Fans in Kansas City should be excited. For the first time in a long time, the roster is not bereft of talent. There isn't an expectation that this team will be the worst in the Major Leagues. In fact, after what the Rays did a year ago, there are some who think the Royals could be a dark horse pennant contender.
Kansas City won't return to the World Series this season, but they won't be the sad-sack team we've seen for what seems like a decade or more. That is, they won't be that trod-upon team if they can answer the following questions in the affirmative.
Can They Find a Power Source?
Exactly one player on the Royals hit 20 home runs a year ago. Jose Guillen finished the season with exactly 20 homers and 97 RBI, meaning he had a pretty good season. However, he was the only one on the roster approaching those numbers. Alex Gordon was second on the team with 16.
If the Royals truly want to compete, they are going to need to start hitting a few more home runs. Kauffman Stadium is no launching pad, but it's not the Astrodome either. Home runs can be hit there.
Guillen is going to have to hit a few more, but more importantly, young sluggers like Gordon and Mark Teahen are going to have to take the next step. Gordon has improved every year he's been in the majors, so that's not as tall an order as it may sound. The addition of Mike Jacobs (32 home runs in 2008) at first base should help immensely as long as he adjusts to the American League quickly.
Can They Hit for a High Average?
The Royals offense struggled early and often last season, thanks in large part to the meat of their order barely hitting over .250. Mike Aviles and David DeJesus were the only Royal regulars who crossed the .300 mark.
Once again, Gordon and Teahen are going to have to mature further. While Gordon seems able, questions have to be arising about Mark Teahen. After hitting .290 with 18 home runs in 2006, Teahen has slipped backwards, hitting .285 with seven home runs in 2007, and just .255 a year ago.
With the arrival of Coco Crisp, there are four outfielders vying for three outfield spots. The Royals won't hesitate to play those who earn a position in order to boost their offense.
Can Someone, Anyone, Steal a Base?
Are you noticing a pattern here? Joey Gathright led K.C. in steals last year with 21, and he's no longer on the team. The returning leader in steals is David DeJesus, who weighed in with a whopping 11. Coco Crisp stole 20 in limited duty a year ago for the Red Sox, so he will most likely take over Gathright's role as the lone base stealer.
Gordon has some speed (he stole nine bases a year ago), and DeJesus is faster than his steal totals show. But the Royals will need to test opposing catchers a little more (especially if they can't get their power going) in order to give the team a better chance at producing runs.
Can the Starting Rotation Improve?
Gil Meche and Zack Greinke each won double-digit games for a fourth place team in a division of five. Even better, both hurlers posted sub-4.00 ERAs. Kyle Davies might have finally begun to realize his potential, posting a 9-7 record with a 4.06 ERA in 21 starts to finish out the year.
The real question marks in this rotation are their fourth and fifth starters, most likely Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar. Bannister posted an abysmal 9-16 record with an ERA of 5.76 a year after winning 12 games and posting a sub-4.00 on what was an even worse team in 2007.
Luke Hochevar has the excuse that it was his first full season in the bigs, and he certainly has the talent to improve on his 6-12 record and his 5.51 ERA. There is also a question as to how he will return from a rib cage contusion that saw him head to the disabled list in late August.
Can the Team Learn To Win?
This might seem like a nonsense question, but on paper, with a nucleus of good young talent mixed with a few grizzled vets, this team does indeed look quite a bit like the 2008 Rays. The "X-factor" for any team is whether or not the team can gel, and play like a team, but that's even more of a factor for a team that has been down for so long.
If the Royals start off strong, how will they handle their first three-game losing streak? If they start off poorly, will they have the fortitude to keep fighting, or will they backslide? That could be the most important question of all.