Are Kansas City Royals legitimate contenders in AL Central?

Playoff fever could be headed to Kauffman Stadium in 2013.

For the first time in a decade, the Kansas City Royals have a chance to contend for a playoff spot. Now, it probably won’t be for the AL Central title, as the Detroit Tigers are favored to run away with the division. However, this young Kansas City squad could surprise some people and maybe, just maybe, snag one of the wild card births. They are a much, much improved team from last season and are a legitimate threat to compete for a playoff spot.

The Royals were extremely active this offseason in both the free agent market and on the trading block, adding four solid starting pitchers, while maintaining their young and athletic starting lineup. Their new-look rotation is projected to be James Shields (acquired from Tampa Bay for top prospect Wil Myers), Jeremy Guthrie (traded to Kansas City last season and then re-signed with the Royals as a free agent), Ervin Santana (another free agent find), Wade Davis (came over in the trade with Tampa), and Bruce Chen. This hugely improved rotation allows the Royals to strengthen their young, and already solid, bullpen with the arms of ex-starting pitchers Luke Hochevar, Luis Mendoza, and the 22-year-old Will Smith.

Last year’s Royals pitching staff was anything but consistent. They had 13 — that’s right, thirteen –– pitchers start at least one game last season. And of those 13, only three pitched over 100 innings. They combined for a record of just 49-72 and a win percentage of .404. On the other hand, the new rotation of Shields, Guthrie, Santana, Davis and Chen had a combined record of 46-49 for a win percentage of .484. Now, won-loss records aren’t necessarily definitive proof that the staff has gotten much better, but their ERA, for the most part, is a major step up from what the Royals had last season. In 2012, the Royals leader in ERA with at least 100 innings pitched was Mendoza at 4.23, and they brought in three pitchers, each with a better ERA: Shields at 3.52, Guthrie who tossed a 3.16 ERA after being traded to Kansas City, and Davis who had a 2.43 ERA out of the bullpen, but previously in his career has a starting record of 25-22.

On top of their solid pitching staff, they also have a young, yet experienced, core of position players that will play every day. This is due, in large part, to poor records and high draft picks, as well as trades to get players who are ready to produce at the major league level. They have power in Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer; both are two seasons in and starting to get a hold of what is expected of them, and speed and versatility with guys like shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain. Not to mention the veteran leaders (or at least as veteran as it gets for this squad) in Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and Jeff Francoeur.

This Royals squad is no slouch offensively, either. They hit mostly for average, finish seventh in the majors with a team average of .265 with Butler leading the way in every major offensive category. He hit .313 with 29 home runs, 107 RBI, an OBP of .373 and finished with 192 hits for his fourth consecutive season of at least 170 hits. Oh, and he’s only 26. That’s the other thing about this Royals team, they are extraordinarily young. Going into the 2012 season, they had an average age of 27 and 155 days, with no players over 30 at the start of the year. Now, we don’t know exactly what their roster is going to be opening day, but from what we can project, their oldest starter will only be 29 with their projected starting lineup (no pitcher, with a DH) is around 26, so they are actually getting younger. That is going to be this team’s biggest asset over the next few years; they will continue to get better and better, and if they keep the pieces together, it is scary how good this team could potentially be in a few years.

This Royals squad is vastly improved, and Kansas City fans should be excited to see these guys on the field. They are young, confident and a talented ball club that, if they can keep the pieces together, should be a solid team for years to come — especially with the talent they still have in the minors. It may be tough to compete with Detroit’s veteran firepower, but this team has a legitimate shot to compete in the American League.

I can’t wait to see what the Royals have to offer. They should be an extremely exciting team to watch this season and in the future.

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