KANSAS CITY -- When it comes to 2012, Royals fans need to look at September 2011. Things got pretty exciting. The team was five games above .500 at 15-10, best month of the season, and average attendance jumped to more than 26,000.
Kansas Citians, looking ahead to the coming All-Star Game season, were getting pretty pumped. Can they expect a leap into first place by manager Ned Yost's team? Well, whoa. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.
"We're not going to put limitations on our team, we're going to put the best team on the field that we can but we won 71 games last year," general manager Dayton Moore said.
"So you can do the math. We're under .500 and it's hard to make predictions about what your team is going to do until you at least play over .500. I'll let Ned and those guys set the tone of how we're going to win games and what have you. We're just going to focus on giving them the best talent we can give them, and let him blend it together and let those guys go out and compete."
The Royals, with the infusion of young talent blended with nicely with a few veterans, should be better.
"Our fans are excited, I'm glad they are. They should be excited. We're encouraged," Moore said. "But the players are still very young. We're not going to put limitations on them but we've got to go out and play. We're not going to sneak up on anybody. They're baseball players, they're not computers or robots. You don't know what you're going to get day-in and day-out."
Here are some questions to ponder for the season ahead:
1. Can the Royals expect to be serious contenders in 2012?
You won't hear them expressing it publicly, but Royals officials see 2013 or 2014 as the years that the club might be seriously in contention for the American League Central title. By then the position players who arrived in the great influx of talent last season should be peaking, and the prize pitchers from the farm system should be starting to percolate. In 2012 the Royals, drawing inspiration from their successful September, should be able to make some noise, rise a couple notches in the standings and establish more momentum. It would be a big surprise, however, to see them jump to the top at this point.
2. Will the starting rotation be better?
Well, it had better be better. Last season the rotation was the weakest link in the Royals' chain. They tried to strengthen it by trading with the Giants for left-hander Jonathan Sanchez and re-signing lefty Bruce Chen, the top winner in the last two seasons. They need Chen to avoid missing seven weeks as he did last season and to have Sanchez approximate his 2010 San Fran form en route to the World Series. The presumption is that Danny Duffy, erratic as a rookie, and Felipe Paulino, finding himself as a veteran, will smooth out as back-end starters. Crucial to the cause is having No. 1 guy Luke Hochevar pitch all season as he did in the second half of 2011 -- in short, like a No. 1 guy.
3. Is Joakim Soria on an irreversible downspin? Could he lose the closer's job to Jonathan Broxton?
Answers: No, and, anything's possible. Soria spoiled Royals fans for four years by being nearly perfect, so when he encountered a rough patch last May, panic buttons were pushed. Soria even took a voluntary leave from the closer's duties for a few days. After that the Jack Attack was pretty well intact, although he wasn't as completely dominant as the previous years. The prognosis for 2012 is that there's no reason to think he won't be just fine. If not, ex-Dodgers closer Broxton certainly has the experience to take over, but first he must prove that his surgically enhanced elbow allows him to throw those 100-mph fastballs once again. Soria as a starter? Not bloody likely.
4. Can Billy Butler become a deadlier offensive weapon by hitting more home runs?
The logical answer is yes. Manager Ned Yost expressed that thought during the 2011 season. And the evidence supports it. Through his first 96 games, Butler hit six home runs and had 39 RBIs. In his last 63 games, starting on July 22, Butler had 13 homers and 56 RBIs. He likes to hit for a high average, but in the last three seasons with an almost even number of at-bats each year, his highest average -- .318 in 2010 -- was accompanied by just 15 homers and 78 RBIs. In 2009 his .301 average produced 21 homers and 93 RBIs. Last season his .291 produced 19 homers and 95 RBIs. All those doubles -- a total 140 in the three years -- are nice weapons, but the longer ball seems twice as nice.
5. Was Eric Hosmer's big rookie season just a flash in the pan?
No one who saw Hosmer every day would even consider such a thought. Nothing the left-handed first baseman did even suggested that this kid was going to be anything but a huge part of Kansas City's bright future. Hosmer adjusted to the Majors seamlessly, rarely looked over-matched, hit with good power (19 homers) and average (.293). His smooth fielding at first base instantly made the entire infield better, because the guys could let fly with a throw and be pretty certain the Wizard of Hoz would pick it. Hosmer doesn't seem overwhelmed by the situation or overly impressed with himself. He's on track to be a superstar.
