KANSAS CITY -- This is it -- the year when the Royals' carefully crafted plans to restock, revitalize and completely renovate the Minor League system finally will start to pay off at the Major League level. Maybe not in an explosive, hoist-up-the-pennant kind of way, but in a steady, competent way that folks will begin to notice. It's been a long haul for general manager Dayton Moore since he took over during the 2006 season to arrive at this point.
"You don't see it until it's there," manager Ned Yost said. "Like Willie Nelson. He's this big, famous singer but Willie Nelson sang in every bar and honky-tonk for 20 years before people knew his name. That's what Dayton has done."
Well, Moore didn't sing in bars and honky-tonks, of course, but he paid his dues nonetheless, enduring some bad reviews along the way. Finally, however, the Royals' farm system is viewed as one of the most solid in the game.
And his stock of fine young players got even deeper with the trade of ace pitcher Zack Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers in a deal that brought in four players, including top pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress.
The first Draft choice made under Dayton's direction came in 2007, when third baseman Mike Moustakas was grabbed out of Chatsworth (Calif.) High. Now he's on the cusp of arriving in Kansas City, although Moore soft-pedals his chances of arriving on Opening Day. Maybe later in the year, he says. There's also a slew of pitchers, many of them left-handed, who are about to burst onto the big league scene. Kids like Danny Duffy, Everett Teaford and Aaron Crow might have a shot at the rotation. Other kids could break into the bullpen. And there are others in the system not that far way.
Meanwhile, there are many questions surrounding a team intent on climbing out of last place and at least looking like a future contender in the making. Here are 10 of them:
1. How will the Royals be without Greinke at the head of their rotation?
Huge question because Greinke was their only dependable starter since Gil Meche was shackled by back problems and then a right shoulder that has sidetracked him into the bullpen. Moore said it himself -- on every fifth day, you knew that Greinke gave the Royals a good chance to win. Now they don't have that luxury. Luke Hochevar is brilliant when he's on his game, but he hasn't been on all of the time. Kyle Davies is even more inconsistent although his command is improving. Vin Mazzaro wasn't all that impressive with the A's. Nor was Sean O'Sullivan taking anyone's breath away after coming over from the Angels. Rookies Teaford, Duffy and Crow are untested commodities. In short, the Royals don't know how this is all going to pan out. It could be a mostly interesting, busy and possibly nerve-racking year for pitching coach Bob McClure.
2. Can it help that Yost, for the first time, will be in charge from Spring Training on?
Absolutely and, most importantly, Yost emphatically believes it will be a big benefit. When he replaced Trey Hillman last May 14, the club was playing poorly enough to get a manager fired, an unsettling experience for most players. It took a while for them to get used to Yost's more old-school approach. This February, Yost can set his own style in camp, do things the way he wants them done and utilize his own philosophy. Remember this: He was quite successful in turning the Milwaukee club from a chronic loser into a winner. So he has a history of doing things right.
3. Does Moustakas have a chance at winning the third-base job in Spring Training?
Yes, but he'll have to burn up camp with his bat to do it. Both Moore and Yost are leaning toward having Moustakas start the season with Omaha and then bringing him to Kansas City around midseason or so if he does well again in Triple-A. Right now, Yost seems to be thinking Mike Aviles at third base with Wilson Betemit as an alternative. The Moose isn't being counted out for Opening Day, but the Royals don't want to rush him. Another factor is delaying the countdown on his journey toward salary arbitration and then free agency.
4. What can be done about digging the defense out of its deep, dark pit?
The Royals were last in the American League in defense in each of the last two years, a fact that's preying on Yost's mind. Among other things, he's having advance scout Kelly Heath stay with the club and, through analysis of videotapes and reports, help position the defensive players for each batter. Being in the right spot is a big part of the battle. Another plus should be having Chris Getz at second base after an injury-marred season, pairing with new shortstop Alcides Escobar.
5. Is the new outfield alignment an improvement over last year's new outfield alignment?
The 2010 version of, left to right, Scott Podsednik, Rick Ankiel and David DeJesus was pretty good except Ankiel was hurt early and rarely played. Podsednik was traded away at midseason and so was Ankiel. DeJesus went after the season. So now it's transplanted third baseman Alex Gordon in left, Melky Cabrera in center and Jeff Francoeur in right. Collectively, they should be as good or better defensively. At bat, all three need to have bounce-back seasons to make the changeover worthwhile. The addition of center fielder Lorenzo Cain in the Greinke deal provides an interesting option as well.
6. Is the change from Yuniesky Betancourt to Escobar going to be an upgrade?
Not only did Betancourt whack 16 homers, one more than Billy Butler, he tied Butler for the team lead with 78 RBIs. His range and agility around shortstop also was markedly better. Conversely, his on-base percentage was just .288 and his focus occasionally blurred in the field. The report on Escobar is that of an excellent defender with a strong arm and good range, better in that regard than Betancourt. He has good speed and once was touted as a possible leadoff batter, but last season, he hit just .235, mostly in the lower third of the order, with little power. Like Betancourt, he strikes out a lot more than he walks. It looks like an upgrade on defense, a downgrade on offense.
7. Will Kila Ka'aihue get a real chance to be in the everyday lineup?
While Ka'aihue's prodigious home run exploits were left behind in the Minor Leagues, Yost has made it clear the Kila Monster is still part of the plans. He perked up in the second half of his two-month audition last season. If Ka'aihue is impressive enough in Spring Training, there will have to be a decision between him and Butler regarding who's on first and who's the DH. Ka'aihue probably has the edge defensively but Butler has improved and insists he's better at bat when he plays in the field. Yost indicates he'd probably interchange them between the two spots.
8. Is there enough juice in the bullpen to squeeze the game into the capable hands of Joakim Soria?
This is an annual question because the bullpen, from year to year, is an unending work in progress. Meche is a very interesting addition who is determined to prove he can help the team despite his inability to start because he lacks enough durability in his right shoulder. He could be a right-handed setup man and work middle relief. Robinson Tejeda is a more experienced setup guy and Blake Wood had a good run at it as a rookie. The only returning lefty is Dusty Hughes, so rookies Tim Collins and Blaine Hardy might have a shot from that side.
9. Are Brayan Pena and Lucas May good enough defensively to catch until Jason Kendall is back?
Both have a lot of work to do. May is a former shortstop and outfielder who hasn't been catching all that long but Yost, a former catcher, was impressed last season by how he operated behind the plate. Pena, with the club all season, started 35 games at catcher and seemed to improve his blocking and game-calling, according to Yost. May started just nine games as a September callup. The switch-hitting Pena is considered a stronger offensive than defensive player. May, a right-handed batter, has shown some power in the Minors. The Royals are convinced they can handle the job until Kendall is ready.
10. Is there enough veteran leadership on this largely youthful team to stabilize things on the field and in the clubhouse?
Kendall is a wise sage who carries a lot of clout with his years of being "an extra coach" behind the plate for pitchers and the defense. He's an excellent counselor. Meche is a firm if quiet, clear-thinking vet who put team before self in moving to the bullpen instead of missing his last contractual season via shoulder surgery. Soria has become a calming, analytical, phenomenally successful bullpen leader. Francoeur arrives with the reputation of being a superb clubhouse presence. Butler is a spokesman for the younger group who is learning how to be a leader. They all should be a help to Yost and his coaching staff.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.