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Royals look to escape long stretch of mediocrity

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Asked to size up Kansas City's chances for a breakthrough in 2010, Gil Meche underscored one crucial component to any hope of escaping the mediocrity that has long haunted his talent-thin team.

"Staying healthy," he said.

Then just days later, this right-hander whose availability behind No. 1 starter Zack Greinke is so key to the Royals, failed to stay healthy.

Shoulder stiffness — the same condition that wrecked much of his 2009 season — put the 31-year-old Meche out of action late in spring training. He insists it's only temporary. But the prospect of Meche not being ready on opening day, and maybe for much longer, has cast a pall over everything the Royals had been hoping to accomplish in manager Trey Hillman's third season.

With reigning Cy Young winner Greinke, first baseman Billy Butler and closer Joakim Soria, the Royals have three players just about any organization in the majors would covet.

But they're also counting heavily on Meche to provide a quality one-two punch atop the rotation because the rest of the staff, with the exception of Soria, a 2008 All-Star, offer no guarantee of anything but continued mediocrity.

"Whenever pitchers begin to miss side sessions and scheduled starts this late in spring training, you may have to adjust your rotation," said general manager Dayton Moore, who signed Meche to a five-year, $55 million deal three seasons ago.

Back and shoulder problems held Meche to 23 starts and 129 innings last year, his lowest totals since 2005, and many critics have blamed Hillman for letting him throw more than 100 pitches in several taxing, tiring starts.

"I'm really not worried about it," Meche said.

Greinke went 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA last year to become KC's third Cy Young winner, and he shows no sign of relinquishing his status as one of the finest pitchers in the game. Unlike last spring when he was working on new pitches, the right-hander was dominant almost every outing in Arizona.

Below him and Meche, however, things get dicey. Second-year right-hander Luke Hochevar, the overall No. 1 pick of 2007, seems improved, but has far to go after struggling to a 7-13 record in 25 starts last year.

Brian Bannister struggled most of the spring after going 7-12 in 26 starts in 2009. The rest of the staff, especially if Meche is out for long, remained murky.

Whoever takes the ball will be hoping for improvement in a defense that committed a league-high 117 errors.

"Last year we let a lot of games go as far as defense, and it cost us some games," said Meche.

The Royals have new faces in left field, center field, second base and catcher.

Replacing the defensively inept Alberto Callaspo at second is veteran Chris Getz, who hit .261 with 31 RBIs for the White Sox last year. Scott Podsednik was brought in to start in left field and Rick Ankiel, the pitcher-turned-hitter who was let go by St. Louis, will start in center.

"I believe we are a lot more athletic," said Hillman. "I believe we are deeper this year than we were last year."

The new-look outfield may mean more time at designated hitter for Jose Guillen, who is due $12 million this year and may not be happy with the move.

Back at shortstop is the offensively and defensively inconsistent Yuniesky Betancourt, although better news could be on the way. Mike Aviles, the Royals' 2008 player-of-the-year, may soon be back. After hitting .325 and playing solid defense as a rookie, Aviles missed almost all of 2009 after Tommy John surgery. The Royals were 75-87 in 2008 but 51-51 in the 102 games Aviles played.

Catcher Jason Kendall, 35, who made 131 starts last year for Milwaukee, was signed to replace John Buck and Miguel Olivo, who were released mostly for defensive lapses.

While Kendall will most likely be a defensive upgrade, there could be a price to pay. Olivo led the Royals last year with 23 home runs. Kendall, with the Brewers, hit two.

At first base, the Royals believe they have a budding star in Butler. Finally getting comfortable with the switch to first, the 23-year-old hit .301 with 21 home runs and 93 RBIs last year. His 51 doubles were only three short of the team record.

One of the most intriguing situations is at third base. Callaspo will start in place of Alex Gordon, who broke his right thumb on March 6 and will be on the disabled list when the Royals open at home on April 5 against Detroit.

Never able to gain traction on the great career everyone predicted for the former college player of the year, Gordon missed most of last season with hip surgery and now could even be in danger of losing his job. When Gordon got hurt, Callaspo was put at third and quickly became the Royals' hottest hitter of the spring, keeping his average above .400. He hit .300 last year and Hillman has vowed to get his bat in the lineup.

He's even going to bat third, in all likelihood. If he continues to hit and plays the position with an acceptable degree of competence, Gordon could have trouble getting his job back.

"Alberto's bat needs to be in the lineup," Hillman said. "He was our second-most productive guy last year. Alberto really doesn't have much preference of what position he plays. We'll see where it goes."

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