(Cautiously) Great Expectations

The 2012 Royals will look very similar to the same group that finished off 2011. Gone is Melky Cabrera, but the rest of the lineup should be the same. Most of the current bench players are still arbitration eligible and will return and have enough experience to fill in should an injury occur. The young bullpen may shuffle a bit after spring training but the principals should remain. The biggest changes will be Lorenzo Cain patrolling center field, Jonathan Broxton in the bullpen and Jonathan Sanchez in the rotation.

Dayton Moore hasn’t been quiet, but he’s reached a point, I think, where he’s confident in the team he’s assembled. A crop of highly-regarded prospects showed that they belong in the big leagues last year and the hope is that they’ll be the future for the next few years.

It’s causing Royals fans, we happy few, to get a bit more optimistic than we’re used to.

It’s rare that a fourth place finish is cause for excitement, but in the context of the current makeup of the organization, it makes sense. The Royals finished sixth in runs scored in the AL last year, had some great bullpen performances, and the returning starting pitchers performed near the league average. With a little luck – perhaps a breakthrough by a player or two – the Royals could be a surprise contender in 2012.

Of course, as Royals fans, we’ve been here before.

There was the 1990 team that seemed to be a piece or two from overtaking the Oakland A’s as the class of the AL West.

Remember the 2003 team? Of course you do. They’re the last team to finish above .500 and were in first place most of the year. Buoyed by that success, the Royals went out and  signed Matt Stairs, Scott Sullivan and Juan Gonzalez with hopes that they’d put them over the top. That team lost 104 games.

Back in 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series on the strength of a young team filled with former first round picks. A small market success like that had pundits asking who would be the next Rays and the Royals, with Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Zack Greinke in place and with Mike Aviles coming off a strong rookie season, were dubbed the next small market hope. Maybe the Royals bought into that as well, as Moore traded off Ramon Ramirez for Coco Crisp and Leo Nunez (or Juan Oviedo if you prefer) for Mike Jacobs. To fill those holes in the bullpen, he signed Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz. Crisp played 49 games, Jacobs struck out every fourth at bat and the Royals finished last. Again.

Expectations are tricky. At this point, Royals fans should know better. But in the offseason, one can’t help but suspend skepticism, especially when things feel different this time around.

In the past, Eric Hosmer wasn’t in the picture. Mike Moustakas wasn’t looking to improve on a great second half. Salvador Perez wasn’t looking like a veteran catcher at 21 years old.

Buster Olney put the Royals infield and outfield in his top ten in the game. He also ranked the lineup eighth. Jeff Passan wrote that the Royals are an injury or two in Detroit away from being unlikely contenders.

The makeup of the AL Central is contributing to the optimism. The Twins are in shambles after dealing with injuries all year and a farm system that couldn’t fill the gaps in the ways it used to be able to. The White Sox are selling off parts, having already traded away Carlos Quentin, Sergio Santos, Jason Frasor and have listened to offers for Gavin Floyd. Some rumors had them shopping Paul Konerko and they’ve replaced Ozzie Guillen as manager. I’m not sure if anybody was really believing in the Indians last year, but they had a good offense and strong pitching.

Detroit is still the class of the division, but it seems anything less than third place would be a disappointment. Ned Yost said that he expects the team to play “much better than .500” in 2012.

The Royals should be much better in 2012 than they have been in recent memory. However, it will take a lot of breaks to get them into the playoffs. There has been chatter that the Royals must get a top of the rotation starter now, that they must get this now or that now.

They really don’t. Sure, it’d help. I’d have loved to have signed Mark Buehrle and Roy Oswalt is an unlikely but still possible acquisition. Gio Gonzalez was traded for much more than the Royals should have considered and Matt Garza may go for a large package of prospects as well. The price was simply too high so the Royals were right to hold off.

So what’s a Royals fan to do? The starting rotation may be average at best (and could be worse), but the lineup, defense and bullpen should be pretty strong. Some regression from Jeff Francoeur and Alex Gordon is possible, so for me, I’m setting my hopes on a 78 win season. That’s much lower than many other fans may shoot for, but it allows for the possibility of a .500 season feeling like a bonus rather than a letdown (if, say, someone was expecting the playoffs).

The division is weak and the prospects should continue to progress, but it’s not time. Yet.

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Tags: AL Central Alex Gordon Baseball Billy Butler Dayton Moore Eric Hosmer Kansas City Royals KC KC Royals Lorenzo Cain Mike Aviles Mike Moustakas MLB Ned Yost Royals

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