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Springtime Storylines: Are the Kansas City Royals finally ready to contend?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Kansas City Royals.

The Big Question: Are the Kansas City Royals finally ready to contend?

Last season the Royals took only a minor step forward despite their first wave of top prospects arriving in Kansas City, going from 67 wins to 71 wins. This year they’re a very popular pick to show significant improvement, with Las Vegas pegging the over/under for their win total around 80.

While admittedly not saying a whole lot that would be the Royals’ most successful season since 2003 and they’re certainly capable if several sophomores take big steps forward and several rookies make immediate impacts, but spring training has not been kind to Kansas City for reasons both unlucky and self-inflicted.

Joakim Soria needs season-ending elbow surgery, removing one of MLB’s truly elite closers from a bullpen that had the potential to be exceptional. Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, and a healthy Jonathan Broxton would still be a strong late-inning trio, but from 2007-2011 only Mariano Rivera had more saves and a lower ERA than Soria.

Salvador Perez also suffered a major injury early in camp and is expected to miss 3-4 months following knee surgery. Perez was likely to come back down to earth a bit after his great debut, but when the replacements behind the plate are Brayan Pena and Humberto Quintero the dropoff is a big one no matter what.

Beyond losing Soria and Perez the Royals also hurt themselves by sending Johnny Giavotella to Triple-A so that Yuniesky Betancourt and Chris Getz can split time at second base. Giavotella struggled in his debut, but the 24-year-old hit .338 at Triple-A last season and .322 at Double-A in 2010.

Plenty of teams choose sub par veterans over promising youngsters every season, but for the prospect-stacked Royals to do so makes even less sense than usual. And really, Yuniesky Betancourt and Chris Getz? Thankfully at least Lorenzo Cain’s big spring will probably keep him from suffering the same fate. C’mon, let the kids play.

What else is going on?

  • Jeff Francoeur has had a tendency to make a good first impression before falling back into hacktastic mediocrity, but the Royals were so convinced his performance was for real that they signed him to a two-year, $13.5 million extension. Last year’s version was worth that money, but the 2008-2010 version was barely worth a roster spot.
  • Billy Butler established himself as one of the league’s best young hitters in 2009, batting .309 with 21 homers and an .853 OPS as a 23-year-old, but hasn’t taken another step forward. His production remained basically the same in 2010 and 2011, which is certainly plenty valuable, but now he’s 26 years old and may have settled into “very good but not great” territory.
  • Alex Gordon did take a big step forward last season after being written off by many as a prospect bust, and if the former No. 2 pick can maintain that level of play offensively and defensively he’s destined to be one of the league’s most underrated all-around players. Toss in Butler and Eric Hosmer, who might have the most upside of any bat in the organization, and the lineup can score some runs even with out-makers like Getz, Betancourt, Quintero, Pena, Francoeur, and Alcides Escobar getting too many at-bats. Cain and Mike Moustakas could be the difference between “decent” and “above average” offensively.
  • Even without Soria the bullpen should be a strength, but the rotation may be a different story. Luke Hochevar and offseason acquisition Jonathan Sanchez still have some upside, but their track records are long enough (and they’re no longer young enough) to assume it’ll arrive and re-signing Bruce Chen for $9 million is another very iffy decision. For the Royals’ rotation to avoid being among the league’s worst Danny Duffy and/or Felipe Paulino need to step up.

How are they gonna do?

If everything breaks right for the Royals the roster is certainly talented enough to make a run at .500, but 2013 seems far more likely to be the year they legitimately become a factor in the AL Central. Second place is definitely within reach, but that has as much to do with the flawed teams in Cleveland, Chicago, and Minnesota. My guess? 75-78 wins and a ton of hype heading into next season.

Should Dave Roberts have taken Clayton Kershaw out of Sunday’s game?

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 29:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers delivers a pitch in the first inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field on May 29, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Dodgers manager Dave Roberts will likely be second-guessed heavily during tomorrow’s news cycle. Starter Clayton Kershaw had pitched a terrific ballgame, as is his tendency, but with 114 pitches to his name, Roberts decided to pull him from the game in the eighth inning with two outs and a runner on first base.

Roberts opted not for closer Kenley Jansen, who hasn’t pitched since Wednesday, but for another lefty in Adam Liberatore. He was playing the numbers, with the left-handed-hitting Curtis Granderson coming up. Liberatore, much to Roberts’ chagrin, served up what turned out to be a game-tying triple to Granderson, hitting a rocket to right-center just out of the reach of a leaping Yasiel Puig.

