Watching the AL Central: Kansas City

After a 2003 breakout season, the Kansas City Royals hoped to take another step forward in 2004 – but instead, they regressed, falling back to the cellar of the division. The Royals, a small market team, didn't have the funds to go out and significantly improve the team via free agency, so they'll rely on their young players to help improve a team that lost over 100 games last year.

With limited money to spend, the team had very few free agent possibilities. One player that did become an option (and was in turn signed) was free agent righty Jose Lima. Lima, a former Royal who pitched for the Dodgers in 2004, will come in to help stabilize a rotation that struggled in 2004, partly because of inexperience.

Zach Greinke, at just 21 years of age, slowly emerged as one of the team's more reliable starters, going 8-11 with a 3.97 ERA. Veterans Brian Anderson and Kevin Appier and youngsters Jimmy Gobble, Mike Wood, Dennis Tankersley and Chris George will battle for the rest of the rotation spots.

The team didn't make any moves to upgrade the bullpen, but are confident that their young arms will be able to continue to step up to the challenge. Closer Jeremy Affeldt struggled at times in 2004 (although he continues to dominate the Tigers, going 5-for-5 in save opportunities against Detroit), but hopes to settle the bullpen this upcoming year.

The team elected not to offer arbitration to a number of free agents, including starting third baseman Joe Randa, outfielder Juan Gonzalez, infielder Desi Relaford and catcher Kelly Stinnett.

The only position they went outside the organization to look to upgrade was third base, where they signed former Tiger Chris Truby to hopefully replace Randa. The team also will give minor leaguer Mark Teahen the chance to compete with Truby at third, though he may need some more seasoning before he's ready.

Angel Berroa and Tony Graffanino will return up the middle, with Ken Harvey and Mike Sweeney both splitting time between first base and designated hitter.

Things are less settled in the outfield, where the team has produced a number of stars over the past few seasons (Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran namely).

David DeJesus will be the man in centerfield, holding the job after Beltran was shipped to the Astros. Matt Stairs, Abraham Nunez and Terrence Long will battle for playing time in the two corner spots, with all three likely to see playing time. Eli Marrero also cannot be overlooked, as the 31-year old is capable of playing all three spots in the outfield.

Lastly at catcher, youngster John Buck (acquired in the Beltran deal) will be the odds-on favorite to turn his vast potential into production behind the dish.

The Royals are optimistic about their future and have high hopes for a number of their younger players that they'll hope to showcase over the next couple of seasons. Unfortunately, potential doesn't necessarily mean production, and with so many question marks around the diamond, it'll be tough for the Royals to re-emerge to their 2003 level, likely leaving them headed for the cellar of the Central again in 2005.

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