This was supposed to be the season that the Kansas City Royals, after spending the last half decade in contention, were finally forced to rebuild as their core group of players hit free agency.
Turns out half of them came back.
With the market soft across the board, the Royals were able to bring back shortstop Alcides Escobar and third baseman Mike Moustakas on club-friendly, short-term deals. So while first baseman Eric Hosmer signed a seven-figure contract with the Padres and outfielder Lorenzo Cain struck it big with the Brewers, the Royals still have enough pieces that they could compete into the summer.
If that happens to be the case, all bets are off.
"We're fortunate that it happened for us the way it did, and that's as simple as I can say it at this point," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.
What if the Royals are far out of the race in July? Well, all those pieces they brought back could become useful trade chips, allowing Kansas City to jumpstart its rebuilding job in earnest.
Either way, there is reason for optimism at Kauffman Stadium that was probably absent at the end of last season, when the Royals slumped in the second half and missed the playoffs. The fear that manager Ned Yost's club would revert to the 100-loss teams that became standard for so many years has been replaced by the belief that, even if a rebuild is due, it may not be too painful.
"There's a lot of pieces here," said outfielder Jon Jay, who signed a $3 million deal with Kansas City and could also be trade bait by the deadline. "I don't like to use that word (rebuild), but we have guys that are going to go out and compete. That's what it's all about."
The Royals open the season at home March 29 against the Chicago White Sox, and left-hander Danny Duffy will be on the mound. Duffy signed $65 million, five-year deal with the Royals prior to last season, giving the club a legitimate front-line starter and someone who wants to lead another renaissance.
"I know how Dayton feels about us, and I'm completely aware of the fact baseball is a business, but that being said, I'm still here," Duffy said. "I fully intend to lead the staff this year."
As the Royals finish spring training, here are some of the key story lines:
The Royals are in the hunt in July, then add another front-line starter and some more pop to the lineup to make a run at the playoffs. The AL Central has become one of the toughest divisions in baseball, but it wouldn't be the first time a team rose from nowhere to compete for a crown.
The guys who struggled last season, such as left fielder Alex Gordon, continue to slump, a starting rotation with plenty of question marks fails to come together and a bullpen almost completely rebuilt fails to close out games. The Royals are out of the race by the start of June, and begin talking to other clubs about trading away their best assets.
RHP Jesse Hahn is hopeful the Royals caught his ligament injury early enough that he won't need Tommy John surgery, but the former A's pitcher is on the 60-day disabled list. One of their top prospects, Bubba Starling, also dealt with an oblique injury in the spring similar to one that cost him 80 games last season. They would like him healthy enough to make a run at a big league debut.
Gordon hit a career-low .208 last season, with nine homers and 45 RBIs in 148 games. That's hardly the production the Royals expected when they signed him to a $72 million, four-year deal that is only halfway done. The Royals also need starting RHPs Ian Kennedy (5-13, 5.38 ERA) and Jason Hammel (8-13, 5.29) to solidify the Nos. 2 and 3 spots in the rotation.
Versatile power-hitter Hunter Dozier hit .211 during a September call-up last year, but could in line for a longer look. The fact that he can play both corner infield spots and the outfield makes him even more valuable. Slugging first baseman Ryan O'Hearn, who spent last season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha, could also get a look this season.