While we all try to come to grips with the new reality that Bruce Chen might not be a Royal next season, let’s do our best to focus on the future.

I have spent a pretty fair amount of column space the past couple of weeks gazing deep into the future, but today, we’ll look at the very near future.    As in 2011.

We can and will continue to talk at length about the great promise that the Royals’ farm system holds:  who comes up when and how good they will be.   The truth, however, is that with the possible exception of one or two relief pitchers, NONE of those high profile names is likely to be playing baseball in Kansas City next April.

Given that, I thought it would be worthwhile to find the one guy, the KEY MAN, on the existing roster who, by taking a big step forward, could positively impact the future of this team.  In other words, who among the current major league roster can accelerate The Process?

We need to start with a good dose of realism (something the Royals’ PR department might be wise to do as well) and know that Yunieksy Betancourt is not going to turn into Miguel Tejeda circa 2000.  Betancourt pretty much is what he is, as is a far superior David DeJesus.  

For that matter, Billy Butler is a pretty known commodity as well.   He may add some power and become even more valuable, but he already is a/the major offensive contributor on the team.   Hence, any improvement is incremental (although appreciated) and not the massive jump in production this squad needs.   That is more a testament to how good Butler already is and not a criticism.

It might well be that Mike Aviles’ September (WARNING:  Projections based on September numbers follows!) production is an indication that he might return to something close to his excellent 2008 form, but with Mike Moustakas, Johnny Giavotella, Jeff Bianchi (maybe) and even Christian Colon coming along shortly, it may not matter long term. 

The same could even be said for Kila Ka’aihue (minus the good September stuff).   He might contribute mightily this season and help the 2011 squad, but Eric Hosmer is going to be just a three hour drive away this season.

On the pitching staff side, the known commodities are Joakim Soria and Zack Greinke without question.   You can make a case that Greinke could be the key man in what the Royals trade him for – if it comes to that, but that’s not really the idea of this column.   Frankly, and a little sadly, we pretty much know what to expect from Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister as well.  

That said, the Key Man for 2011 probably is a two man race between Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar.   You can make the case that they were the Key Men prior to 2010 as well and maybe 2009.   That, right there, might be the very reason why we, as fans, feel like our team is treading water at best.

Hochevar could have a tremendous short-term impact on the team if he emerged as a real number two type starter, but if he does not, there seem to be plenty of possible options on the horizon.    While it is unlikely that all four talented and highly touted lefties that finished up in AA this fall will make it all the way to the majors, it is equally unlikely that at least one won’t.   If Hochevar never ‘emerges’, then the Royals can turn to Mike Montgomery or John Lamb or Danny Duffy or Chris Dwyer and do so as early as this summer.

No, I think the Key Man, is the incumbent:  Alex Gordon.

Even if Wil Myers makes the move to a corner outfield spot AND delivers at the major league level in short order, most teams still play with TWO corner outfielders.   Sure, the Royals could keep and even bring back David DeJesus beyond 2011, but lacking any true hitting force in centerfield, a lineup of DeJesus-any centerfielder in the system-Myers probably does not give you the kind of pop a contending team would want from its outfield trio.

What if, and it is a bigger IF than ever before, Alex Gordon at last emerges?

Of course, we are looking for emergence from a guy who hit .215/.315/.355 in 74 games last season.   A player whose career line through 1641 plate appearances, is .244/.328/.405 with an OPS+ of 95.   A guy whose closest comparable right now is Darnell Coles, followed by the likes of Darryl Motley (who in 1984 was my favorite Royal) and Eric Soderholm.

Also among Gordon’s comparables, however, are guys like Larry Hisle, who starting at age 26 posted an OPS+ of 111 or better in six straight seasons, and Nick Esasky, who muddled around until age 27 when he posted 119 OPS+, then 107 and then a massive 133 at age 30.   What happened to Nick Esasky, by the way?  After hitting 30 homer for Boston at age 29, he got 35 at-bats with Atlanta the next year and never played in the majors again.

The chances that there will ever be a statue of Alex Gordon outside Kaufmann Stadium are virtually nil at this point, but the hope remains that Gordon could become a power hitting corner outfielder.   A guy who can pop 25 to 30 homers, post an on-base percentage north of .360 and every third year or so, hit 40 homers and be a real force.

How nice would it be to have THAT Alex Gordon play 150 games in left for the Royals in 2011?  How much would THAT Alex Gordon help to push The Process along?

I, like the rest of you, am skeptical of it happening, but I think we can safely say that for early 2011, Alex Gordon is the Key Man.