The Kansas City Royals have a lineup card that Ned Yost can proudly hand to the home-plate umpire every night.
There are bats on that card. Good, young bats, starting with Alex Gordon at the top and swinging through Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer and Jeff Francoeur. There is an expectation that young third baseman Mike Moustakas and new center fielder Lorenzo Cain will add to the fireworks.
The Royals look to be in good shape at the plate. They should score runs.
But people who are predicting a rise toward 80 wins, perhaps more, get stopped in their tracks when the conversation turns to pitching. And especially starting pitching, which is the lifeblood of all 30 big league organizations.
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You just don’t win without quality starting pitching. You just don’t. Look it up and tell me the last team that won with the kind of starting pitching the Royals will roll out in 2012.
Maybe Kansas City will overachieve in this area. To have the kind of season long-suffering Royals fans are hoping for, that has to happen.
Luke Hochevar has to finally start pitching like a former No. 1 pick in the draft. Second-year lefty Danny Duffy has to carry over a solid spring into the regular season. Jonathan Sanchez needs to pitch like he did for the Giants in 2010 and not 2011, when injuries and ineffectiveness helped land him on the trading block.
Bruce Chen, coming off one of his two best seasons during a 13-year big league career, needs to have another one just like it. Or better.
And Luis Mendoza, who nailed down the last spot in the rotation when Felipe Paulino was put on the disabled list last week, needs to keep a seat warm for somebody better.
This rotation has a combined record of 138-164. The lowest ERA of the bunch belongs to Sanchez, at 4.26. If there is an ace in this group, he has yet to show himself.
With such a glaring need, it’s surprising general manager didn’t do more to address pitching needs. He did shore up what should be a decent, if overworked, bullpen by signing free agent right-hander Jonathan Broxton, previously with the Los Angeles Dodgers. With Joakim Soria out for the season after Tommy John surgery, Broxton might become the Royals’ primary closer.
But with a starting rotation badly in need of aid, trading outfielder Melky Cabrera for Sanchez was Moore’s only significant move. And a risky one at that, considering Cabrera was arguably the Royals’ offensive MVP in 2011.
It’s difficult to imagine the 35-year-old Chen continuing to pitch like he did last season for Kansas City. He had an awful spring, giving up 37 hits in 22 innings and leaving Arizona with a 9.41 ERA.
Hochevar looks like one of those pitchers who gets managers and pitching coaches fired. He has a great arm and tantalizing stuff, but he’s 30-43 with a 5.29 ERA during his career. He teases the Royals with his potential, but too often lets them down with his performance.
Duffy could turn out to be the real deal, it’s too early to tell. And Mendoza, although coming off a great spring, looks like nothing more than a stop-gap until someone better arrives.
That arrival needs to happen soon. The next wave of Royals prospects to hit Kansas City should be heavy on pitching, with left-handers Mike Montgomery and Chris Dwyer on the cusp, along with righty Jake Odorizzi.
If one or two of them can start strongly in the minor leagues and arrive in Kansas City sometime in June or July, the Royals might be able to make a push for .500.
But with a good-hitting team in 2011, Kansas City was 71-91. Even though the Royals ranked fourth in the American League in hitting, and sixth in runs, they were a distant fourth in the American League Central, 24 games behind Detroit.
As good as the Royals are offensively, they could use more bashers. Kansas City’s 129 home runs ranked 11th in the AL last season.
Still, whereas KC once had a myriad of problems in every facet of the game, it has been able to shore up the offense. There is star power in this lineup. It’s too bad young catcher Salvador Perez, who doesn’t turn 22 until next month, has a knee injury and is out until close to the All-Star break. He’s another intriguing prospect who batted .331 in 39 games last season.
Eventually, though, it becomes all about pitching. The offense can only do so much to cover up the mess left by a pitching staff. It’s difficult to outscore teams over the course of 162 games and the Royals are still in a precarious spot when it comes to pitching.
That’s why it’s difficult to predict a strong leap forward for this team. There are too many questions when it comes to starting pitching.
Throughout baseball history it has been proven that teams with strong starting pitching can win championships, even without a ton of offense. But it’s rare that a team can club itself to titles. The Royals are still a good distance away from .500, let alone titles.