SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Exhibition games had just begun, but in Joe Maddon's mind, the Royals were already in midseason form.
The Cubs were leading Kansas City, 2-0, in this March 7 spring game when Eric Hosmer stepped up with two outs in the sixth inning. He drove the ball to left field, driving in two runs. Salvador Perez, the next hitter, followed with a single grounded up the middle, driving in another run. That was all it would take for the defending World Series champs to win the game, 3-2.
"I'm thinking to myself, 'That's exactly who they are,'" Maddon said Wednesday, before the teams met again in the Royals' 10-0 win. "They can pitch just well enough to get two hits, play great defense, and all of a sudden they're in the winner's circle. It's a scratch-and-claw kind of method, which I love, which I have a lot of respect for.''
In Interleague games last season, the Cubs took two out of three from the Royals, but it was anything but easy. Both victories were in 11 innings, by 2-1 and 1-0 scores.
"Really tough games, and that's who they are,'' Maddon said. "And they're going to continue to be that way.''
The Royals aren't going away after winning their back-to-back pennants. That's clear to everyone except the computer that spits out Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA rankings. It has them winning 76 games this season -- a staggering downgrade for a team that won 95 games last year to run away with the American League Central.
That's crazy. There's a better chance that they'll find a way to win 100 games than fall apart.
Sure, Kansas City can get better after winning 95 games. Here are five ways that the Royals can do it.
1. Hosmer has his first of many All-Star seasons.
It's hard to argue with this one. The surprise is that one of baseball's best first basemen hasn't been an All-Star already.
Hosmer would have been if he had started 2015 as well as he finished it (slash line of .304/.375/.488 with 10 home runs and 48 RBIs in 75 games after the All-Star break). He swung the bat with more force than ever after completing his recovery from the right hand injury that dogged him after getting hit by a Jon Lester pitch in July 2014. Look for Hosmer to deliver 20-plus home runs for the first time and accompany Ned Yost and many of his teammates to Petco Park for the All-Star Game.
Yost felt bad when he couldn't find room for Hosmer on last year's All-Star team. The first baseman is going to make his way onto the team this time around.
2. The starting rotation is better.
"It very well could be,'' Yost said, and he's right.
The Royals used their state-of-the-art bullpen and efficient offensive approach to overcome second-division starting pitching last season. They ranked 12th in the AL with a 4.34 ERA in the wake of ace James Shields' departure after 2014, when they were fourth in the league at 3.60, but they covered up for their deficiencies by renting Johnny Cueto for the stretch run.
"We like the fact we have guys who can eat up innings, can throw strikes,'' Yost said. "We like power aspect of the rotation in Volquez and Yordano Ventura. We like the fact we have strike-throwers and guys who use their defense, like Kennedy and Medlen and Duffy and Chris Young. We think we have a pretty solid starting rotation.''
Moore included pitching prospects Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea in trades, but he replaced them by signing Medlen and Minor while they recovered from surgeries. Both seem on track to deliver this season.
"Dayton's done a great job with some astute signings,'' Yost said. "Kris Medlen was one of them last year. He's going to play a big part in our pitching this year. Getting Mike Minor heathy and back to where he was is key. He sure looks like he's heading that way now.''
3. Paulo Orlando upgrades right field.
This is the only real question about Yost's lineup, and he isn't sweating it.
"We like Paulo Orlando,'' he said. "We like what he's done. We're just trying to find the guy that will complement him out there. There's some competition for that. But Paulo's done a nice job.''
It appears that speedy utility man Whit Merrifield will grab the open spot while Jarrod Dyson completes his recovery from a strained oblique muscle, which could sideline him through April. But don't be stunned if the right-handed-hitting Orlando proves to be an everyday guy like Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon.
The 30-year-old Brazilian flashed his talent last season when Alex Rios was out with injuries, drawing attention with his speed and defense. But Orlando also hit .249 with a .713 OPS in 251 plate appearances. The Royals will be in business if he can build from there; with Rios as the primary right fielder, they ranked last in the AL with a .617 OPS.
4. A healthy Omar Infante upgrades second base.
Infante was the biggest reason why Kansas City got only a .617 OPS out of second base last season. Ben Zobrist turned a weakness into a strength when he was acquired from Oakland, but he signed with the Cubs as a free agent this offseason. That hands the job back to Infante, who has two seasons left on his four-year deal.
Infante was playing with pain in his right elbow last season, but he seems much improved physically after surgery. He got a late start to game action, but he is 5-for-16 with two doubles this spring. The guy is a career .272 hitter, and he hit .318 for the Tigers in 2013. This will be the year Infante shows why he received the four-year deal.
5. Wade Davis saves 50-plus games for a bullpen that is as good as usual.
There will be no decline for the bullpen even though the mix is different, thanks to the absence of Greg Holland.
Davis, who has a 1.43 career ERA as a reliever, moved into the closer's role last September when Holland yielded to the pain of a torn ligament in his right elbow. Davis was missed in middle relief, but he showed that his fastball-cutter combination can be lethal in the ninth inning. There's no reason he can't jump to the head of the class of elite closers.
Davis won't lack save opportunities, no matter what those PECOTA rankings say.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.