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No one will mistake them for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Kansas City Royals have been one of the offseason's most active teams. The Royals have already signed six free agents to big-league contracts: starting pitchers Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, relievers Will Smith and Chris Stratton, outfielder Hunter Renfroe, and infielder Garrett Hampson. FanGraphs' Roster Resource page projects them to have eight new faces on their Opening Day squad.

Predictably, executive J.J. Picollo's winter blitz has raised expectations for his 2024 club. MLB Network analyst and former big-league backstop Anthony Recker, to cite one source, said this week that he would pick the Royals to win the American League Central based on how things stand. You don't have to agree with Recker's take to appreciate the sudden tone shift around Kansas City.

After all, the Royals are coming off a 106-loss effort that tied the 2005 bunch for the worst showing in franchise history. They posted the fourth-worst run differential in the majors, and they finished 31 games back in a weak division. Last World Series proved that teams can change their fortunes in a hurry, but it's reasonable to wonder if these Royals are up for the task -- especially since Picollo has suggested the bulk of his offseason work may already be done.

So, is the Royals hype earned or misplaced? Below, CBS Sports has put forth three questions that will determine if Kansas City can sustain the good vibes.

1. Are the pitching upgrades enough?

It would be difficult for the Royals to pitch worse than they did last season. Kansas City started 23 different pitchers, the second-most in the majors. Teams don't burn through that many arms if things are going well. Unsurprisingly, the Royals finished 28th in staff ERA, ahead of only the nihilistic Athletics and the bewildered Rockies. Of the eight Royals to receive more than five starts, just two had an ERA+ over 100: breakout lefty Cole Ragans and Ryan Yarbrough, who was traded to the Dodgers midseason.

Grabbing Ragans from the Rangers might have been the best move at the trade deadline. Now, the Royals are hoping that importing 40% of the Padres rotation, in Lugo and Wacha, can help stabilize the rest of their starting five. There's undeniable risk to that plan. Prior to last year, Lugo had not started a game since 2020. Wacha, meanwhile, isn't far removed from a brutal three-year stretch. Both pitched well in 2023, however, and let's be honest: they wouldn't have been affordable to the Royals if they were sure things. 

Besides, even bearish forecasts suggest the Royals rotation is much improved. Consider that Kansas City's five most-used starters last season had a 5.22 ERA. The collection of Ragans, Lugo, Wacha, Brady Singer, and Jordan Lyles are projected by Steamer to have a 4.48 ERA. That's the difference between fielding one of the worst rotations in baseball and trotting out a merely below-average unit. Upgrading from awful to tolerable isn't as marketable or aspirational as upgrading from tolerable to good, but it can have the same net effect on wins.

Picollo's winter should also ameliorate a miserable bullpen. Manager Matt Quatraro handed 91 total high-leverage assignments last year to Carlos Hernández, Aroldis Chapman, Scott Barlow, Taylor Clarke, and José Cuas. Only one of the five (Chapman) had an ERA+ above 100. You don't have to believe that Smith, Stratton, or even Nick Anderson will be great in 2024 to envision them being better than what the 2023 Royals used in the late innings.

Alas, the problems in Kansas City last season stretched beyond the mound.

2. Can any bats make the leap?

The Royals' longstanding inability to develop pitchers has, perversely, shielded them from criticism about their poor recent track record with young hitters. Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. had a breakout season and first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino looks like a legit above-average bat to our eyes. Otherwise? The Royals ranked 23rd in runs scored and 28th in wRC+ in 2023 because many of their well-regarded homegrown position batters have failed to launch.

For brevity's sake, we're going to touch on the three Royals youngsters who intrigue us the most and who might be in line to take a step forward: third baseman Maikel Garcia, outfielder MJ Melendez, and infielder Nick Loftin.

Garcia, 23, hit for an underwhelming 88 OPS+ in his first full season. He's going to be our pick for the Royals breakout player of 2024 because of some notable underlying metrics. Namely, Garcia had the eighth-highest average exit velocity on fastballs last season -- behind the likes of Aaron Judge, Shohei Ohtani, Yordan Alvarez, Corey Seager, Matt Olson, Joey Gallo, and J.D. Martinez. Past research indicates that correlates better with future power output than most metrics, including ISO and overall average exit velocity itself. Garcia doesn't have Gallo's contact problems, either. What's holding him back the most is a sub-5 degree average launch angle. Even then, similarly low launch angles haven't prevented Yandy Díaz, William Contreras, and countless others from excelling at the big-league level. At the risk of oversimplifying things, we suspect better days await for Garcia.

We noted that Garcia had the eighth-highest average exit velocity against fastballs. Guess who ranked ninth. Yup, Melendez. He's entering his age-25 season and it's time for him to surpass the 100 OPS+ threshold after finishing between 95 and 99 in his first two seasons. Unlike Garcia, Melendez's game features a significant amount of swing and miss. He's been largely ineffective against non-fastballs and left-handed pitchers, complicating his climb to being a legitimate middle-of-the-order power source. 

Loftin, 25, is a former first-round pick who had a smooth introduction to the majors last season, hitting .323/.368/.435 in 19 games. He'll be ranked as Kansas City's second-best prospect when our rankings drop in January. At minimum, Loftin should be an improvement over Michael Massey, Nicky Lopez, and some of the other infielders the Royals ran out there in 2023. 

If two or even all three of those youngsters can assert themselves in 2024, the Royals' lineup will be much better off for it. If not, the Royals have hedged their bets (to an extent) by signing Renfroe and Hampson. Renfroe is coming off the second-worst season of his career with the poor ball-tracking measures to match, but he homered 60 times and posted a 118 OPS+ with the Rays and Brewers in 2021-22. Hampson is a waterbug utility player who was non-tendered after having by far the best offensive season of his career. He relies on spraying around weak contact and taking a fair amount of walks.

It's hard to look at this group and see a league-average offense. It's more realistic to think that with one or two breakouts they could achieve the same kind of modest improvement that we wrote about with the pitching staff. If the Royals were to somehow rank 20th in ERA and runs scored next season, it would represent a respectable step forward in both respects. But would that be enough to really give them a chance at cracking October?

There is one major variable left to consider. 

3. What will the other Central teams do?

The AL Central doesn't have a superpower like the Braves or the Dodgers. That's a good thing for the Royals, since it means that they won't have to find 95-plus wins to threaten for the division crown. It's also a bad thing for the Royals, since it encourages all the other teams to similarly try to win baseball games. (The Tigers, for instance, are trying to make a push of their own this winter.)

For our money, the Twins seem likely to enter the spring as the favorites in the Central. The catch is that they're looking to cut payroll, which will likely entail trading infielder Jorge Polanco and/or outfielder Max Kepler. The Twins are simultaneously on the prowl for pitching after losing Sonny Gray, Kenta Maeda, and Tyler Mahle to free agency, making them a moving target of sorts. Until Minnesota's roster comes into better focus, it's going to be difficult to assert how good they are (or aren't) with a high degree of confidence.

If we had to guess, the uncertainty with the Twins is driving the recent Royals hype as much as anything. Minnesota looks vulnerable because it's an unfinished roster, and it's an unfinished roster because it's the midpoint of the offseason. We reckon that in a month or two, they'll have more pieces in place and the extent of their superiority will be evident. 

This isn't to write that the Royals' winter is a waste -- we do think they could be markedly improved next season. It's just that it might be a "fight for 80 wins" level of improvement rather than a "win the Central" level. There are worse outcomes, as the Royals and their fans are so acutely aware.