KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Behind a pair of dark sunglasses, Dayton Moore’s eyes dart around a spring training practice field in sunny Surprise, Ariz., trying to take in everything happening all at once.
There’s the Kansas City Royals’ new-look pitching staff going through stretches on an adjacent field, and a lineup filled with promising young position players who’ve yet to fully live up to expectations preparing to take batting practice as the regular season draws near.
Altogether, they hold the future of the Royals in the supple leather pockets of their mitts, in what could become a make-or-break year for a franchise grown weary of losing.
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“We haven’t been to the playoffs since 1985,” Moore says, the Royals general manager finally breaking his silence. “Absolutely, there’s a sense of urgency for us to set a winning course.”
More than any other reason, that’s why Moore has gambled his professional future – not to mention a rebuilding project five years in the making – with a series of bold offseason moves that overhauled and solidified Kansas City’s disastrous starting rotation
He began by re-signing Jeremy Guthrie, who dazzled during a short stint in Kansas City late last season, and acquiring Ervin Santana, a talented but often erratic starter for the Los Angeles Angels who is just as likely to throw a no hitter as he is to give up an eight-run inning.
Then, Moore executed eyebrow-raising trade with Tampa Bay.
He gave up the minor league’s player of the year, outfielder Wil Myers, and a package of other prospects to acquire right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis, giving Kansas City the kind of front-of-the-rotation ace and another dependable starter that they haven’t had in years.
It was a lot to give up for Shields and Davis. Moore knows that. But he also knows that you have to give up something to get something, and it was a chance he was willing to take.
“We’ve got to redirect the course of this organization,” he said, “and the only way to do it is if our most talented players, our best players, are the ones who care the most and compete the best, and we knew James Shields was going to be our very best pitcher.”
“Now,” Moore added, “we need him to be a guy who is going to care and compete.”
The Royals will need more than just that, of course, to achieve their first winning season since 2003, and just maybe break a playoff drought stretching back five presidencies.
They’ll need first baseman Eric Hosmer to rebound from a devastating sophomore slump that saw his average plummet to .232, and third baseman Mike Moustakas to play like the guy he was in April (.315 average, three homers, 12 RBIs) rather than in September (.208, 1, 10).
They need Alcides Escobar to hit .300 at shortstop again, and catcher Salvador Perez to stay healthy all season. They need another All-Star caliber year from designated hitter Billy Butler, someone to step up at second base – Chris Getz gets the first crack – and for left fielder Alex Gordon to win another Gold Glove with his spectacular defense.
It sure wouldn’t hurt if center fielder Lorenzo Cain could stay on the field after a series of injuries last year, or if right fielder Jeff Francoeur – statistically, the worst everyday position player in the majors in 2012 – had a more respectable season at the plate.
“I feel like we have guys on this team between Hos, myself, Moose, they can bounce back and have good years,” Francoeur said. “And when you look at what our pitching can do, get those guys in there, the confidence of our offense knowing what we have out there is huge.”
“Not to say we didn’t have it last year,” Francoeur said, “but to me, when you have five guys go out there and throw every day, it’s a huge confidence booster.”
Shields has grown accustomed to winning from his days in Tampa Bay, and while he knows that playing meaningful baseball in September is foreign to most of the Royals, he also believes that their youthful moxie can help overcome their shortcomings in experience.
“Playing against these guys over the last seven seasons, I’ve seen the transformation in the organization,” Shields said, “and now I’m excited to be part of it.”
It’s a transformation that Moore decided to fast-track this season.
The last several years, as he carefully rebuilt the Royals farm system and watched all those young position players graduate to the majors, the general manager has pointed to the 2014 season as the moment when he thought everything might finally come together.
For once, though, the “wait till next year” mantra has been shelved.
The Royals believe they can start winning right now.
“It’s important that we begin trying to win every single year, so all our pieces feed off one another’s successes,” Moore said. “Everybody’s success is tied together, and now we believe, and I made the decision, it’s time to move forward with this group.”