Rob Neyer, ESPN.com's baseball analyst, sees the club winning up to 75 games (a 17-game improvement). That's partly because general manager Allard Baird made some sharp off-season moves -- and partly because it's rare for a team to be as profoundly pathetic as the 2004 Royals.
"This team doesn't have a George Brett, a Frank White or a Hal McRae," Neyer says, noting the offensive heroes of 1985's World Series-winning team. "But you could look at almost any player on the roster and say, 'This guy could be really good.' Last year, there wasn't anybody, with the exception of [pitcher Zack] Greinke, who knocked your socks off. Typically, you're going to have a few guys who surprise you in a good way."
Neyer nominates Greinke, center fielder David DeJesus and designated hitter Calvin Pickering as breakout candidates this season, with the first two making up for departed fan favorite Ken Harvey.
On the other end of the spectrum, Neyer predicts that the pitching staff might produce the team's biggest bust. "Other than Greinke, just about any of the pitchers is capable of having two to three terrible months and getting released," he says.
To get the rest of the bad news out of the way: The team is going to be slow again. DeJesus, its leadoff hitter and most active runner, stole 8 bases last year but got caught 11 times. "He'll run because [manager Tony] Peña's stubborn," Neyer says. "I wish he'd just stop."
Also, the Royals' single-season home-run record of 36, an unassuming mark held by Steve Balboni, won't fall anytime soon. "I don't think [first baseman] Mike Sweeney will have that type of power after the injuries," Neyer says. "Pickering's an intriguing choice, but he's going to strike out so much against left-handed pitchers that he's not going to be allowed to play against them. No one will challenge 35 home runs until Billy Butler makes the team. "
Butler plays third base in the low minors. He's a promising prospect, but he probably won't make the big leagues until 2007. In fact, "Wait until 2007!" might as well be the Royals' rallying cry; most of its pivotal players are unproven youngsters. On the bright side, all of these developing talents are under long-term contracts, so fans can grow accustomed to these kids without fearing free-agent flights.
As for the why-watch-now question, Neyer says this fresh-faced team will make visits to the ballpark worthwhile. "I would love to watch DeJesus, Ruben Gotay and Mark Teahan," he says, naming two highly touted rookies who earned starting spots. "It's been awhile since the Royals had three young players with that kind of potential. Throw Pickering and Greinke into the mix, and this is a much more interesting team than it was a year ago."