December 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Tony Paul: At the Winter Meetings

With plenty of trade chips, Royals might be busiest AL Central team this week

Baseball's winter meetings, Day 1
Baseball's winter meetings, Day 1: Lynn Henning sets up the Tigers' wish list in a report from Nashville.

Nashville, Tenn. — It figures to be a busy four days day here in Music City for at least one American League Central team, and not necessarily the one you'd think.

The Royals, all of a sudden, have a bevy of trade chips at their disposal, and might just spin one or more of them off in their continued quest to upgrade their starting rotation.

Already this offseason, the Royals have re-upped with right-hander Jeremy Guthrie (three years, $25 million), who looked like a whole new man after arriving in a summer trade from the Rockies; and decided to take a chance on right-hander Ervin Santana, acquired in a trade from the Angels.

Santana, 29, struggled in 2012, going 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA, because he couldn't keep the ball in the ballpark. He allowed a career-high 39 home runs.

But from 2011-12, he was 28-22 with a 3.65 ERA, with a no-hitter mixed in there.

It's been starting pitching that has prevented the Royals from finally taking off. Their rotation's 5.01 ERA was fifth-worst in baseball last year.

Their run total wasn't through the roof, simply because they had the sixth-best bullpen in the game.

The Royals aren't in a position yet to spend with the big boys, so any more upgrades will have to come via the same route it took to get Guthrie and Santana: trades.

And they possess one of the most valuable trade chips on the market: outfielder/third baseman Wil Myers, a third-round pick out of high school in 2009 who is coming off a monster year split between Double A and Triple A.

Myers, 21, batted .314 with 37 homers and 109 RBIs amid cries from Royals fans to bring him up.

Before 2012, Baseball America had him the No. 28 prospect in the game. Yeah, that's gonna change.

Rays hungry for hitting

One team to keep an eye on here: the Rays. They are absolutely starving for offense — Monday's acquisition of first baseman James Loney is nowhere near enough, of course — and seemingly have been dangling right-handed starter James Shields for two years.

It's time for somebody to bite, and the Royals make perfect sense. Shields, 30, is under contract for 2013 ($9 million), and there's a team option for 2014 ($12 million). That'd be $21 million for two years, just as sound an investment as the Guthrie deal, even if it's one less year.

Shields is 31-22 with a 3.15 ERA and 14 complete games over the past two seasons. For some perspective, Tigers ace Justin Verlander has completed 10 games in the same span.

The Rays aren't going to be able to keep Shields, not having just dished out a franchise-record $100 million extension and with ace David Price's free-agent clock ticking.

The Royals probably wouldn't be able to keep him long-term, either. But a two-year flyer — which would give them a rotation of Shields, Guthrie, Santana, Bruce Chen and whoever — might be worth it, considering it looks like the team is better set up to challenge the Tigers than the rebuilding Indians or Twins, or the White Sox, who greatly overachieved in 2012.

Another option could be Red Sox lefty Jon Lester. He's 85-48 for his career, but is coming off his worst season. Interestingly, that could play into the Royals favor — and perhaps allow them to swing a deal without having to part with Myers.

Lester also only has one year left until free-agency. That's good for the Royals, in that the cost to swing a deal probably would be down. That's bad for the Royals, in that it'd be only a short-term fix.

The Royals with Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar, have the offense. They have the bullpen. And soon, they might finally have the starting rotation.

Indians' issues

The Royals, who at 72-90 finished third in the AL Central in 2012, definitely are a team to watch down here in Nashville, though so are the Indians — but for a different reason. They're rebuilding, though then again, to rebuild, you'd actually have to be built in the first place.

And the Indians, who have collapsed the last two second halves — costing Manny Acta his job; Terry Francona is the new manager — have issues.

That's why you're hearing just about any name of substance in the rumor mill, including shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (they traded for Mike Aviles), outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, closer Chris Perez, and starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. All could be trade candidates.

Cabrera figures to be the most appealing, because of the lack of quality free-agent shortstops.

Ballclubs looking for a closer certainly would find Perez a more savory alternative to Rafael Soriano, who wants twice as much money ($60 million) than he's likely to get.

Choo could be interesting, given the surplus of free-agent outfielders available.

Trade for Twins?

The Twins, too, might be looking to swing a trade. They've already made one, shipping outfielder (and Tiger killer) Denard Span to the Nationals for a top pitching prospect Alex Meyer, who, at 6-foot-9, is an inch taller than Detroit's Doug Fister.

Now all eyes may turn to another outfielder, Josh Willingham, who is coming off a monster season and is under contract for two more years for just $14 million. He could draw more interest than Choo, who's a free agent after next season. Choo, though, has a cannon for an arm.

Really, the Twins will have to listen to just about every offer, considering they've won just 129 games the past two seasons combined. That means first baseman Justin Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer, though the backlash for trading Mauer — the poster boy and hometown boy — would be immense.

As for the White Sox, it's always tough to tell what way they're leaning. GM Kenny Williams likes to cry poverty or talk about "rebuilding," often right before making a significant move.

They've already made one big move this offseason, locking up starter Jake Peavy through 2014, with a player / vesting option for 2015. Now they have to make a decision on catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who swears he's giving Chicago no hometown discount this time, coming off a career year.

Catcher isn't their only hole though. They're also out a third baseman, and need starting pitching.

That's a far cry from the Tigers, who'll be the favorite to win a third straight AL Central title, even if they slip into a coma this week and the roster remains in April as it is today.

There are no dire concerns for Detroit, rather just areas of potential improvement. Those, of course, include shortstop and left field. They'd love to pilfer another shortstop from the Indians, as they did Jhonny Peralta in 2010, and would more than welcome Diamondbacks star Justin Upton in left, though the sky surely wouldn't fall if they started Jhonny Peralta and Andy Dirks in the two spots on Opening Day 2013. The Tigers also probably are seeking an insurance policy for closer, in case flame-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon, at 21, isn't ready for the job.

The winter meetings kicked off this morning at Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, and end Thursday with the annual Rule 5 draft.

tpaul@detnews.com

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Wil Myers had 37 homers and 109 RBIs in the minors in 2012. / Jamie Squire / Getty Images