KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Two years ago, hardly anyone expected the Kansas City Royals to reach the World Series.
Last year, very few expected them to win it.
Perhaps it's time to start readjusting some expectations.
After winning 95 games, their first division title in three decades and defeating the New York Mets in five games in the World Series, the plucky Royals surely won't surprise anybody this season. But with most of their critical pieces returning from that team, there is ample reason to believe Kansas City can create some more October magic, even if they'll be getting everyone's best shot.
''Winning a world championship is the toughest thing you can do in this sport,'' manager Ned Yost said. ''I mean, you've got 30 teams every year trying to do it. You have the smartest people in the game trying to figure out how to do it. It's not easy. But we've got a good core group, a good group of young players. They've been there, done that. And they'll do it again.''
Imagine that kind of hubris a decade ago, when Kansas City was losing 100 games every year.
Things change quickly in baseball, though. And not only have the Royals reached the game's pinnacle, other teams are feverishly trying to follow the same blueprint that got them there.
They built their core through the draft. They eschewed pricy starters for shutdown relievers. And they put a premium on speed and defense, sometimes at the expense of power.
''I've always wanted to play with guys like that,'' said starter Ian Kennedy, one of the few newcomers on this year's team. ''They play unbelievable defense, they're talented, and that makes me really excited to hop right in. Don't change anything and help the team win.''
Besides signing Kennedy and reliever Joakim Soria, the only other major move the Royals made was to re-sign Alex Gordon. The All-Star outfielder tested out free agency for the first time in his career, but chose to sign a $72 million, four-year deal to remain where he felt most at home.
''I mean, we all wanted to make it fair for both sides,'' Gordon said. ''It was definitely a process but we got to that point and I'm happy with where I'm at now.''
The Royals are happy with where they're at, too, as they begin reporting to their spring training complex in Surprise, Arizona. The only major competitions are for the right field job and the fifth spot in the rotation, and perhaps for a couple of bullpen slots and the utility job.
Here are some of the story lines to watch over the next six weeks:
KEY DEPARTURES: Kennedy was brought in to replace Johnny Cueto, a postseason rental whom the Royals knew would be too pricey to keep. But they also lost second baseman Ben Zobrist to free agency, and that loss could sting even more. Omar Infante has dealt with a number of ailments the last couple of years, so watch out for a youngster such as Cheslor Cuthbert or Christian Colon to earn playing time.
RIGHT FIELD: Alex Rios departed in free agency after a disappointing season, so the Royals plan to use Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando in a platoon. Both of them offer plenty of speed, which means whoever does not start will be valuable coming off the bench late in games.
THE ROTATION: Kennedy joins Edinson Volquez and Yordano Ventura are locks, and Kris Medlen has a spot to lose. That means the fifth starter job should come down to Chris Young, a starter much of last season, left-hander Danny Duffy and right-hander Dillon Gee, who signed a minor league deal.
ABOUT DUFFY: While he's never been short on potential, Duffy has been erratic when given chances to lock down a starting role. He wound up in the bullpen for last year's World Series run, performing well as a power left-hander, and could be headed there again no matter how well he performs this spring.
RESTING SALVY: The Royals tried to lighten the load on All-Star catcher Salvador Perez last season in an attempt to keep him healthy down the stretch. But all that meant is he played 139 games behind the plate, as opposed to 146 the previous season. The Royals will closely monitor his innings once again, and that means the backup catcher race between Drew Butera and Tony Cruz is worth watching.