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03/28/08 10:00 AM ET

Royals Opening Day outlook

Team faces uphill battle in ultra-competitive AL Central

Manager Trey Hillman is trying to bring a new dawn to the Royals from his successful experience in the Land of the Rising Sun. One thing he brings with him is the reputation of springing the unexpected on unsuspecting opponents.

Fans will want to watch for that. And they'll want to watch the thrust of power that slugger Jose Guillen promises to bring to the lineup. He's expected to bat in the cleanup spot behind Alex Gordon, the third baseman who elevated his game marvelously last season and is seen as a guiding light for a rather young team.

The pitching rotation, headed by Gil Meche with Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke alongside, looks much sturdier and the bullpen has considerable depth. The defense should be a strong point.

For the Royals, it all comes down to pumping life into an offense that last season scored the second-fewest runs in the American League. If Guillen brings along his usual production, Gordon, David DeJesus, Mark Teahen and Billy Butler should provide enough extra oomph to cure the run anemia.

Calling card


Knowing Guillen can't do everything, Hillman wants to exploit some small-ball tactics. The bunt, hit-and-run and stolen base are weapons that he'd like to develop as a signature of his first Major League club. There'll be no sitting back and waiting for a three-run homer.

Projected starting lineup
1. CF David DeJesus
2. 2B Mark Grudzielanek
3. 3B Alex Gordon
4. RF Jose Guillen
5. DH Billy Butler
6. LF Mark Teahen
7. 1B Ross Gload
8. C John Buck
9. SS Tony Pena Jr.
Projected rotation
1. RHP Gil Meche
2. RHP Brian Bannister
3. RHP Zack Greinke
4. LHP John Bale
5. RHP Brett Tomko
Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Joakim Soria
Setup: RHP Yasuhiko Yabuta
Setup: LHP Ron Mahay
Middle: LHP Jimmy Gobble
Middle: RHP Ramon Ramirez
Long: RHP Leo Nunez
Achilles' Heel
The bullpen shapes up as formidable but is it really? Did Joakim Soria just get lucky as a rookie closer? Can Yasuhiko Yabuta make the transition from Japan at 34? Will Ron Mahay continue his two-year rise or slip to 2005 form? If the back end of the 'pen breaks down, it could be a long season.

You'll know they're rollin' if ...
Meche, unlike last year, gets some runs scored for him and a lot of them come from Guillen's bat.

You'll know they're in trouble if ...
They get off to another terrible start. In the past four Aprils, the Royals' cumulative record is 26-67, and they've finished last in each of those seasons.

Testing, testing
Starting on Day 1, the Royals have a three-game series with powerful division rival Detroit. They'll see what they're made of very early.

Interleague Play
Two playoff clubs, Colorado and Arizona, are on the docket this year. On the other hand, so are two last-place clubs, Florida and San Francisco. So that seems to be a competitive wash. As for St. Louis, that's always a heated, unpredictable Missouri war.

The Bottom Line
There's no doubt the Royals have improved just as there's no doubt they play in what might be the game's toughest division. They'll have to be much more than just a bit better to keep up.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.