CHICAGO — It’s almost time for the games that matter.
By BOB DUTTON
The Kansas City Star
Sure, the Royals blitzed their way through the Cactus League, but we’re now about to see whether that is a harbinger or mere hokum. The regular season starts Monday when they play the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.
“We’ve got a good group here,” left fielder Alex Gordon said, “good chemistry going on, and I don’t think that’s going to change.
“There will be more excitement, but hopefully everyone just takes it as a continuation of spring training.”
The Royals, on paper, are better than at any point in the last two decades after revamping the rotation by pushing their payroll to a franchise-record $77.5 million. Their youthful core is still young but no longer green.
“There’s a lot to like about this team,” manager Ned Yost said. “We’ve got a great defense. I think our starting pitching, a focal point, is going to be a strong asset to our club.
“Our relief pitching has always been dynamite in my mind. I think where we’re at offensively now is more the team I envisioned it to be — a team that can score runs, drive the gaps and hit the ball over the fence.
“I love the enthusiasm that we have in our clubhouse. For me, this could be the very first time that I’m leaving spring training or had a team where I feel really good about every aspect. It’s a nice feeling.”
Can that feeling last?
Here are five things that need to happen — or in some cases not happen — for the Royals to be playing meaningful games in September for the first time in a generation:
1. Eric Hosmer bounces back.
A rebound season by the Big E looms as the single biggest key to the season. A productive Hosmer — merely a return to his rookie level; nothing spectacular — would have an enormous ripple effect throughout the lineup.
If the Royals can reinsert Hosmer into the No. 3 spot, and drop DH Billy Butler back to cleanup, everything works so much better. That probably shifts Mike Moustakas back to sixth, where his streakiness plays better.
For now, though, Moose bats cleanup, behind Butler and in front of Salvy Perez, while Hosmer bats sixth. For now.
2. Rotation pitches to career norms.
For the first time since the late 1980s, the Royals can look at their entire rotation with no need to cross fingers in hopes somebody (or several somebodies) “puts it all together” or has some sort of “major breakthrough.”
The Royals should be fine if James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie, Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza simply remain healthy and pitch to proven levels. (If they do more, all the better.)
The rotation has reasonable depth. Bruce Chen is available for recall from the bullpen. Will Smith is fronting the Class AAA Omaha rotation. Top prospect Yordano Ventura is fast-tracking.
Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino, barring setbacks in their recovery from Tommy John surgery, should be available by mid-July. The Royals aren’t counting on them, but either or both could provide a real boost.
3. Outfield is more than Alex Gordon.
A season filled by injuries to center fielder Lorenzo Cain and crippling disappointment from right fielder Jeff Francoeur created a severe decline last year from the record production the Royals’ outfield produced in 2011.
So pretty simple.
Cain needs to stay healthy and play to his potential, and Francoeur needs to get the last laugh on his high-volume critics. (And if he doesn’t, the Royals need to find a solution.)
Oh, and Alex Gordon needs to be Alex Gordon.
4. No crippling injuries.
In short, no repeat of last season, when three regulars — catcher Salvy Perez, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and second baseman Chris Getz — each played fewer than 80 games because of various injuries.
Or losing two starting pitchers (Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino) and an All-Star closer (since-departed Joakim Soria) for all or nearly all of the season because of torn elbow ligaments requiring Tommy John surgery.
The Royals do have reasonable depth for the first time in a score of years. They can plug virtually any hole on a short-term basis. Maybe even a couple of holes.
But they can’t lose key players — Perez, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon or James Shields — for extended periods. There are still a few teams that can simply buy their way through a major injury. The Royals aren’t one of them.
5. Tread water through May.
It should go without saying the Royals must avoid burying themselves in April — as they did a year ago with a 12-game losing streak that effectively killed their season.
But the bigger test figures to come from April 30 through June 2 when they play 29 of 32 games against teams that posted winning records in 2012.
If the Royals can reach their June 3 open date — 56 games into their season — at or near .500, it could be a fun summer here in the Heartland.