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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.

Edwin Encarnacion: “I think [the Blue Jays] got too hasty in making their decision.”

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 19:  Edwin Encarnacion #10 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts in the fifth inning 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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1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion signed a three-year, $60 million contract with the Indians early last month. The 34-year-old had spent the last seven and a half seasons with the Blue Jays, but his future elsewhere appeared to be written on the wall when the Jays signed Kendrys Morales in November to essentially occupy Encarnacion’s role.

Encarnacion spoke about testing free agency for the first time in his career and the situation that led to him leaving Toronto for Cleveland. Via Jorge L. Ortiz of USA TODAY:

“Toronto was always my first option, but I had never been a free agent, and anybody who gets to free agency wants to find out what’s out there,’’ he said. “I think they got too hasty in making their decision, but now I’m with Cleveland and I’m happy to be here.’’

Encarnacion last season hit .263/.357/.529 with 42 home runs and an AL-best 127 RBI. He’s now on the team that defeated his Blue Jays in the ALCS to advance to the World Series. Encarnacion effectively replaces Mike Napoli, who returned to the Rangers.

Sammy Sosa compares himself to Jesus Christ

Sammy Sosa
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I’m on record saying that Sammy Sosa has been rather hosed by baseball history.

The guy did amazing things. Unheard-of things. He was truly astounding at this peak and was incredibly important to both his franchise and Major League Baseball as a whole. His repayment: he’s a pariah. His club won’t claim him and his greatness, by any measure, has not just been overlooked but denied by most who even bother to consider him.

Yes, he had PED associations, but they were extraordinarily vague ones. He’s in the same boat as David Ortiz as far as documented PED evidence against him, but Ortiz will be a first ballot Hall of Famer while Sosa barely clings to the ballot. He hit homers at the same cartoonish rate as Mark McGwire, but while Big Mac has been embraced by baseball and has coached for years, Sosa can’t get into Wrigley Field unless he buys a ticket and even then the Cubs might try to hustle him out of sight. The man has been treated poorly by any measure.

Yet, it’s still possible to overstate the case. Like Sosa did in this interview with Chuck Wasserstrom:

It’s like Jesus Christ when he came to Jerusalem,” Sosa told chuckbloggerstrom.com. “Everybody thought Jesus Christ was a witch (laughing) — and he was our savior. So if they talk (bleep) about Jesus Christ, what about me? Are you kidding me?”

At least he was basically joking about it. Still, it’s a totally unfair and almost offensive comparison.

I mean, anyone who watched Sosa’s career knows that he had trouble laying off breaking stuff low and away. In contrast . . .