AL champ Royals enter new season with newfound expectations

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Every once in a while, Ned Yost will spin a story about his days on Bobby Cox's bench with the Atlanta Braves, back when the organization was winning NL pennants by the fistful.

Inevitably, Yost would start drawing comparisons to his Kansas City Royals - that they were building through the farm system in the same manner as the Braves, and Kansas City would embrace the franchise in the same way Atlanta did if it ever became a winner.

Last year, that narrative finally made sense.

After squeaking into the playoffs as a wild card, the Royals swept all the way to the World Series. If not for a virtuoso performance by Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants, the Royals might very well have been celebrating their second championship.

The postseason run led Yost to draw one more comparison when he arrived in Arizona for the start of a new season, and his players filed into the clubhouse for the first time.

''It definitely reminded me of that feeling in Atlanta,'' he said, ''when you came to spring training every year with the feeling that you have an opportunity to go to the World Series - instead of hoping, you know? And it's a different feeling.''

There is good reason for that feeling, too.

The Royals return most of the pieces from the club that ended a 29-year playoff drought, including one of the best bullpens in baseball history. And the pieces they did lose to free agency have been replaced with what could turn out to be upgrades.

Designated hitter Billy Butler is gone, Kendrys Morales signed in his place. Alex Rios is taking over for Nori Aoki in right field. Edinson Volquez was signed to fill the rotation spot of staff ace James Shields, who chased bigger money all the way to San Diego.

Even though a few faces have changed, the tenants that the Royals believe in have not: They will continue to rely on speed, defense and pitching to chase another playoff berth.

''Any time you're fortunate enough to keep those key pieces, you feel good,'' said Greg Holland, the Royals' All-Star closer. ''Yeah, we lost Billy and Shields and Nori, but for the most part, we're right where we need to be.''

Besides, the back end of the bullpen is still intact.

Kelvin Herrera harnessed his electrifying fastball to become a shutdown seventh-inning reliever last season. Former starter Wade Davis had a historically dominant year as the setup man. Holland further cemented his status as the AL's best closer.

''The way you tilt the field in your favor, in my opinion, is having quality pitching and really good defense,'' Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. ''Those are things that hopefully can show up every single day and perform for you.''

As the Royals approach opening day against the Chicago White Sox on April 6 at Kauffman Stadium, here are a few other story lines to watch this season:

THE ROTATION: Shields was the anchor in 2014, but he struggled mightily in the playoffs. So when the Royals signed Volquez to replace him, it was mostly met with a collective shrug.

Besides, the success of the rotation will more likely be determined by the success of young flamethrowers Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, both of whom have ace ability.

INJURY BUGS: The Royals stayed remarkably healthy last season. Will karma even out?

Second baseman Omar Infante already missed long stretches of spring training with a bone spur in his elbow that could require surgery next offseason. Left fielder Alex Gordon also got a slow start to the spring after undergoing wrist surgery this past offseason.

SLOW STARTS: The last couple of seasons, the Royals have gotten off to slow starts. They unsuccessfully dug out of a big hole two years ago, but pulled it off last season.

Considering every other team in the AL Central appeared to get better over the winter, the Royals can ill afford to let Detroit, Cleveland and Minnesota and the White Sox bury them.

RESTING SALVY: All-Star catcher Salvador Perez faded in the playoffs in part due to his heavy work load in the regular season, where he appeared in 150 games. Yost intends to give him more days off this year, though it's hard to take his bat out of the lineup.

BASEBALL TOWN: Did the World Series run turn Kansas City into a baseball town again? The club has been overshadowed for decades by the Chiefs, who play just across the parking lot in Arrowhead stadium. How will fans respond to having the reigning AL champions?

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