I personally have spent much of the last couple of months writing about the Royals’ young position players and, to a lesser extent, about their rookie laden bullpen.   The reason is quite simple:  after years of projecting and theorizing about ifs and buts and whats and whens, we can actually look at the lineup that takes the field every night and know that ‘next year’ applies most if not all of them.

Seriously, when was the last time you watched a Royals’ team play in August and September and knew that basically the same team was going to take the field again in 2012….and be generally happy about it?

Ditto for the bullpen.   Sure, there might be/will be some changes in the pen, but the core group will be back.   Again, not only will they be back, but the thought of Coleman-Holland-Soria to finish out games in 2012 makes me happy.

So, long story to nowhere, but that is why I have spent a lot of time discussing the above.   It is a real life, real time topic as opposed to the years of prospect watching and trade scenario (fun as it may be) fantasizing that was all we had as Royals’ fans to keep us marginally sane.

The starting rotation, however, throws us back into more theory than fact.   We think Felipe Paulino is a true hidden gem:  a strikeout pitcher with good control, who finally blossomed.   We think Danny Duffy showed enough promise, enough stuff, as a rookie to progress into at least a middle of the rotation starter.   While no one believes Luke Hochevar will ever justify his overall number one pick status, we think that his post All-Star break performance might indicate that he is ready to be a solid number three/four type starter as well.

Do three ‘thinks’ and a ‘might’ equal league average 2-3-4 starters?  Or is it more like 3-4-5 starters?

At minimum, the Royals do not have a number one starter, much less an actual ace.   Not long ago, we thought that Mike Montgomery might be that guy as early as 2012, but he is finishing off a AAA campaign that featured 69 walks in 150 innings with a decent, but modest, 129 strikeouts.   John Lamb has spent all of 2011 on the shelf with Tommy John surgery.   Chris Dwyer, who was never projected as a number one type guy, posted a AA earned run average solidly north of five.   Jake Odorizzi had a very nice season, but spent just half of it above A ball.   Will Smith also did a nice job this year, but his 108 strikeouts in 161 AA innings points more towards back of the rotation duty.

It would be foolish to give up on Montgomery or dismiss Lamb as wrecked, but none of the young arms the Royals so highly value is going to lead the rotation in 2012.   That’s okay, all in all, unless you want to contend in 2012 and my gut feeling is that Royals’ GM Dayton Moore thinks his team can do just that.

Let’s go along with Moore for a moment and assume that Kansas City can at least consider contending in 2012.   A lot has to go right, obviously, not the least of which is the three ‘thinks’ and a ‘might’ referenced above have to come true.  If so, then you can rely on some combination of a resigned Bruce Chen, Everett Teaford or Aaron Crow to fill the fifth spot in the rotation and assuming THAT works out, you still have a big gaping hole in the number one spot of the Royals’ rotation.

How do you fill it?  Free agency? 

Unlikely.   C.J. Wilson is not coming to Kansas City and neither is C.C. Sabathia, should he opt to opt-out.   The rest of the market is thin and likely to be extremely overpriced.   We are not talking about giving Gil Meche one more contract year than anyone else, we are talking about the Royals paying for an extra year and paying too much for all the years in front of that.

Trade?

Now, it gets interesting.   In the prospect hungry world of major league baseball, number one pitchers are just three or four prospect away from wearing your uniform.   It is a steep price, but doable.   Keep in mind, the hopeless, money starved Astros were apparently asking for a package that starts with something comparable to Montgomery or Wil Myers for Wandy Rodriguez, who is not an ace to begin with.  Doable, but steep….really steep.

To make it even a little more risky, the Royals might well find themselve trading, not for an ace or even a ‘number one’, but for a player who they think might become a number one.   Think James Shields of the Rays as an example.   There is talk he is available, but it could be just talk.   Frankly, was it clear at this time last year that Zack Greinke would not be a Royal in 2011?  Names could come up this off-season that you might never expect.   Would the Angels consider trading Dan Haren to bolster an offense that is getting outstripped by the Rangers?   Would the Phillies move Cole Hamels?  What about the Dodgers and their off-field mess?

The names are all speculation, the price is actually a little easier to define.   The Indians basically gave up the equivalent of Mike Montgomery, Aaron Crow, Tim Melville and Paulo Orlando to acquire Ubaldo Jimenez.   You know what Milwaukee gave the Royals and what the Nationals offered.  The packages are all different, but they are also similar in the overall talent given away.  If the Royals do it, it is going to hurt.

Should Dayton Moore make that kind of plunge in an effort to contend in 2012 or would it be wiser to make a smaller deal for an established mid-rotation guy and hope the Kansas City offense and bullpen are good enough to carry the team? 

I will be honest, there is part of me that believes prospects are overrated (that may shock some of you) and that same part is impatient to contend.   If Montgomery and Crow put James Shields (or insert your name of choice here if Shields bugs you) on the mound for the Royals on April 6, 2012, I would be hardpressed to say no.  If throwing four prospects – four really good prospects (Wil Myers AND Montgomery to start, boys and girls) – gets Clayton Kershaw in a Royals’ uniform, I have to tell you that I am probably all in.

All that said, the prudent move is probably to bring in one mid-rotation veteran for a moderate trade price (Cain or Cabrera and something) and see what happens in 2012.   The Royals might catch lightning in a bottle next season, but they are more likely to progress in fits and spasms:  winning 12 of 14 and then dropping seven of eight.   It might be wise to hope 2012 AAA is kinder to Mike Montgomery than this summer was and to hope that Aaron Crow’s bullpen stint turns him into a legitimate number two or three starter by 2013.

It is possible that a 2013 rotation of Montgomery, Duffy, Paulino/Hochevar, Crow and Odorizzi, with John Lamb rebounding nicely in AAA, may be a contending level group.  The Royals could have all that and still have all their coveted prospects as well.   Maybe.