I don't know about you, but for me, this is one of the best, if not the best, times of the year for sports aficionados. For one thing, it is the week of the Master's, the granddaddy of all golf tournaments and the golf event with the largest television audience on the annual PGA schedule. The sights and sounds of picturesque Augusta National Golf Club are resplendent and a classic illustration of spring at its finest.
But nothing is more refreshing and representative of the seasonal transition to spring than the beginning of a new Major League Baseball season. And this is the week that happens as six weeks of spring training comes to a thankful end and the games start for real, with opening days in both leagues scheduled from Wednesday to Friday.
This is the one point in the season when everyone starts with an equal record and hopes are high for all 30 major-league teams.
The Royals begin their season this year on the West Coast, where they will open a three-game series on Friday with the Los Angeles Angels. The Angels are probably the most improved team in the major leagues this season as a result of the offseason free-agent signings of arguably baseball's best player in Albert Pujols and the ace starter of the Texas Rangers' pitching staff last season, left-hander C.J Wilson.
Kansas City has not opened up the season of the West Coast since it has been part of the American League Central Division. The last time the Royals opened on the West Coast was in 1992, when they were one of the five teams in the AL West. Two years later the league was reconfigured, with the Royals moving to the AL Central.
In 1992, Kansas City began the season with six games at Oakland and Seattle before returning home for their own opener. The Royals got off to a horrific start that season losing all six games to the A's and Mariners. The Royals lost to Oakland again in their home-opener before getting their first win of the year in the second game that year at then Royals Stadium. Kansas City went on to lose nine more game in succession before winning their second game of the season.
The 1992 Royals team finally got their ship righted to some degree after they got out of the month of April, but still ended up 18 games under .500 at 72-90 and in the basement in the AL West. Prospects for this year's team are a little better than they were 20 years ago, at least that is what the expectations are heading into the 2012 major-league campaign in manager Ned Yost's second full season at the helm.
Offensively, the Royals have been as good as anybody in baseball the past couple of seasons, and if their spring training performance with the bat holds up in the regular season, they should be in great shape insofar as hitting and on-base percentage again in 2012. The big question mark with the 2012 edition of the Royals remains in the starting rotation. Kansas City did acquire left-handed starter Jonathan Sanchez from the San Francisco Giants in the offseason, which should be a big improvement over last year's No. 3 starter Jeff Francis (now with the Cincinnati Reds), but the Royals do not have a true ace or starter they can count on to go deep into games and get the job done on a fairly consistent basis.
The bullpen is solid, but with regular closer Joakim Soria out for the season after having Tommy John surgery, the closer role probably will fall to newcomer Jonathan Broxton, who in 2009 saved 36 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers, with a 2.61 ERA, and was selected to the National League All-Star team. Broxton has battled injuries since 2010 and hasn't really been the same since the start of the 2010 season. Whether Broxton can return to even a semblance of his old form is a something everyone will be watching.
For the first time in quite a while, the Royals went to spring training with the starters at most every position already set. The one exception was second base, where last season's starter most of the year, Chris Getz, won the job. Otherwise, the infield is set with Mike Moustakas at third, Alcides Escobar and Getz up the middle at shortstop and second, respectively, and power-hitting Eric Hosmer at first base.
Lorenzo Cain, a speed demon acquired in the Zack Greinke trade a couple of years ago, takes over in center field for Melky Cabrera, who was traded to San Francisco for Sanchez. Cain is flanked by Alex Gordon in left and Jeff Francoeur, who the Royals resigned after last season. Cain adds speed in the outfield and is expected to be a stolen-base threat, which is a weapon that manager Yost likes to employ as a means of manufacturing runs. Cain also has a pretty good bat. He hit .378 in spring training in Arizona.
Salvador Perez, signed this spring to a five year contract that could be worth almost $27 million if all the performance incentives are met, was slotted in as the starting catcher but injured his knee in spring training and will be out for at least a couple of months. The Royals acquired veteran catcher Humberto Quintero from the Houston Astros to fill the void created by the injury to Perez, considered to be one of the brightest young prospects on the team and a catcher with a cannon for an arm.
The starting lineup is solid and should assure that Kansas City doesn't lack for offensive production. The Royals were the third-best hitting team in the American League a year ago, with essentially the same lineup for most of the season, and they led the major league this spring with a .298 team batting average.
In their promotional campaign for the new season, the Royals are using the tag line: "This is our time." Royals' fans are hoping that their time has come too and that the team's sales pitch rings true. My feeling is that this team should be better than any Royals team this so far this century, but I'm concerned that expectations for this season, at least, are being set too high.
Here's my concern. This team finished the 2011 season 20 games under .500 at 71-91. Only once since 1994 have the Royals ended the season with a winning record (in 2003, they finished the year 83-79). To make up 20 games in one year is extremely difficult, but nevertheless doable. My concern is that some fans, as well as some members of the media, are going to consider anything less than that level of performance a failure, when it should be viewed as a grand success.
General manager Dayton Moore is doing everything he promised to do. He is slowly putting together the pieces that will return the Royals to a competitive level we haven't seen in this town in over a generation. But we're not there yet, and we may not be for another year or two.
A record of 81-81 for the 2012 season, or something reasonably close to that, would represent a tremendous year for this team, and one to be celebrated. Even that is a stretch, but it would be a dramatic improvement and would prove that the Royals are for real and that the team's player development and growth plan are working. Moreover, it would set up the new-look Royals to take the next giant step as a legitimate division contender.
On Friday, look for the season-opening 2012 Major League Baseball Power Rankings.
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