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Royals ready to take next step in 2014

After 86-win season, KC shores up top of lineup, adds Vargas to rotation

KANSAS CITY -- When the Royals closed out last season, they couldn't wait to get 2014 started. Just point them to next March 31 at Detroit and let those mighty Tigers start to feel the pain.

Come to think about it, the Royals did inflict a measurable amount of ouch on the Tigers last year, winning the season series, 10-9. In fact, in a good sign for the future, the Royals had a 44-32 record inside their own American League Central. They were in arrears only to Cleveland, and then by just 10-9.

And Kansas City made a spirited bid for an AL Wild Card berth, finished 10 games over .500 and rekindled a city's hopes for its first postseason experience since 1985, when the Royals won the World Series. So there have been 28 years of nothingness between then and now.

The Royals, with general manager Dayton Moore calling the shots, rebuilt the farm system, developed outstanding young players and made some deals for a few veterans. It paid off last year.

They had pitching (best ERA in the league), they had defense (three Gold Glove Award winners) and they had speed (led the Majors in stolen bases). Now if they can just jazz up the offense.

"You break it down any way that you want, and it can get real complicated," manager Ned Yost said. "The thing that I always look at it is we've made tremendous progress as an organization. We've taken a huge step forward. We haven't taken a step forward, two steps back, we've taken a huge step forward."

For 2014, there's been more tweaking. Left-hander Jason Vargas was signed to a four-year, $32 million deal to replace departing free agent Ervin Santana in the rotation. Right fielder Norichika Aoki was obtained in a trade with the Brewers to fill the leadoff spot. Second baseman Omar Infante took a four-year, $30.25 million offer to round out the lineup.

Owner David Glass and team president Dan Glass obviously were willing to spend some cash. And they gave Yost and Moore two-year extensions to their contracts to finish the job they started.

And now it's time to keep going.

But first here are some questions that need to be answered:

1. Can this be the year of postseason heaven?

If it isn't, the baseball gods just aren't smiling on Kansas City. After all, this is 2014, the year that Moore and his staff have been pointing toward. If they figured right, Vargas, Aoki and Infante should give the Royals the boost they need to get to the next level. That would be games in October.

2. Is there enough firepower in the lineup to boost the run scoring?

That might be the most important question of the season. Last year, despite expectations, run production actually dropped to 648 from 676 in 2012. That accounted for a lack of adequate support for the starting pitchers. The lineup looks promising with Aoki and Infante in the 1-2 spots, followed by Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez in the middle.

3. Will this be the breakout season for third baseman Mike Moustakas?

If Moose breaks loose, it could go a long way toward a positive answer to the previous question. His .233 average, 12 homers and 42 RBIs of last season were not good numbers for a corner power position. There were some good signs -- a .259 average after the All-Star break, including a .301 mark in August. This is Moustakas' fourth season and perhaps his last shot.

4. Is Hosmer now the emerging hitting star that he appeared to be in 2013?

All the wise, grizzled experts think so. Hosmer left a dismal 2012 season in the dust by hitting .302 with 79 RBIs and powering 34 doubles among his 188 hits this past season, all career highs. After hitting just one homer in his first 60 games, he had 16 in his last 99 games. Hosmer had 60 multi-hit games, most in the AL. And, oh yeah, he also won a Gold Glove Award at first base.

5. Can Vargas fill the void in the rotation?

That depends on the lefty doing as least as much as the departing Santana, who along with his small ERA delivered a big 32 starts and 211 innings. A blood clot and subsequent surgery cut seven weeks out of Vargas' 2013 season with the Angels. But in 2011-12 for the Mariners, he had 32 starts and 201 innings and 33 starts and 217 1/3 innings, respectively.

6. Will the rotation be even better than in 2013?

Both James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie had double-digit victory totals and well over 200 innings apiece. If they're healthy again, there's no reason to believe they won't accomplish as much in 2014. Vargas provides a left-handed counterpart to the two right-handers. Behind them, Wade Davis, Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Luke Hochevar provide plenty of options to round out the five-man staff.

7. Is the bullpen due for a letdown after great success? No reason to think so. As of now, basically the same group is expected to fill out the 'pen, with superb closer Greg Holland as the leader. Will Smith was traded for Aoki, but the core remains, with Hochevar (unless he goes back to starting), Tim Collins, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow and Louis Coleman. It's a hard-throwing, hard-nosed crew that led the AL with a 2.55 ERA.

8. Will Aoki make a big difference at the top of the order?

Aoki, 31, scored 80 runs last season for the Brewers, but Moore believes he can cross the plate 100 times for the Royals. They'd like to see his base-stealing success (20 for 32) improve, but he had an on-base percentage of .356 and had 40 infield hits. He doesn't walk or strike out that much. A left-handed contact hitter, Aoki hammers lefties.

9. Is Butler primed for a big upswing in production?

The best designated hitter of 2012 slipped last year. Butler went from 29 homers to 25, from 107 RBIs to 82, from 32 doubles to 27, from a .313 average to .289, as he played all 162 games. The fall-off has prompted him to be the subject of some trade rumors in the offseason. But Butler is an astute student of hitting, and you can bet his winter is being spent finding a solution.

10. Is Infante the answer at second base?

All he has to do is hit like he did against the Royals last year, .375 with seven RBIs in 13 games. Actually, he should be a solid No. 2 hitter and provide good defense. If he fails or has an injury, the Royals have a good replacement in Emilio Bonifacio, who was impressive late last season after being acquired from Toronto. There's additional depth in Johnny Giavotella and Christian Colon.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for

Kansas City Royals, Norichika Aoki, Billy Butler, Omar Infante, Mike Moustakas, Jason Vargas