Mike Moustakas and the Royals have plenty to smile about, and it starts with the new rotation.
By JEFFREY FLANAGANFS Kansas City
KANSAS CITY, Mo. –Royals fans have had the same lament for over 20 years: "If only we had some starting pitching."
Now the Royals do.
With general manager Dayton Moore’s bold moves during the off-season, the Royals enter the 2013 season with, at least on paper, their best starting rotation since the 1980s.
And most baseball experts agree that, combined with an improving offense, an elite defense and a shut-down bullpen, the Royals’ new-look rotation will give them a fighting chance in the American League Central.
"When was the last time we had four top-notch starting pitchers in the rotation?" Royals Hall of Famer George Brett said. "I mean, how fun is it going to be going to the ballpark every night knowing you got a chance to win because you have a quality starter on the mound?"
And actually, along with James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis, you can add another intriguing arm to the equation – Luis Mendoza.
Mendoza had a 3.28 ERA from June on last season, and Mendoza recently won the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation.
"I can promise you it means a lot to those young hitters in that clubhouse to have a rotation like that," Brett said. "There’s a whole different feeling when you get to the clubhouse each night knowing you can win. I think the offense will improve, too, because of the starting pitching.
"Those young hitters won’t have to try to hit five-run homers every at bat just to play catch up. And it should give a break to the bullpen, too."
Credit Moore and owner David Glass with the gumption to go all-in during the off-season. Moore wheeled and dealed, traded for Santana, re-signed Guthrie, and then pulled off the blockbuster with Tampa Bay in December to acquire Shields, Davis and utility man Elliott Johnson for four prospects including Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi.
And Glass gave the moves a thumbs up, approving a payroll that will reach a club record $80 million.
Moore simply felt the time was right for the Royals to make their move.
"We needed to do everything in our power to support our present group of players," Moore said. "Our window is just beginning with this core group.
"The truth is, if we want our young players to mature and get better, you got to start winning games at the major-league level now. And James Shields and Wade Davis and Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie will help us do that."
Moore and his scouting and development people have meticulously assembled a 25-man roster loaded with prospects who, Moore feels, are no longer in development mode.
"It’s about production right now," Moore said. "It’s about winning. We’re not rebuilding anymore. Major-league players have a small window of opportunity to win together. It's our job to make sure this core group of players gets that opportunity."
Is some regards, Moore said he felt he owed it to Alex Gordon and Billy Butler and Alcides Escobar, among others, to speed up the timetable toward competing for the playoffs.
"We have players who have committed to us long term and we need to make sure we do our part to give them an opportunity to win," Moore said. "And it has to start soon, right now, in 2013."
Of course, making such moves such as the Shields-Davis trade came with a price. The Royals gave up one of the top prospects in the game in Myers, and the deal was first met with contempt from some Royals fans and local bloggers.
"Look, we didn't want to trade Wil Myers," Moore said. "But you have to give away quality to get quality. There is a purpose for your farm system. It's great to have talent in that system but you have to utilize that talent.
"You can only play nine guys (on the field) and only have five guys in the rotation. Your farm system exists to transition players to the major-league level, which we have done, and to help add more players to the major-league system."
Brett found the criticism of the deal somewhat comical.
"You can’t just keep storing guys in the minor leagues," Brett said. "That’s not what it’s for. You can talk all you want about what a great minor-league system we have but it doesn’t mean anything unless you use it to get better at the big-league level.
"And the other thing is, it’s not like baseball is suddenly outlawing the draft. There’s going to be a draft this June and next June and the June after that. Dayton and his people will keep drafting and restocking the minor leagues. That’s how it works."
Starting pitching alone, though, won’t be enough for the Royals, who finished near the bottom of the league in runs scored and in most power metrics.
The Royals need two of their rising stars – first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas – to have big years. Hosmer, considered a can’t-miss prospect, hit just .232 last season. Moustakas, after a great start, faded in the second half and hit just .208 in September.
And the Royals need center fielder Lorenzo Cain and catcher Salvador Perez to stay healthy.
"There are no guarantees, no matter how many trades or signings you make," Moore said. "All you can do is put yourself in a position to win. Hopefully that’s what we’ve done for 2013."