Three weeks ago, the Tigers were the overwhelming favorite in the American League Central. Then, with the Prince Fielder signing, they upgraded to the point where it makes no logical sense to pick anyone else in the division.
Meanwhile, a little less than 800 miles west-south-west, the Royals are the flavor of the month when it comes to young, low-budget teams doing things the right way. Through a combination of impressive drafts and aggressive work in the international market, the Royals farm system is suddenly the envy of baseball. In 2011, we began to see much of that talent surface at the big league level, and many envision the club having a good shot at their first .500 season since 2003. And as these young players mature and more prospects join them, many expect the club will soon make their first playoff appearance since 1985—a year in which half of the current team's 40-man roster wasn’t even alive.
There is no question that the team is improving. It is universally believed that the Royals are getting better. That's not the debate. What's fair game, however, is the question of the Royals taking that second step and becoming a true playoff contender. Do they have the goods to do it? People in the industry aren't quite convinced.
A quick survey of scouts and team officials generated an average prediction of 78 wins for the team in 2012, but these talent evaluators didn’t display the kind of confidence one might expect in Kansas City’s ability to make that second, more difficult jump. “There are a lot of reasons to wonder if they're going to bring it all together in the end,” said one American League official.
There is little doubt that the club is going to turn into an offensive juggernaut. In 2011, the team was sixth in the American League in runs, and there is every reason to believe things will go up from there; the projected 2012 lineup is exclusively players either in their prime or still years from it. “They are going to have a beast of a lineup by 2013,” said one scout. “Eric Hosmer is going to be an MVP candidate, and I can argue that there are four or five players who will be getting better over the next three years.”
The holdup, as is the case with many teams, is pitching. “Tell me right now, how are they going to take a big step forward when they are throwing Luke Hochevar, Jonathan Sanchez, Bruce Chen, and whatever else sticks to the wall at you?” queried a National League official. “I just don't see it, and I don't see the pieces in the minors to fix it.”
This is where the unpredictability and incredible rate of pitching prospect attrition rears its ugly head. Entering the 2011 season, the Royals had a quartet of left-handed starting pitching worthy of anybody's Top 100 prospect list, but a year later, they're now mere question marks.
- Chris Dwyer: Posted a 5.60 ERA at Double-A as his command and control faltered.
- Danny Duffy: Reached the big leagues but had a 5.64 ERA as he struggled with mechanics.
- John Lamb: Tommy John surgery.
- Mike Montgomery: 5.32 ERA at Triple-A; hasn't been really good since the first half of the 2010 season.
Those four were thought to be a big part of the answer to the Royals’ problems 12 months ago, and now they provide no guarantees. “The trade for Vince Mazzaro didn't work out, they've been forced to sign Bruce Chen to a two-year deal just to have some assurances, they're trying Aaron Crow as a starter when he couldn't do that in the minors, and it just shows how finding pitching is a tough deal,” said an American League Assistant General Manager.
The biggest problem for the Royals just might be a matter of lining up windows. As a small-market club, players will be leaving via free agency, and to perfectly match up final club-controlled years with prospects reaching their potential is a daunting task. “Run through this for a second and just step back and think about it,” said one team official. “I love their position players, but they're going to get expensive quickly. Alex Gordon leaves in two years, Joakim Soria will be gone, and then they lose a guy who could be a workhorse in Hochever in three years and all of a sudden it's uh-oh time. They have some timelines that aren't matching up right now, and that's what I'd be concerned about.”
This is not designed to rain on anyone's parade, and the Royals’ best bet, between players still developing and players not yet leaving for greener pastures, is the 2014 season. It's easy and fun to root for the Davids of the world as they battle baseball's Goliaths. But teams like the Rays are still the exception, not the rule. While there are plenty of futures to dream on, very few of them actually come true. Still, it's a good time to be excited in Kansas City; just be realistic.
“There is no question that is going to be a challenge for them to become a playoff contender,” said one front office member of a consistently losing club. “But I'll tell you right now, I'd swap places with them in a second.”
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .