Royals head to spring training with high expectations
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — That old, familiar baseball refrain made famous by fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers took on an entirely different meaning for the Kansas City Royals this offseason.
No longer was "Wait `til next year!" the battle cry of a beleaguered franchise grasping at hope. The slogan had become quite literal: After snapping a 29-year playoff drought with a trip to the World Series, the Royals wanted to keep right on playing.
"We came as close as you can to winning a world championship," manager Ned Yost said, "and when you don’t do it, it leaves a taste in your mouth. It’s something you strive to do, and I think everyone in the locker room will tell you they want to finish this thing off."
Most of the faces will be the same as pitchers and catchers report to the Royals’ spring training home in Surprise, Arizona, on Thursday, and position players begin to trickle in ahead of next week’s first full-squad workout. But the usual business cycle of baseball has resulted in a few notable changes, including the departure of two organizational cornerstones.
The first was James Shields. The second was Billy Butler.
Shields’ arrival in a trade from Tampa Bay brought with him a winning attitude. He changed the clubhouse culture. And while the staff ace struggled in the playoffs, it’s hard to argue Kansas City would have been there without him.
The frugal Royals were not expected to make a competitive offer for him, making it a foregone conclusion that Shields would be pitching elsewhere this season. He signed a $75 million, four-year deal with San Diego.
There were higher hopes that the Royals could keep Butler, their longtime designated hitter. But after a down season, the club declined its $12.5 million option, and discussions on a new deal fizzled. Butler signed a $30 million, three-year deal with Oakland.
The Royals hardly stashed their saved cash, though. In a sign that owner David Glass was not content with merely reaching Game 7 of the World Series last year, he gave general manager Dayton Moore the green light on a free-agent splurge.
Moore moved quickly to fill his vacant spot in the starting rotation by inking right-hander Edinson Volquez to a $20 million, two-year deal. He filled the DH spot by signing veteran Kendrys Morales to a $17 million, two-year deal. And he added a bit of power by signing outfielder Alex Rios to an $11 million contract.
Then, Moore gambled on the medical marvel of Tommy John surgery.
He resigned reliever Luke Hochevar, coming off his first elbow ligament replacement, to a $10 million, two-year deal. Then the GM signed former Braves pitcher Kris Medlen, coming off his second such surgery, to an $8.5 million, two-year pact.
Throw in some hefty raises for All-Star closer Greg Holland and other holdovers through contract increases and salary arbitration, and Moore has pushed the Royals’ payroll well over $100 million for the first time.
"We feel like we’ve had a strong offseason," he said. "The success of our team in 2014 is obviously due to our homegrown players, players that were on the roster prior, and they all stepped up and did a terrific job for us in September and into the postseason. So we did everything we could in the offseason to make sure our defense and pitching remained strong."
Yes, it was defense and pitching that carried Kansas City on its magical autumn run. That won’t change this year, regardless of so many new faces.
Gold Glove catcher Sal Perez is back. So are fellow Gold Glove winners Alex Gordon in left field and Eric Hosmer at first base, and defensive dynamos in Alcides Escobar at shortstop, Lorenzo Cain in center field and Omar Infante at second base.
The big question is whether the run production will be there this year.
The Royals hit the fewest homers in the majors by a wide margin last season, and often it was a chore to scratch out a single run. They are banking on the arrival of Rios and Morales along with the continued growth of their young core to help with that area.
If all goes according to their plan, the Royals believe they have enough to go one win further than last year.
"I’ve had a long career without having a chance of experiencing a playoff game," Rios said recently. "I think this team, with what I saw last year, I think they have a pretty good chance — we have a pretty good chance — of doing that again."