KANSAS CITY -- When the Royals finished September with an 18-8 record and moved out of last place in the American League Central, there was good reason to view 2009 with brighter eyes.

First-year manager Trey Hillman, however, took a realistic tack on what he learned about his team in 2008.

"I think the biggest question has been answered: That we all realize how far we need to continue to go to be competitive day-in and day-out in the Central," Hillman said.

The Royals will be trying to beef up that most basic need, scoring runs, because again they were among the American League laggards in scoring. They can use another bopper to complement Jose Guillen in the middle of the lineup. Maybe that guy is already around -- an Alex Gordon, a Mark Teahen or a Ryan Shealy or a Billy Butler just ready to bust out.

But while they're waiting, the free-agent market needs to be culled. Given the way-back fences of Kauffman Stadium, maybe an all-around smacker -- did someone say Raul Ibanez? -- might be a better investment than a pure home-run hitter.

"We not only need more production but the other part of the equation is we're never going to hit as many home runs as the Chicago White Sox. We're probably not going to hit as many as the Cleveland Indians, simply because of the size of our ballpark," Hillman said. "You play 81 games here, and that has an effect on it."

Another veteran in the lineup might be just the ticket while victory-starved Kansas City fans are waiting for young players to pop into prominence.

"We're a microwave society. We want it right now," Hillman said. "And it's understandable, especially with the hunger of the market and the lack of production in a lot of recent years."

In pitching, Gil Meche and Zack Greinke were so consistent that they are a solid foundation to the rotation.

"It's a good 1-2 punch," Hillman said.

The Royals also have budding Luke Hochevar, whose season was cut short by injury, but with Brian Bannister and Kyle Davies scuffling at times, they'd like to add depth, preferably with a left-hander.

"I think we all have a pretty good grasp of just how consistent we have to be on the mound to be successful in this division. And I think we're going to continue to gain more ground quicker if we continue to concentrate on the strengths of our starting rotation and moving that forward," Hillman said.

A clear definition in the middle of the infield is also a necessity. Rookie Mike Aviles showed he can hit but should he play shortstop or second base? Either way, who fills the other spot?

A rangy shortstop who can hit might open the coffers at renovated Kauffman Stadium. However, there's been no indication general manager Dayton Moore's payroll budget will go much above this year's $59 million and there's already $12 committed to Guillen and $11 million to Meche. And with 14 players eligible for arbitration, the payroll will increase rapidly.

CONTRACT ISSUES

Free agents: Mark Grudzielanek, 2B; Kip Wells, RHP.

Eligible for arbitration: John Bale, LHP; Brian Bannister, RHP; Kyle Davies, RHP; Brandon Duckworth, RHP; Jimmy Gobble, LHP; Zack Greinke, RHP; Luke Hudson, RHP; Joel Peralta, RHP; John Buck, C; Miguel Olivo, C; Jason Smith, IF; Esteban German, IF-OF; Mark Teahen, OF-IF; Joey Gathright, OF.

Player options: None.

Club options: None.

Mutual options: Miguel Olivo, C, $2.7 million.

Non-tender possibilities: None.

CATCHERS
John Buck, .224 BA, 9 HRs, 48 RBIs
Miguel Olivo, .255 BA, 12 HRs, 41 RBIs

Buck got the most playing time through most of the season, but Olivo was used more in the last month in an apparent move to get him to return under his mutual option. With both in-house, one could be used as trade bait in a catcher-deprived market.

FIRST BASE
Billy Butler, .275 BA, 11 HRs, 55 RBIs
Ross Gload, .273 BA, 3 HRs, 37 RBIs
Ryan Shealy, .301 BA, 7 HRs, 20 RBIs
Kila Ka'aihue, .314 BA, 37 HRs, 100 RBIs (Double-A/Triple-A)

Shealy returned in September and put on a power show to re-enter the picture. Butler is the designated hitter but, at 22, he's looking for a position. Gload got the most starts last year, but lack of power could make him the odd man out. Ka'aihue probably needs a full year at Triple-A.

SECOND BASE
Alberto Callaspo, .305 BA, 16 RBIs, .361 OBP
Esteban German, .245 BA, 22 RBIs, .303 OBP

With Mark Grudzielanek going into free agency, Callaspo seems the heir apparent after hitting well in September coming off the DL. German is more likely to return in a utility role.

SHORTSTOP
Mike Aviles, .325 BA, 10 HRs, 51 RBIs
Tony Pena, .169 BA, .189 OBP, 3 SBs

Aviles was a hitting sensation as a late-arriving rookie and did better than expected defensively. There's a chance he could move to second if a shortstop is obtained or Pena re-asserts himself.

THIRD BASE
Alex Gordon, .260 BA, 16 HRs, 59 RBIs

Gordon showed some power, and he's expected to produce more in his third season. Mark Teahen returned to third late in the year and did well, which opens the possibility of Gordon moving into the first-base picture.

OUTFIELD
Jose Guillen, .264 BA, 20 HRs, 97 RBIs
David DeJesus, .307 BA, 12 HRs, 73 RBIs
Mark Teahen, .255 BA, 15 HRs, 59 RBIs
Joey Gathright, .254 BA, .311 OBP, 21 SBs
Mitch Maier, .316 BA, 9 HRs, 41 RBIs (Triple-A)

Guillen is the power source he was projected to be, DeJesus is a proven solid performer both at bat and in the field but more production is needed from Teahen. Gathright provides much-needed speed and Maier is an excellent center fielder.

ROTATION
Gil Meche, 14-11, 3.98 ERA, 183 Ks
Zack Greinke, 13-10, 3.47 ERA, 183 Ks
Brian Bannister, 9-16, 5.76 ERA
Kyle Davies, 9-7, 4.06 ERA
Luke Hochevar, 6-12, 5.51 ERA
Brandon Duckworth, 3-3, 4.50 ERA

Meche and Greinke are the nucleus, but Bannister needs to re-discover himself and Davies must prove he can command his great stuff. Hochevar missed the end of his rookie season with an injury but looks like a future star.

BULLPEN
Joakim Soria, 2-3, 1.60 ERA, 42 saves, 66 Ks
Ramon Ramirez, 3-2, 2.64 ERA, 1 save, 70 Ks
Ron Mahay, 5-0, 3.46 ERA
Leo Nunez, 4-1, 2.98 ERA
Jimmy Gobble, 0-2, 8.81 ERA
John Bale, 0-3, 4.39 ERA
Joel Peralta, 1-2, 5.98 ERA
Yasuhiko Yabuta, 1-3, 4.78 ERA
Robinson Tejeda, 2-2, 3.97 ERA

Soria gives KC a long-needed, sure-lockdown type of closer. Ramirez, Mahay and Nunez are solid setup men. There's some depth here, but new blood is always being sought.