6. Is Mike Moustakas ready to conquer big league pitching?
Look back over Moustakas' history, and there are recurring examples of how he started out slowly when reaching a certain level of competition, then gradually became his old productive self as a hitter. That seemed to be the case after he was called up from Triple-A Omaha on June 10. In his first 53 games, Moustakas had a .182 average with one homer and 11 RBIs. But from Aug. 17 on, Moose hit .379 with four homers and 19 RBIs in his last 36 games. During the latter period, only Detroit's Miguel Cabrera had a better average in the Majors, .413. So Moustakas is catching on and should be ready for just about everything the big leaguers can throw at him. It was very encouraging that, even when he struggled in the batter's box, he fielded very well -- better than expected, in fact -- at third base.
7. Who will play second base, Johnny Giavotella, Chris Getz or . . . perhaps Yuniesky Betancourt?
The sentiment among Royals officials favors Giavotella but playing every day in the Majors is no sentimental journey. The little guy is an effective hitter -- he led the Minors with 153 hits when called up on Aug. 5 -- and his scrappy approach endeared him to manager Ned Yost.
"He is a scrap iron, he's a little, freakin' gamer, dirt bag-type player," Yost was inspired to say after he first saw Giavotella. "He doesn't fear anything. He's one of them guys, man, if you ever get in a fight, you bring your lunch, because it's going to be there for a while. He ain't givin' up."
Giavotella is coming off hip surgery, so there's that uncertainty. And he's got some flaws as a fielder, including lack of range, and that's a trait foreign to the polished Getz. That defensive edge, however, is dulled by Getz's limitations at bat, including a .254 career average, two homers and 76 RBIs in 1,099 plate appearances. But Getz can handle the bat, bunt and steal bases.
Another possibility was created by the free-agent signing of ex-Royals shortstop Betancourt as a backup infielder. He's played just nine games at second base and not since 2005, but he'll be drilled at that spot during Spring Training and his background as an everyday player puts him in the picture. His fielding has been suspect but the free-swinging Betancourt can hit with some pop.
8. Can Lorenzo Cain cut it as Melky Cabrera's replacement in center field?
Cain, one of four players received from the Brewers in last winter's Zack Greinke trade, will get every chance at replacing Cabrera. Even though Cabrera did a great job defensively, covering a lot of ground with some stirring catches and accumulating 13 assists, Yost believes that Cain could be an upgrade in center.
The big question is, can this speedy right-handed batter hit well enough to survive in the Majors? The indications are that he can. In 2010 he got a taste of big league pitching in 43 games with Milwaukee and hit .306 with an on-base percentage of .348 and seven steals in eight tries. Last season with Triple-A Omaha he hit .312 in 128 games and banged 16 homers with 81 RBIs. His on-base mark was .380 and he had 16 steals in 22 attempts. Called up in September, he was 6-for-22 (.273) for Kansas City. Plan B would include Jarrod Dyson, the electrifying speedster (.279, 38 steals in 40 attempts for Omaha), or Mitch Maier, the very reliable fourth outfielder in 2011.
9. Can Dave Eiland, the new pitching coach, really cut down on all those bases on balls?
For the answer on that, check the final averages next Oct. 3. The figures for 2011 weren't pleasant to look at -- the Royals' 557 walks were the most in the American League, 121 more than Seattle's AL low 436 and 61 above the league average of 496. With the roster jammed with younger pitchers, Yost believes that Eiland can solve the problem by refining their mechanics to where, if they get out of sync, they can return quickly to the proper slot, release point or other delivery component. Eiland is also charged with developing a detailed game plan for each pitcher's outing, which Yost said was lacking in the past. Youngsters like Duffy, Tim Collins and Jeremy Jeffress will be among Eiland's primary pupils.
10. Will the Royals finally have more than one player on the AL All-Star team?
Yes. That has not occurred since 2003 when both first baseman Mike Sweeney and pitcher Mike MacDougal were selected for the game at Chicago (Sweeney was injured and MacDougal didn't play either). But the 2012 All-Star Game will be at Kansas City and baseball generally gives the home team some extra consideration when filling out the roster. But never mind that, the 2012 Royals should have enough talent to either have someone voted onto the starting lineup or at least multiple picks as pitchers or position backups on the roster.
Last year pitcher Aaron Crow was selected against the odds -- he was a rookie and not a closer -- and left fielder Alex Gordon was an unelected finalist in the Final Vote. Hosting the game should inspire KC fans to vote in big numbers. If no one is elected, the MLB selectors surely will have qualified alternatives choices. Maybe Hochevar or Soria will be having big years. Maybe first baseman Hosmer or shortstop Alcides Escobar will be perking. Maybe Gordon or right fielder Jeff Francoeur will be on fire. So more than one All-Star? Yes ... maybe.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.