It was always a bit of a stretch to believe the Kansas City Royals would ascend to the baseball mountaintop this season. But if you slathered on some eye black on Opening Day and squinted very hard from the observation deck at One Kansas City Place, you might have at least thought it was a possibility.
Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City will host an All-Star Game for the first time since 1973, when John Mayberry, Amos Otis and Cookie Rojas represented the home team. This year, the Royals will send only designated hitter Billy Butler, a lineup staple and doubles machine since 2007. Franchise die-hards and Butler's teammates will revel in seeing the man known as "Country Breakfast" doff his cap during pregame introductions.
"Billy's the best hitter on the team," said third baseman Mike Moustakas. "He means a lot to us. He's our middle-of-the-order guy. He's our big bat. When he comes up to the plate, he knows and we know that he can do some damage."
But from a team standpoint, the Royals have done less damage than they hoped they would in the halcyon days of the 2012 winter caravan. They're muddling along at 36-44 in search of their first .500 season since 2003. They've endured a Tommy John surgery epidemic to the pitching staff and posted a 14-23 record at home, while watching the designated franchise saviors try to navigate a very treacherous learning curve.
Moustakas, the more workmanlike half of Kansas City's corner infield tandem, is trending to the upside. He ranks fourth among big league third basemen with an .823 OPS, and he has transformed himself from a questionable defender to a steel trap at the position.
Things haven't gone quite as smoothly for Hosmer, who hit .188 in April and .218 in May and has spent the past five weeks clawing his way back to respectability.
This is how life works for most hitting prospects, regardless of the buildup. They decimate pitching staffs in the minor leagues, then the deluge of advance scouting reports and sliders on the black require adjustments that are easier to make in theory than within the confines of the batter's box. If Hosmer and Moustakas need a primer on growing pains, they should consult with teammates Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur, both of whom ran the gamut of expectations and criticism by age 25.
"To this point, these guys have played in leagues and against players that are probably inferior to them," said Royals manager Ned Yost. "Now, they're at a level where they're playing against the best, smartest and most consistent players in the world, so it's difficult to come up and have success in this arena.
"In my personal experience, I have seen two young players -- and only two -- who've come up and never had a prolonged struggle. They were Chipper Jones and Ryan Braun. They both had a great first year and never really slowed down."
The Brett seal of approval
In the opinion of the most acclaimed Royal of all, the outlook is bright for the Hos-Moose tandem. George Brett, Kansas City's vice president of baseball operations, refrains from using the term "unlimited potential" because he remembers how burdensome those words were to Gordon in his formative years. But, from the moment the two kids arrived in Kansas City, Brett watched their every move. He quietly monitored them during stretching, their pregame infield routines and batting practice, and he was impressed by their diligence and attentiveness to detail. He also took note of their fundamentally sound play.
"These guys are baseball players," Brett said. "They played baseball year-round as kids. They were always on Team USA or playing in fall leagues or winter leagues, so they have great baseball IQs and instincts. They don't have to think before they react. That makes the game a little bit easier."
Hosmer, the golden child, arrived from Triple-A Omaha in May 2011 and hit .293 with 19 homers to finish third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. He provided encouragement and support to Moustakas when his buddy was hitting .182 in his first 53 games with the Royals last summer. Little did the friends and teammates know the 2012 season would bring an abrupt case of role reversal.
In the old days, slumping hitters complained about "buzzard luck" and hoped the skeptics believed it. Now, their agents simply point to their BABIPs. Hosmer's .240 batting average on balls in play is the sixth lowest among 156 hitters listed on FanGraphs, and it was considerably lower before more balls began finding holes in June.
Last year, Hosmer had to adapt to seeing more defensive shifts. Now, he's seeing a slightly higher rate of changeups, sliders and curves than he did a year ago. He has tried moving around in the batter's box and taking more or less batting practice depending on the day, but those subtle adjustments failed to extricate him from his slump.
"He saw so much off-speed stuff early in the year, he was [betwixt] and between," Francoeur said. "He was late on the fastball and early on the off-speed. And then, when he got in 2-0 or 3-1 counts, he'd be guessing fastball and they'd throw him an off-speed pitch. He was having some trouble adjusting to that part of it and trying to find a groove."
