Expectations high for Royals entering new season
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)
The snickers have gone quiet. The jokes seem to be over. In their place, fans in Kansas City whisper in hushed tones questions that reveal hopeful enthusiasm for the first time in years.
Can these young kids really compete?
Will the Royals finally end a maddening playoff drought?
Is it possible a team largely devoid of experience will actually produce?
''This team can be real good,'' first baseman Eric Hosmer said, providing his answer to all those questions in one definitive statement. ''We're confident in here that we can be a real good team. We just want to get going and see what this season has for us.''
So does everyone else in Kansas City.
The Royals haven't made the postseason since winning the World Series in 1985. Ronald Reagan was president, there was a war on drugs rather than a war on terror, and some newfangled machine called Nintendo changed the way America's youth spent its time.
In the intervening years, the Royals lost 100 games four times, and their best finish in the division was second - once doing so with a dubious 70-74 record. Managers and general managers have been hired and fired, youth movements have started and fizzled, and players long past their prime made Kansas City one last stop in the twilight of their careers.
So forgive folks for being a bit skeptical that this current group of youngsters, despite all their impressive pedigrees, will be the ones to finally change the script.
''Ultimately, we're the Kansas City Royals, and we want to earn respect,'' veteran pitcher Bruce Chen said. ''We want to show them we can play, that there won't be any easy series. We want to show them we're in town and that we mean business.''
They started to do that toward the end of last season, when one of the best farm systems in big league history started to sprout major league players at an astonishing rate.
Hosmer was the first big name to make his debut. The big first baseman went from Class A Wilmington to the Royals in less than two years, and validated the confidence placed in him by club brass by batting .293 with 19 homers and 78 RBIs in 128 games last summer.
Third baseman Mike Moustakas followed him to the big leagues. The former second overall pick got off to a slower start, but began to figure things out by August, hitting .316 with four homers and 20 RBIs over the final two months of the season.
Other kids joined them in the major leagues: second baseman Johnny Giavotella, catcher Salvador Perez, left-hander Danny Duffy and a host of other pitchers to fill out the bullpen.
''They know what the big leagues are about, what kind of adjustments they have to make and what they have to work on,'' Chen said. ''A lot of the guys are ready.''
It wasn't just the rookies who made a splash. Outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Alex Gordon had the best years of their careers, and Alcides Escobar - the key ingredient in the trade that sent Zack Greinke to Milwaukee in 2010 - flashed a potentially golden glove at shortstop.
The success of so many youngsters is the precise reason general manager Dayton Moore has been aggressive in signing them to multiyear deals.
Perez signed a five-year deal early in spring training, before sustaining a knee injury that could keep him out until July. Escobar signed a four-year deal a couple weeks later. The team is also working with Gordon on a long-term deal, and others could soon follow.
After all, they form the core of the Royals' future.
''You don't help them through expectations,'' said manager Ned Yost, whose job this season may be more psychological than anything else. ''I can tell them until I'm blue in the face. You still have to experience it. You still have to go through it and learn how to deal with it.''
The Royals didn't stand pat this offseason. They traded outfielder Melky Cabrera to San Francisco for left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, improving their starting rotation while also opening a spot for hotshot prospect Lorenzo Cain to take over in center field.
Jonathan Broxton and Jose Mijares were brought in to help the bullpen - acquisitions that became even more important after closer Joakim Soria injured his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow last week.
''I love this team,'' said Broxton, the former All-Star closer who missed most of the last season due to injuries, and is hoping to resurrect his career with the Royals.
''A lot of people saw what they did the last month of the season,'' Broxton said. ''There's a lot of talent in here and very young. I was part of that in '06 (with Dodgers). We came out with a very young team and brought some guys up. It was a lot of fun.''
Incidentally, the Dodgers wound up making the playoffs that season.
''A lot of similarities,'' Broxton said. ''A lot of young kids going out there and playing hard every day. They really don't know what pressure is right now. Every day is fun.''
Every day is full of hope, too.
That's something folks in Kansas City haven't experienced in quite a while.