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.

Bryce Harper played some third base in an intrasquad game

Bryce Harper third base
Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Phillies star outfielder Bryce Harper played some third base during Monday’s intrasquad game at Citizens Bank Park, Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia reports. Harper had been pestering manager Joe Girardi for the opportunity and the skipper finally gave in.

Girardi told Harper, “No diving. And make sure your arm is loose.” Harper had the opportunity to field one ball, a grounder to his left and he made the play perfectly.

Why put Harper at third base? Girardi said, “I think it’s important the guys have fun. I saw him a week ago taking ground balls there and I was impressed. His hands worked well out front and he threw the ball across the field well. I told him, ‘You look good there.'”

Despite the solid showing, don’t expect Harper to show up at third base in a meaningful game anytime soon. That being said, the Phillies’ second and third base situations are still not cemented. Jean Segura will likely open the season at the hot corner with Scott Kingery at second, but things could change between now and Opening Day in 10 days.

Harper, 27, is coming off a solid first season with the Phillies. He hit .260/.372/.510 with 36 doubles, 35 home runs, 114 RBI, 98 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases across 682 plate appearances. Per FanGraphs, Harper’s 4.6 Wins Above Replacement ranked 16th in the National League. For some people, those numbers weren’t nearly good enough, so the expectations remain high as Harper enters year two of his 13-year, $330 million contract.