Jansen has, for six years, been one of the game’s elite relievers. Kershaw, though at a high pitch count, doesn’t seem to suffer from the times through the order penalty like most pitchers. Kershaw’s opponents’ OPS facing him for the first time was .525 coming into Sunday. Twice, .597. Three times, .587. Four times, .526 (but this suffers from survivorship bias so it’s not exactly representative).

Furthermore, Kershaw held lefties to a .546 OPS over his career. Liberatore, in 99 plate appearances against lefty hitters, gave up a .575 OPS. Jansen? .560. It seems that, faced with three decisions, Roberts arguably made the worst one. Playing conservative with Kershaw at 114 pitches is defensible, but only if Jansen comes in. If Roberts wanted the platoon advantage, Kershaw should have stayed in.

Luckily for the Dodgers, Mets closer Jeurys Familia didn’t have his best stuff. He loaded the bases with one out in the top of the ninth on a single and two walks, then gave up a two-run single to Adrian Gonzalez, giving the Dodgers a 4-2 lead. Jansen came on in the bottom half of the ninth and retired the side in order to pick up his 15th save of the season.

Royals sweep White Sox over the weekend on three late rallies

KANSAS CITY, MO - MAY 28:  Brett Eibner #12 of the Kansas City Royals celebrates his game-winning RBI single with teammates in the ninth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium on May 28, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. The Royals won 8-7. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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The Royals had themselves a pretty good weekend. The quickly fading White Sox, not so much.

On Friday, the Royals fell behind 5-1 after the top of the sixth. They would score once in the bottom of the sixth, four times in the seventh, and once in the eighth to steal a 7-5 win facing pitchers Miguel Gonzalez Dan Jennings, Matt Albers, Zach Duke and Nate Jones.

On Saturday, the Royals entered the bottom of the ninth down 7-1. They scored seven runs on closer David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to win 8-7.

On Sunday, the Royals were down 4-2 after the top of the eighth. They plated three runs in the bottom half of the eighth against Jones and Albers, going on to win 5-4.

Coming into the weekend, the Royals were 24-22 in third place. The White Sox were 27-21, a half-game up in first place. Now the Royals are in first place by a game and a half, and the White Sox are in third place, two games out of first.

Here’s video of the Royals’ comeback on Saturday, since it was so unlikely:

Report: Ryan Braun is “the hot name out there”

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 24: Ryan Braun #8 of the Milwaukee Brewers waits to hit during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on May 24, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
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In Saturday’s column for The Boston Globe, Nick Cafardo notes that, according to a scout, Brewers outfielder Ryan Bruan is “the hot name out there.” Braun has been bothered by neck and back issues this year, missing on Sunday his eighth start out of the Brewers’ last 14 games, but he has still put up a quality .351/.424/.583 triple-slash line in 170 plate appearances this year.

More importantly for an acquiring team, Braun is in the first year of a five-year, $105 million contract. He’s earning $19 million this season and in the ensuing two seasons, and then his salary decreases slightly to $18 million in 2019, $16 million in 2020, and $15 million if both sides pick up his mutual option (else a $4 million buyout would be exercised).

Per Cafardo, the Astros, Cardinals, Red Sox, Phillies, Mets, Giants, and White Sox are potential landing spots for Braun.

Mets unhappy with Dodgers’ request to make outfield markings to position fielders

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 28:  The 1986 New York Mets are honored before the game between the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citi Field on May 28, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.The New York Mets are honoring the 30th anniversary of the 1986 championship season.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Mets have asked MLB for clarification on the Dodgers’ use of a laser rangefinder for defensive positioning over this weekend’s series at Citi Field. The Dodgers notified the Mets’ ground crew that they wanted to mark certain positions in the outfield grass after determining positions with the rangefinder. The grounds crew said they could leave two marks in center field and one in left field.

However, the grounds crew then went to their superiors and told them that the Dodgers threatened to dig holes in the outfield grass with their cleats, so the grounds crew was then instructed to “erase or obliterate” any of the Dodgers’ markings.

According to Rosenthal, Major League Baseball reinforced a few weeks ago that teams aren’t allowed to use markers to aid defensive positioning. The Dodgers haven’t been accused of doing anything nefarious during a game. Howie Kendrick was seen pulling something out of his pocket in the outfield, but Brett Anderson clarified on Twitter that it was just a piece of paper with notes for defensive positioning.

The series between the Mets and Dodgers has been heated, as Noah Syndergaard was ejected for throwing at Chase Utley on Saturday. Utley then responded by hitting two home runs, one of which was a grand slam. The Mets may have a legitimate concern, or it may just be gamesmanship.