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'Ifs' aside, Royals expect improvement

'Ifs' remain, but Royals expect improvement

KANSAS CITY -- Pore over all the moves, the acquisitions and the deletions made by Royals general manager Dayton Moore, and the imponderables of 2007 are legion.

Moore, though, in a moment of pre-Spring Training introspection, found himself focusing on three holdover players: Angel Berroa, Mike Sweeney and Zack Greinke.

"If all three have a good year, it's going to be an interesting second half of the season," Moore said.

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Well, he's right about that.

Berroa, his shortstop, had his most disappointing year at bat, and his defense sometimes had heads shaking.

Sweeney, his designated hitter, had back problems again, a sore ankle and an aching rib cage on his way to only 217 at-bats.

Greinke, his pitching prodigy, was absent with psychological concerns by the time Moore arrived last year.

Berroa was the American League's Rookie of the Year in 2003, Sweeney drove in 144 runs in 2000 and Greinke had a 3.97 ERA as a rookie in 2004. My goodness, just a glimpse of those sunny seasons might give the Royals a whole new look. That's why all three of those players will be under special scrutiny during Spring Training at Surprise, Ariz.

On the big-picture front, Moore learned during his first season in Kansas City that the Royals lineup was developing into a potentially nice overall package.

But there's that other thing.

"No question," Moore said, "for us to be a successful team, we have to have good pitching."

So he got busy. We know already that the starting rotation will be completely different from last Opening Day. The bullpen is likely to have just one returnee from the opener, Jimmy Gobble.

The Royals last season had, by far, the worst-performing pitchers in the AL. The starters had an ERA of 5.85, and the bullpen's was 5.36 -- both figures the AL's poorest. Enough of that, though.

The cast began to change radically in the second half of '06, and that continued in the offseason. So, now, the Royals have Gil Meche, Odalis Perez and Luke Hudson as starters, with Greinke, Brian Bannister, Jorge De La Rosa and Todd Wellemeyer also at hand.

They have a fresh closer with a freshly reconstructed right elbow in Octavio Dotel, and new relievers David Riske, John Bale, Kenny Ray and Joakim Soria join Joe Nelson, Joel Peralta, Gobble and Ryan Braun.

"We're better than last year," Hudson said. "Honestly, I think we're going to compete -- I really do."

If Hudson seems earnestly chirpy, it's with good reason. He surprised almost everyone last year by going 7-6, including 6-3 as a starter, after beginning in the bullpen.

But it's Meche who is being counted upon to be the staff leader, nothing he ever really accomplished with the Seattle Mariners. That, he said, is what appealed to him (along with a five-year deal worth $55 million) about signing with the Royals.

"The challenge that was ahead of me was something I never really felt in Seattle: coming into an organization and trying to step up as one of the top pitchers on a staff and trying to carry the starting five," Meche said.

Behind him stands the left-hander Perez, who is convinced that he could be the staff's No. 1. Perez, Hudson and Meche are considered the three rotation locks by Moore. The other two spots will be decided in a spring shakeout.

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Finding a consistent closer has been an annual quest since Jeff Montgomery retired after the 1999 season. The latest candidate is Dotel, but, coming off surgery, the suspicion is that he might need two months to get back into a groove. And back-to-back appearances? Who knows?

At least Nelson, who had nine saves at the end of last season, is back. Ray had five saves for the Atlanta Braves, and Riske had 16 in his time with the Indians.

Manager Buddy Bell, of course, is making something of a comeback himself. He missed the last 10 games last season to have throat surgery, and he has spent much of the winter recuperating.

When he sat back this offseason, Bell surely mused that the Royals have developed a pretty productive lineup, headed by David DeJesus and Mark Grudzielanek.

If Mark Teahen continues his pauper-to-Player of the Year hitting and Sweeney recovers from his annual back malady, the Nos. 3 and 4 slots should be solid. Teahen had surgery on his right shoulder, and Sweeney went through a rigorous back-building process.

Emil Brown has had back-to-back big seasons, so his late-career breakthrough seems complete. Ryan Shealy, obtained from the Colorado Rockies, seems like the real deal at first base.

After that, Bell must judge whether Reggie Sanders can snap back, if John Buck or Jason LaRue will be the catcher and whether Berroa looks all new, shiny and bouncy.

"I'm going to expect Angel Berroa to come back and have a great season for us," Moore said. "I expect him to be the Angel of 2003."

And he'd like Sweeney to be the angel of 2000 and Greinke the angel of 2004, too.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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