the talent here, but these kids have won together at every stop in the minors. The mentality is here, too -- and that's what tells you more than anything that Kansas City's future, finally, is exceptionally bright.
• The bullpen should be very strong. Joakim Soria is an All-Star closer. Assuming Aaron Crow doesn't ascend to the rotation -- possibly a dangerous assumption to make -- Kansas City has an All-Star set-up man. Former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton is here, and his recovery from elbow surgery is nearly complete. Who knows if he'll ever regain peak form, but he should help. Veteran Jose Mijares, who had success in Minnesota's pen, is here, too.
• Rotation questions. Bruce Chen is back as the veteran anchor following yet another surprising year in 2011. But beyond him and Luke Hochevar, there are questions. Are Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy ready to step up? Can the Dr. Jekyll Jonathan Sanchez throw more strikes and keep the zone-missing Mr. Hyde away? Aaron Crow is in the Alexi Ogando never-never land, a guy drafted to start but who became an All-Star as a set-up man last summer. In Kansas City's perfect world, he'll finish spring with the endurance to start and dominate opponents from the first pitch this summer. But they may need him at the back of games as a bridge to closer Joakim Soria more.
• Because they remain so young, there is just no predicting when the breakthrough will come and the Royals will start winning. There are more ridiculous things than picking them as a darkhorse team this summer to contend with the Tigers. But the youth tells you that 2013 probably is a smarter guess. Yost refuses to venture a guess of his own, saying flatly, "I'm not putting a timetable on it." But, he adds: "Our player development system is so strong, when these kids get here, they know how to play the game. There's always tweaking but, these kids, you talk to them, it's not a foreign thing. I've never been around a place where kids at such a young age are ready to compete." And Yost spent many years coaching under Bobby Cox in Atlanta's model system.
• Rookie catcher and, possibly, second baseman. Lots of people think Salvador Perez is a future star, starting with the Royals. They gave him a five-year, $7 million deal over the winter. And Johnny Giavotella, who may have a leg up at second now that he's recovered from hip surgery, is battling former White Sox phenom Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt. This could work out very well. But depending on rookies at two key positions is risky.
• Detroit. Nothing against Motown per se. It's just that, if you're talking Royals and the AL Central, you must measure yourself against the Tigers. It's their division to win, at least, in 2012. Hard to see a team with as many questions as Kansas City sticking around the race that deep into the summer. Consider this summer's Kansas City All-Star Game a prelude, though, to what's in store for the Royals in coming seasons. Nice to see a marquee game finally return to Kansas City. The Royals stay on track, marquee games in October won't be far behind.