With the Kansas City Royals officially opening their 2012 season this Friday, the optimism for some fans is now being replaced with nervousness.
For a baseball fan, it is only natural to be optimistic during the off-season. The disaster of the previous year is in the past, free agents have been added, that overpaid free-agent’s contract finally expired, and well…somebody has to win next year, right? And for fans of most teams, eventually the optimism pays off. Your team comes from out of nowhere to qualify for the playoffs, and whether they advance or not, that can be considered a successful season (unless you’re the Yankees or Red Sox). But for longer than any other organization in baseball, Royals fans have had their off-season optimism shoved down their throat in the form of embarrassingly bad baseball. The Royals have the longest playoff drought in all of MLB. So one can understand why a Royals fan might eventually decide not to even bother with the positive thoughts.
Until the 2010 season, it was hard to envision a scenario in which Royals fans would be given any reason to believe they would see a winner in the near future. It was during that season, that things began to come together at the minor league level. Former first-round draft picks Mike Moustakas(3B) and Eric Hosmer(1B) began to emerge as two of the top prospects in baseball. 19-year old 3rd round draft pick Will Myers began to turn heads in A-ball. Other prospects began giving people to take notice as well, and before long, the Royals farm system was the talk of baseball. All of a sudden, that dark tunnel that Royals fans had peered into for so long started to show a faint light at the end. After the 2010 season, all the talk was about the Royals farm system. Not only was it considered the best in all of baseball, but some were calling it the best farm system that they had ever seen. And while the expectations for the 2011 Royals season weren’t great, fans were, for the first time in a very long time, allowed to feel legitimately optimistic for the future. 2011 saw the arrival of Hosmer, Moustakas, Salvador Perez(C), Johnny Giovatella(2B), Danny Duffy(SP), and a whole crop of young bullpen arms.
For the most part, all signs were positive. Hosmer impressed from day one. Moustakas went through his struggles, but by the end of the year, looked like he was figuring things out. Perez was very impressive, and while Giovatella and Duffy both struggled at times, both showed definite signs of promise. On top of this, Alcides Escobar(SS) emerged as arguably the best defensive SS in all of baseball. Lorenzo Cain came up for an impressive September call-up. Free-Agent Jeff Francoeur(OF) pulled his career out of the toilet with a fantastic year, and former top prospect Alex Gordon(OF) finally showed the promise he was thought to have when he was drafted in 2005. Looking at things from a long-term perspective, it is hard to imagine things going more positively in 2011. Everyone has pointed to 2012 as the year when the Royals will begin to ascend back to relevance for the first time in almost 20 years.
But what if it all goes wrong? This is a question that Royals fans are conditioned to ask. While Hosmer is as close to a sure thing as there is, would it surprise anyone if Moustakas never fully came around? If Duffy can’t keep his pitch count down? If Francoeur returns to being a near useless hitter? What if Gordon also finds himself with an extended stay on the DL? Center-fielder Lorenzo Cain is thought to be ready to break out, but what if that doesn’t happen? Salvador Perez has already been injured and is out until June. Closer Joakim Soria is out for the year with Tommy John surgery.
Each of these things individually is a very realistic possibility. But what makes this year different from past years, is that rather than considering all of the things that would have to go wrong for things to go bad, Royals fans were forced to point out all of the things that COULD go right to help them contend.
This year may not go as Royals fans hope. Every single thing listed above could take place. But it sure beats sitting around hoping Juan Gonzalez regains his MVP form, Mike Sweeney‘s back finally holds up, and Benito Santiago and Reggie Sanders discover the Fountain of Youth.