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Royals head into '13 flush with starting pitching

KANSAS CITY -- Happy New Year? You bet. The Royals are ready to celebrate.

After all, they've completely revamped and, they believe, drastically improved a starting rotation that struggled all last season. They made a trade with the Rays that brought James Shields and Wade Davis, traded with the Angels for Ervin Santana and re-signed Jeremy Guthrie -- all right-handers.

They're already considered that front four with holdovers Luke Hochevar and Luis Mendoza, both right-handers, and lefties Bruce Chen and Will Smith battling over the fifth spot.

Later in the summer, left-hander Danny Duffy and right-hander Felipe Paulino are due back from Tommy John surgery, so the Royals' rotation cup runneth over.

Combine that with a very strong bullpen, a solid everyday lineup with offensive potential and an excellent defense, and the Royals are hotwired for the race in a relatively weak American League Central.

Manager Ned Yost sees the recent imports melding with the homegrown products who have learned to be winners while coming through the Royals' organization.

"Every single one of them has that intangible in their heart," Yost said. "They want to be a champion and they've done it at the Minor League level -- at Double-A and at Triple-A. Now they're literally at times foaming at the mouth to do it at the big league level.

"But, at the big league level, it's tough, because you're competing against the best talent in the world. To compete, you've got to have talent on your team, too -- especially in the starting rotation. So you put it all together and sometimes it just clicks."

Yost figures this is the time that it will click.

As Spring Training approaches, here are some questions to consider about the 2013 Royals:

1. Will the Royals contend for the division title in 2013?
They certainly should after their rotation upgrades. The Royals haven't been in contention late in the season since 2003, when they were tied for first on Aug. 29 and were still within striking range until mid-September.

Last season, they were closer to first place on Sept. 1 than in any intervening year, 13 games behind. So that's progress. Although the Tigers appear strong again, the Central should be the weakest overall of the three American League divisions, and adding Shields and Co. should put the Royals in the hunt.

2. Is the starting rotation strong enough?
If it isn't, it'll be a huge letdown after the flurry of offseason additions. Shields brings great credentials of success and leadership. Davis had two good years of starting, followed by a fine showing in relief last year. Santana has had some big seasons for the Angels and is primed for a bounce-back year. Guthrie bordered on brilliant down the stretch in 2012. When you have last year's Opening Day starter (Chen) and the nation's No. 1 Draft pick from 2006 (Hochevar) vying for the fifth spot, you should be in good shape.

3. Is the youthful lineup really as good as advertised?
With catcher Salvador Perez as the vital component, yes. Young as he is (22), Perez is the glue that holds the pitching staff together and gives the team energy. Designated hitter Billy Butler, left fielder Alex Gordon, third baseman Mike Moustakas and first baseman Eric Hosmer are other homegrown regulars who have produced or can provide outstanding results. Alcides Escobar at shortstop has developed into one of the best at a crucial position. Overall, a very solid lineup.

4. Can this team really pound out more home runs?
The need for more power hitting became an anthem for Yost last season, and its lacking led to the dismissal of hitting coach Kevin Seitzer and the installation of Jack Maloof and Andre David as a twosome of batting tutors. The Royals ranked 12th in the AL in runs and 13th in homers last season, so improvement is certainly in order. Kauffman Stadium is a tough home run venue -- it ranked 11th in the AL and opponents out-homered the Royals, 82-62, there. So Maloof and David have their work cut out for them.

5. Will Hosmer and Jeff Francoeur bounce back?
Hosmer plummeted from a superb rookie showing and Francoeur struggled after a remarkable first season with Kansas City. Basically, they're two middle-of-the-lineup hitters who had such disappointing seasons that they were dropped into the lower regions as the season wore along. Yost believes that Hosmer is a No. 3-hole, All-Star-type hitter just waiting to get a second wind. Francoeur often just looked lost at the plate, but maybe the approach of free agency will ignite him.

6. Who will play second base?
This is a repeat question, with Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella again the main contestants. Actually, in Spring Training last season, Yuniesky Betancourt horned in and shared the job with Getz, while Giavotella was sent to Triple-A. Later, Getz got hurt, Betancourt was released and Giavotella got another shot, although he didn't exactly tear things up. Getz, with superior defense and speed, also showed a bit more pop last year. Giavotella, a defensive work in progress, has more power and projects as a better hitter.

7. Can center fielder Lorenzo Cain stay healthy?
The answer last year was no. Impressively, Cain sewed up the job in Spring Training, but was hurt in the season's fifth game. That was the first of three leg injuries -- two on the left side, one on the right -- that limited him to 61 games. The Royals feel that he has the outfield range, speed and power to make him a formidable addition to the lineup. If his legs give out again, there's super-speedy Jarrod Dyson waiting in the wings.

8. Can the young bullpen continue to prosper?
This is one of the Royals' best weapons. Full of young, strong arms like Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Nate Adcock, Louis Coleman and Everett Teaford, this crew is on the upswing. Joakim Soria, after a year off with Tommy John surgery, is now with the Rangers, but the closer's job is in the secure care of Holland. And even if Holland should falter at some point, guys like Crow, Herrera or Collins could jump in.

9. When will Duffy and Paulino be ready?
They were the last two of four Royals pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2012. Duffy's surgery was June 13 and Paulino's was July 3, and it generally takes roughly a year for a pitcher to return. It all depends on how things go, of course, but they can't expected to be ready for Major League starts until about midseason.

10. What prospects might figure prominently?
With outfielder Wil Myers and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery shipped out in the Tampa Bay trade, the possibility of prospects landing on the 25-man roster is slim. David Lough could have a shot at a backup outfield job and Irving Falu could figure as a reserve infielder. Left-handed pitcher Ryan Verdugo, who had a good year at Omaha, might surface as a long reliever. But that's about it.

Kansas City Royals, Billy Butler, Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis, Alcides Escobar, Jeff Francoeur, Chris Getz, Johnny Giavotella, Alex Gordon, Jeremy Guthrie, Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Ervin Santana, James Shields