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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.

Report: Dodgers could pursue three-year deal with Rich Hill

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Rich Hill #44 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs in game three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Free agent left-hander Rich Hill is rumored to be entertaining a three-year, $40+ million offer from the Dodgers, reports Peter Gammons. The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo corroborated the report, adding that Hill could receive somewhere between $46 and $48 million from his former team.

Hill, 36, pitched to a 2.12 ERA and 3.91 FIP in back-to-back stints with the Athletics and Dodgers in 2016. While a chronic case of blisters on his pitching hand limited the frequency of his starts, he still figures to be one of the most productive and noteworthy starting pitchers on the market this winter.

The Orioles, Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Astros have all been mentioned as potential suitors for the left-hander’s services, though Orioles’ GM Dan Duquette said the club has yet to make a play for Hill and ESPN’s Jim Bowden pointed out that the Red Sox are less involved in trade talks than other interested parties.

Yankees in, Red Sox out on Edwin Encarnacion

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 19:  Edwin Encarnacion #10 of the Toronto Blue Jays looks on against the Cleveland Indians during game five of the American League Championship Series at Rogers Centre on October 19, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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In light of the Astros’ deal for veteran designated hitter Carlos Beltran on Saturday, the Yankees are thought to be intensifying their pursuit of free agent Edwin Encarnacion, reports Jon Morosi of FOX Sports. The Yankees never made an official offer to Beltran, but remain in need of a DH/first baseman to give them a little more power outside of a Tyler AustinGreg Bird combo in 2017.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, are reportedly withdrawing their interest when it comes to the Encarnacion sweepstakes. According to FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, they will look for a hitter to beef up their lineup without taking a “big plunge” on the 34-year-old.

Encarnacion enjoyed another All-Star run with the Blue Jays in 2016, hitting at a .263/.357/.529 clip with 42 homers and a league-leading 127 RBI in 702 PA. He’s expected to command a significant contract in free agency, and agent Paul Kinzer said that a potential deal is unlikely to be finalized before the Winter Meetings as Encarnacion is not close to agreeing to any offer. Interested teams include the Blue Jays and the Astros, though Beltran’s signing appears to have effectively taken Houston out of the running for the slugger.