The Royals are my surprise team. They’re probably your surprise team. Your aunt, your accountant, your yoga instructor, your favorite barista — I’m told they picked the Royals as their surprise team, too.
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Three weeks into the season, the Royals lead the American League Central.
They’re not surprised.
“We’re a good team,” James Shields, the new Kansas City ace, told me Tuesday. “We’ve got a lot of talent — a lot of young talent — and guys that can play. Right now, we’re not playing on all cylinders and we’re still 10-7, which is a good sign.”
Good for the Royals, bad for the rest of the division. The Royals share some similarities with last year’s Orioles and Nationals: Youth (no everyday players older than 30), above-average defense, bullpen depth, chemistry developed through playing (and, yes, losing) together over a period of years.
And then there’s the starting rotation.
At this time last year, the Royals’ starting five consisted of Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, Jonathan Sanchez, Luis Mendoza and Danny Duffy. Now, the names are James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie, Wade Davis and Mendoza. The 80 percent turnover was needed. The Royals went from having one of the majors’ five worst rotations last year to the sixth-best in the early weeks of 2013.
“We have the pitching now,” veteran right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. “That’s the only way to compete. When you go into a series with Detroit, and you’re seeing (Max) Scherzer and (Justin) Verlander, the guys you have throwing need to be able to match up with them. We feel like we have that.”
Francoeur didn’t mention that team and those pitchers by accident. He was speaking at Comerica Park before the start of a rain-shortened series against the reigning AL champions, in which the Royals are scheduled to face the hard-throwing right-handers.
While the Royals remain respectful of the Tigers — “They’ve set the standard,” Francoeur said — Kansas City doesn’t appear intimidated by the two-time defending AL Central champs. The Royals don’t need to win this series in order to establish their legitimacy. They’re already doing that — even with Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas off to slow starts.
“We’ve played big series,” manager Ned Yost said. “We just came off a big series in Boston, one of the hottest teams in baseball. We played the Atlanta Braves, one of the hottest teams in baseball. Stopped streaks on both of those teams. [Atlanta had won 10 straight, Boston seven.] We’ve got enough confidence in ourselves. We come in feeling good. We know it’s a long year. We know we’ve got a lot of games.
“These kids are excited every day. They’re not coming in here saying, ‘We’re playing Detroit,’ and jumping up and down. They play with energy every single day.”
That energy is apparent in the din of the Royals’ clubhouse. Shields and Davis apparently brought some of the Rays’ conviviality with them in the oft-dissected trade in which stud prospect Wil Myers went to Tampa Bay.
“I feel like our team is very loose,” Shields said. “I feel like we have a lot of fun. There’s a very similar vibe (to the Rays) — a very relaxed vibe. That’s the way we need to play all year long. If you put too much pressure and too much stress on yourselves, it’s going to go against you.”
The Royals don’t need to worry about that last part now. Hosmer, slugging only .283, laughed and cracked wise Tuesday when a clubhouse television showed an MLB Network debate about whether he was Yost’s best option to hit cleanup. He didn’t seem flustered or worried. He knows he’s playing for a first-place team — one with a better chance to stay there than you might think.
“We can compete with anybody,” Shields said, “at any time.”