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Young Royals club already optimistic for '14

KC had its best year in decades in '13, and things are looking up for the future

KANSAS CITY -- What could be better than igniting a city with a successful run for the playoffs in September?

That's what the Royals fully intend to find out next season. They made a pretty good stab at it this year but, quite frankly, they have every intention of being better in 2014. Much better.

And, bottom line, they should be.

Club executives never spoke loudly about it but, in quiet projections over the last year or two, they were really looking at 2014 as the season when everything would come together. Their young position players would be, roughly, in their third or fourth seasons and by then they'd have the high-quality pitching to pull off something big.

Certainly they took a jump at pumping up the pitching rotation last season by establishing James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana as an extremely effective triumvirate. The good news is that Shields and Guthrie will be back while Santana heads into free agency. One of the most interesting points for Royals watchers will be to see if the Royals make a legitimate effort to bring back Santana. Certainly he was comfortable in Kansas City but, as the premier pitcher on the market, he's sure to command a multiyear bundle.

Losing Santana could trigger a trade or a free agent search for a replacement but the Royals believe they have some legitimate options, talented albeit less experienced, already in house.

The bullpen is bulging with proven pitchers and the regulars at other positions seem pretty well set, with the possible exceptions of second base and right field.

A significant milestone this year was that Kansas Citians were packing Kauffman Stadium and cheering for a contending team in late September -- one that posted the franchise's first winning season since 2003. That's a decade ago.

The Royals, since the arrival of general manager Dayton Moore in 2006, have concentrated on building up the farm system and developing a core of talented players with a knack for winning. Next comes giving them Major League experience, building up to the .500 mark and beyond, then achieving contender status.

Manager Ned Yost went through a similar process with the Milwaukee Brewers, but he views the current Royals as a superior team.

"You break it down any way that you want and it can get real complicated," Yost said after this year's 86-76 finish. "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."

Here's how the Royals shape up as they head toward 2014:

Arbitration eligible: LHP Tim Collins, RHP Aaron Crow, RHP Luke Hochevar, RHP Greg Holland, RHP Luis Mendoza, RHP Felipe Paulino, C Brett Hayes, C George Kottaras, 1B Eric Hosmer (likely Super Two), 2B Emilio Bonifacio, 2B Chris Getz, OF Justin Maxwell.

Potential free agents: LHP Bruce Chen, RHP Ervin Santana, RHP James Shields (club option), IF Jamey Carroll (club option), IF Miguel Tejada.

Rotation: The big question mark is Santana, who is due to enter free agency. Will the Royals make a strong pitch? If so, will Santana respond? He certainly pitched better than his record indicates and seemed happy in Kansas City.

The Royals have options at hand -- lefty Danny Duffy, who came back nicely from Tommy John surgery; Yordano Ventura, their most advanced prospect who pitched impressively in a September call-up, and lefty Will Smith, who looked good in relief and has a starting background.

The Royals are sure to exercise their option on staff and clubhouse leader Shields and Guthrie, the club's wins leader, is back. Wade Davis spent most of the season in the rotation, and he'll have a good shot.

They have Luis Mendoza, who worked both as a starter and in long relief. Lefty Bruce Chen, who also did double duty, is free agency-bound, but he and the Royals have a strong kinship. No. 1 prospect Kyle Zimmer and Omaha lefty Chris Dwyer will get a look.

Bullpen: Closer Greg Holland firmly established himself as one of the game's top closers in his first full season at it, making the All-Star team and setting a franchise record for saves.

Arguably the best bullpen in the league, the Royals have interchangeable set-up men in Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow, Louis Coleman and lefties Tim Collins and Smith (if he doesn't start). Hochevar, a former starter, adapted well to relief with a high strikeout total and a low ERA.

Mendoza is seen as an ideal long man. Donnie Joseph and Francisley Bueno are lefty specialist possibilities.

Designated hitter: Billy Butler studies his craft and has become one of the best right-handed hitters in the American League. He has a lot of doubles power but his home runs and RBIs dropped sharply from 2012 when he won the Edgar Martinez Outstanding DH Award. He's a plodding runner.

He dominates DH so, really, no one else is needed.

Catcher: All-Star Salvador Perez figures to fill this spot for years to come. Big and quick, Perez is not only dynamic defensively, he's hit for average and good power in the middle of the lineup. Another big plus: Pitchers love to pitch to him.

George Kottaras is an adequate backup who offers a contrast with a left-handed bat. He has an uncanny knack of drawing walks. Hayes, Kottaras' competition last spring, could be in the picture again.

First base: Hosmer's emergence from early-season doldrums re-established his credentials as a productive hitter who can fill the No. 3 spot in the order. He has home run and gap power, can steal a base and was dynamite from the seventh inning on. Defensively, he can really pick it.

Butler can move in from the DH slot if needed or against lefties in NL cities, but that's a big drop-off in defense. Perez is a new option, playing first base in the season's last game.

Second base: Bonifacio was obtained from the Blue Jays in mid-August, did very well down the stretch and likely will be the leading candidate. He settled into the No. 2 spot in the batting order, did well defensively and was a potent base-stealer.

Bonifacio has competition, however. Still in the picture are Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella as well as prospect Christian Colon, groomed at Triple-A Omaha.

Shortstop: The long-term occupant is Alcides Escobar, who continues to make spectacular plays and make difficult plays look easy. After a one-season jump in average to .293, he fell backward this year and was dropped from the No. 2 slot. However, Escobar handles the bat well, can bunt and is an excellent base-stealer.

Escobar is a durable player who seldom requires a rest but he might benefit from one more often. That could open a backup chance for Colon, who was drafted as a shortstop, or someone else such as Pedro Ciriaco or Irving Falu.

Third base: Mike Moustakas is the people's choice (Moooooooose!!!) but the Royals are waiting for his batsmanship to catch up to his considerable potential. After an extremely slow start, there was gradual improvement in July and August, offering optimism for the future.

Moustakas has become an excellent fielder, so he's mastered that part of his game. The Royals face decisions on bringing back such veteran backups as Jamey Carroll, Tejada and Getz, if he's not at second.

Left field: Gold Glover Alex Gordon kept throwing out runners all season, even though most teams had become more cautious, and his hard-charging acrobatic catches became almost commonplace. In an unusual juxtaposition, he was most effective in the leadoff spot but also led the club with 20 home runs and was second in RBIs with 81, as well as leading in runs scored, 90.

Gordon, a workaholic, is so strong and durable that he rarely gets a day off.

Center field:Lorenzo Cain, wary of the leg injuries that shortened his 2012, stayed healthy except for 25 games lost to an oblique pull. A strong hitter with great speed, he also can put some extra-base punch into the lower half of the lineup.

Jarrod Dyson, one of the fastest runners in the Majors, proved to be a capable alternative and was just hitting his stride early in the season when stopped by a sprained ankle. He came back strong and led the team in stolen bases.

Right field: Once Jeff Francoeur was let go, this spot became something of a revolving door with David Lough, Justin Maxwell and even Cain taking their turns. Lough hit for average with gappers and Maxwell hit for both average and home run power.

Lough looks like a very consistent hitter while Maxwell has a knack for big-moment blasts. Both have their uncertain moments in the field.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for
Read More: Kansas City Royals, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, James Shields, Eric Hosmer, Ervin Santana, Alex Gordon