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.

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 Insider.

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When was the last time a team went deep in October without at least two homegrown stud pitchers in the rotation? A Cliff Lee type mercenary is great, but you can't afford to go out and get two or three of them.
Unless you're the Phillies.
There is precedence and hope for the Royals: The Rangers got their position players and potent offense lined up first and then mixed and matched their pitching staff with a great pitching coach, a Japanese league horse (Colby Lewis), their former closer (CJ Wilson), a guy that outperforms Pecota (5 plus ERA) every year even though he has great stuff (Matt Harrison), new talent (Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz) and replacement players (Darren Oliver, Darren O Day, the Japanese reliever, Tommy Big Game Hunter) .... ask the GM's how good that staff looked on paper three years ago - prior to 2 AL championships???

The Royals Can deal The Mexecutioner right now - they have Kelvin Herrera and his 98mph heat, with the balance of a very impressive power arm pen returning and the addition of a hopefully healthy and fit JBroxton who is still under 27 years old.

They may find a late blooming gem in the PCL pitcher of the year (28 year old Luis Mendoza) ....if you have a 2.15 ERA pitching in Omaha's new ballpark, and the PCL in general - thats some evidence he can pitch. He carried them all the way to the PCL title sans 10 call-ups to KC. Mendoza was professional Baseball's best pitcher stat wise from June through September...pitching version of Mike Napoli.

Maybe he becomes Coby lews light .....Sanchez blooms into CJ Wilson territory, Hochever continues to eat innings, throw ground balls and be a Millwood like workhorse and maybe a Duffy or Montgomery steps up.

With the pen they have - they need a starter to go 6 innings .... While I respect the Tigers - I wonder how the left side of their infield defense is going to be for ground ball pitchers like Rick Porcello or Doug Fister and whomever they plug in at the 5? For that matter - an ball hit to the left side of 2nd base will be interesting with Delmon "Skates" Young in left field ....

If Moustakas picks up offensively where he left off last year and then steps forward, and LoCain can run down everything in the gaps and get on base 30% of the time ....let the power arms loose in the late innings and enjoy the ride KC fans.

It's possible the Royals could get crazy creative and build a decent baseball team around the core of offensive players coming up from the minors, akin to the Rangers' recent success, but that assumes they have a GM as nimble as Jon Daniels and ignores the fact that Texas had a $90M payroll last year -- almost three times the Royals'.

I don't pretend to understand the difficulty of running a major-league club, but Dayton Moore doesn't look up to the job. I see that talent hurtling his way, and I'm extremely curious to see how he's going to screw it all up...
I counted 8 if/maybe/maybe .... /can/hopefully 's players in this comment. Ah, isn't spring training great!
That was my thinking too. Good luck to the Royals; I'd like to see them break through but like the saying goes, "if ands and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas".
maybe the Royals should sign Oswalt...
If they're out of it at the deadline, Milwaukee might be willing to part with Greinke for a shortstop, a center fielder, and a handful of B and C prospects......
@ touchstone .... good angle, good points ... only one dissent - The Rangers were for sale and didnt jump their payroll til they got better/good (higher revenues)
The A's are great at developing pitching, but no offense.

With their ongoing stadium issues in Oakland, maybe the A's can return to KC and be merge their pitching with the Royals offense?
Oswalt anyone? Sounds like a match made in Missouri if I ever saw one. He could come cheap and help stabilize the rotation.
As an aside, the Tigers entire starting rotation is under 30, as is their entire starting lineup except for Ryan Raburn, who turns 31 in April.

There's plenty of reasons to think that's a team that could implode, but age related decline probably isn't something that is going to open a window of opportunity.
The Royals and A's are the teams of tomorrow, and always will be!!! ;)
Consider me a believer in Hochevar's big second half (79.1 IP, 7.71 K/9, 2.72 BB/9, 3.52 ERA, 1.13 WHIP). I love that PITCHf/x supported his second half breakout. He turned to his slider and cutter much more often, and started missing bats. What do your eyes say KG? The numbers looked good, but I always worry about my untrained eyes being guilty of confirmation bias. If you want another sleeper for success in the rotation, Felipe Paulino is as good a bet as anyone. Few throw as hard as he does, and he's not completely bereft of control.
The scenario where the Royals contend in 2012 seems to rely on (a) no huge injuries to Hosmer or Gordon, and (b) Hochevar/Sanchez/Paulino pitching up to their stuff. Now, I'm the first to admit that isn't very likely. But as a Royals fan, it's nice to go into spring training with a scenario for reaching the playoffs that doesn't immediately elicit guffaws.
I love Duffy's stuff too, and performance in Triple-A in 2011. He could be a pleasant surprise. My "arm chair," analysis is that he often looked like he was overthrowing. I try not to fake it as a scout, but that's what my eyes were telling me. It's always possible Montgomery turns a corner. Stuff has never been a problem. Crazy things happen, and I like the Royals offense a lot.