In mid-May, Yost told Hosmer to take his .174 batting average and not even dream of picking up a bat for two days. Hosmer obliged and spent 48 hours hanging out with the pitchers and playing enough cards that he began to see clubs, hearts and diamonds in his sleep. He found the respite colossally boring -- and decided he had no interest in living the life of a pitcher. But the brief hiatus took some pressure off him and allowed him to return to the lineup with a fresh set of eyes and an invigorated swing. Hosmer is hitting .276 (29-for-105) since the start of June.
When the Royals visited New York in May, Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long held court with reporters on his team's feeble production with runners in scoring position. Kansas City's hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer, viewed that as a "teachable moment" and made sure to relay some of Long's comments to Hosmer.
"He was just trying to show me that everyone goes through it," Hosmer said. "It was still really early. He told me how Albert Pujols and other guys were struggling at the time, and you know they're not going finish like that. There's plenty of time to turn it around."
Hanging with A-Rod
Hosmer, who returns to his native south Florida in the offseason, enjoyed a perk this past winter when he received an invitation to smack a few balls around with Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Melky Cabrera at A-Rod's personal batting cage in Miami.
Moustakas, meanwhile, spent the winter at the Scott Boras Training Institute in Aliso Viejo, Calif. Through a combination of strenuous workouts and a greater emphasis on nutrition, he lost 10-12 pounds and essentially reshaped his body. He has a naturally stocky frame, so it's something he'll have to continue to monitor.
Moustakas, like Hosmer, is a better hitter when he adheres to Seitzer's mandate to go up the middle. As a former shortstop, he has the requisite athleticism to be a fine defensive third baseman. But he didn't begin to take the next step with the glove until he overhauled his footwork in personal tutorials with Royals coach Eddie Rodriguez. According to the Bill James Fielding Bible rankings, Moustakas has saved 14 runs this season at third base -- second best in the majors to Toronto's Brett Lawrie, who has a whopping plus-40 ranking. We might be seeing a budding Gold Glove rivalry at the position in the American League.
Every time Moustakas stole a hit with a great defensive play in April and May, Eddie Rodriguez sought him out in the dugout to congratulate him.
"I finally told him, 'I'm tired of coming over and giving you knuckles or high-fives and telling you that you made a great play. It's what I expect of you now,'" Rodriguez said.
Moustakas comes from the town of Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley, but he's no laid-back Californian. He can routinely be found bouncing around the clubhouse or tossing around a Kansas Jayhawks football to burn off excess energy. Seitzer refers to him as both a "grinder" and a "dirt bag." And Rodriguez was manning his post in the third-base coach's box earlier this season when a veteran umpire casually observed that Moustakas plays like a "throwback."
The Royals have some other promising young position players to complement their big two. Shortstop Alcides Escobar, acquired from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade, is hitting .307, and outfielder Wil Myers, the next organizational jewel, is tearing up the Pacific Coast League and moving closer to a call-up. The Royals also think they have a keeper in catcher Salvador Perez, who missed three months after suffering a knee injury in spring training.
But general manager Dayton Moore and his staff have had trouble syncing up the pitchers with the hitters. Luke Hochevar has yet to show the consistency or dominance expected from a former No. 1 overall draft pick, and prospects Danny Duffy, John Lamb and Mike Montgomery have either gotten hurt or failed to perform to expectations.
Hosmer and Moustakas are ultimately in this climb together -- at least until they hit free agency in a few years and Boras, their mutual guy, starts trumpeting how "special" each is to 29 other teams.
"'Hos' has been one of my best friends for the last four years," Moustakas said. "I was able to lean on him last year, and he leaned on me a little bit this year. Like I've told him, 'Baseball is what we do; it's not who we are.' We're able to separate ourselves from the game and realize it's not the end of the world when you're doing bad. There are always brighter days ahead."
A promising future is a nice thing to ponder when the present is a mixed bag. Hosmer and Moustakas have the talent, and now they're putting in the time. They're both likely to find that good things -- and All-Star appearances -- can come to those who wait.