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Royals striving to score playoff berth in 2014

Offensive production key after finishing 11th in AL last season in runs scored

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Get right down to it and almost everything worked pretty well for the Royals last year. Rotation. Bullpen. Defense. Baserunning. Almost.

"If I had one thing that we really needed to improve on last year, it was our run production," manager Ned Yost said.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Get right down to it and almost everything worked pretty well for the Royals last year. Rotation. Bullpen. Defense. Baserunning. Almost.

"If I had one thing that we really needed to improve on last year, it was our run production," manager Ned Yost said.

So there's the big goal for 2014: score more runs. A lot more, if you please.

The Royals finished 11th among the 15 American League teams in runs scored in 2013. They had 648, well behind league leader Boston's 853 or Central Division leader Detroit's 796. We probably don't need to remind you that the Red Sox won the World Series and the Tigers won the Central.

Important thing, these runs. They seem to decide who wins or loses a game. Check with any sabermetrician.

"When we scored four runs or more, our record was ridiculous [64-13]. Four runs! We couldn't do it," Yost said. "We played more one-run games than anybody in the American League so run production is going to be paramount for us."

Actually, the White Sox had four more one-run games at 60, but the Royals won the most squeakers with a 31-25 record.

And the Royals actually did average exactly four runs a game, but the problem was those 85 games when they scored three or fewer runs.

The Royals believe they took a big step toward building their run scoring with two new acquisitions -- right fielder Nori Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante, who'll bat 1-2 in the order. That lets RBI guy Alex Gordon move from his usual leadoff spot to fifth behind Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler.

Aoki and Infante are advertised as good on-base, low-strikeout batters who can ignite things.

"They are more prototypical table-setters for the production part of our lineup," Yost said.

There was a possible delay on Infante's part because he was still recovering from a sore right elbow this week as the opener neared.

Hosmer, who often batted second in the order last year, will be in his natural No. 3 slot after his vast improvement in the final four months of last season.

"We've got two guys at the top of our lineup that we didn't have last year that are going to make our lineup a lot deeper," Hosmer said. "And everyone returning from last season has another year of experience and knows himself as a hitter a lot better. Everyone's plans and approaches at the plate are more mature."

That's primarily because of the individual blueprints laid out for each hitter by hitting coach Pedro Grifol. One of his prime projects is Mike Moustakas, who took to banging the ball to all fields during a torrid spring.

And if the run production improves as much as anticipated, the Royals can be expected to seriously contend for their first postseason berth after 28 barren years.

But who's counting? Probably the generation that's come along since Bret Saberhagen, George Brett, Buddy Biancalana, Hal McRae and all those other guys won it all in 1985. Or the folks who savored all that at the time and are ready for an overdue serving of dessert.

Anyway, if the Royals are able to score more runs, do they have the pitching that can keep the other guys from scoring even more? Logic would say they do.

The 2013 Royals staff led the AL with a 3.45 ERA and there hasn't been that much turnover. The main change was plugging left-hander Jason Vargas into the rotation void left by Ervin Santana, now with Atlanta.

The other four starters are the ones in place last September, including callup Yordano Ventura. Now, he'll open the season behind James Shields and Vargas at Detroit. The club's top winner, Jeremy Guthrie, is scheduled for the home opener against Chicago. The fifth starter is Bruce Chen, who came out of the bullpen last mid-July.

Can the V-squad, Vargas and Ventura, produce victories often enough? Very interesting question.

Closer Greg Holland chairs a powerful bullpen that returns Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Louis Coleman but not Luke Hochevar, who's had Tommy John surgery. Last year's relief corps had a 2.55 ERA, best in franchise history.

Holland has emerged as one of the game's best closers. The key, as Yost sees it, is that Crow, Collins and Herrera develop a consistency that they didn't always show last season. In Spring Training, he saw encouraging signs of it.

When your defense has three 2013 Gold Glove Award winners -- Salvador Perez at catcher, Hosmer at first base and Gordon in left field -- and two other nominees -- Alcides Escobar at shortstop and Lorenzo Cain in center -- you're in pretty good shape. Also, Moustakas was nominated at third base in 2012.

Infante and Aoki bring good defensive reputations to their positions as well.

"We're up there as one of the best," Gordon said. "I don't think we have a weak position on the baseball field when it comes to our defense. I know our pitching staff loves that."

If the offense as a whole has yet to prove itself, one aspect is very solid. The Royals can run the bases. They not only led the Major Leagues in stolen bases with 155 last year, their penchant for taking the extra base on hits kept the opposition defense on edge. Example, their 34 triples was the second-highest total in the AL.

Yost believes that a more potent hitting attack will enable the Royals to avoid a deep crater like the 4-19 stretch they had last May. (In those 19 losses, the Royals averaged 2.4 runs a game.) Once the Royals got past the All-Star break, they were on fire and went 43-27.

"Part of that is having confidence in your abilities and knowing that when things get tough, you don't press. You just continue to work hard and play your game. And I think that's why we never had any real extended [losing] stretches from that point on," Yost said. "You always hear me say, 'Well, something clicked.' What clicked was that basically they started to believe in themselves and they quit pressing, they just kept playing hard."

So hard, in fact, that they made a spirited dash for a Wild Card spot. This year, they're aiming for a more successful run -- and a lot more runs.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for

Kansas City Royals, Nori Aoki, Alex Gordon, Jeremy Guthrie, Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Omar Infante, Mike Moustakas, Jason Vargas