High hopes for 'athletic' Royals

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Dayton Moore is entering his ninth season as the Kansas City Royals' general manager, and he has his share of hits, misses, triumphs and head-scratchers like most executives. When a man's portfolio includes long-term deals for Jose Guillen and Gil Meche, a Rule 5 grand slam in Joakim Soria, big draft investments in Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Bubba Starling and trades that sent Zack Greinke and Wil Myers elsewhere and brought James Shields to town, there's plenty to assess.

Yes, it has been a while. Buddy Bell was Kansas City's manager in 2006, and he gave way to Trey Hillman, who moved on for Ned Yost. Through six straight losing seasons, Moore kept issuing calm assurances that fans needed to trust in the "process" and have faith in the power of scouting and player development.

At long last, diligence and long-range planning have taken the Royals to the precipice that separates promising from chic. At the complex they share with the Texas Rangers, the Royals are displaying a palpable sense of confidence that their time has come.

Make the rounds at Kansas City's camp in Surprise, and you'll hear two words ad nauseam. One is "athletic," and the other is "fun." The Royals run on and off the field and play with an enthusiasm that's apparent from every corner of Kauffman Stadium. When Moore and Yost describe the style of play they see each night, it sounds like something out of a season-ticket brochure.

"It's a fun team," Yost said. "When young teams grow into their confidence and they're athletic and have a lot of energy on the field, fans gravitate to that. It almost allows them to participate in the game."

Said Moore: "The good thing about young players is, they grow up someday. These guys are baseball players. They love to play, and they take a lot of pride in playing for one another as homegrown kids. I keep going back to the same thing: At 7 o'clock every night, I'm excited to watch these guys play."

A giant step

According to Baseball-reference.com, Kansas City had the third-youngest assemblage of position players in baseball with an average age of 27.0 last year. Only Houston and Atlanta were younger. So the Royals overcame a bit of a mental hurdle when they went 86-76 and contended for a playoff berth until the waning days of the season. They could have unraveled after an 8-20 May, but found their footing, kept plugging away and put some heat on the Tigers and Indians down the stretch. Their 64-46 record after June 1 was second best in the majors to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who posted a 69-40 mark during that span.

In hindsight, two people helped keep the team on an even keel. The first was Yost, who radiated tension at times during his first managerial incarnation in Milwaukee, but to his credit appears to have learned from the experience. The second was George Brett, who came down from his perch as the team's vice president of baseball operations and spent two months as interim hitting coach. Although Brett wasn't much for breaking down hitters' swing mechanics, he was adept at getting inside their heads.

One of Brett's favorite motivational tactics was to approach each player with a little exercise in self-awareness.

"I would ask Mike Moustakas, 'What's your name?'" Brett said. "He would say Mike Moustakas. And I would say, 'Then be Mike Moustakas. You're not Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire.' Then I'd do the same thing with Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler and the other guys. In the end, I think they learned a little bit last year that they can only do what they're capable of doing. Once you try to do more than that, you're not going to succeed."

So what makes the Royals a hot commodity this year for reasons other than togetherness and maturity?

• The lineup is set at every position and should be stronger from top to bottom with the addition of right fielder Norichika Aoki, who came over from Milwaukee in a trade, and second baseman Omar Infante, who signed a four-year, $30.25 million deal and should be a nice complement to dynamic shortstop Alcides Escobar.

The Royals have a grand total of five career 20-homer seasons from their eight starting position players and DH (two from Butler, two from Alex Gordon and one from Moustakas), and ranked 12th in the AL with a .379 slugging percentage. But Aoki gives the team a significant OBP bump at leadoff and allows Yost to drop Gordon down to a run-producing spot where he feels more comfortable. If Escobar, Hosmer, Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez show even a modicum of growth, the Royals should be able to improve upon last year's total of 648 runs scored.

• The bullpen is downright demoralizing to opposing lineups, with Aaron Crow, Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera and friends bridging the gap from the starters to closer Greg Holland, the American League's answer to Craig Kimbrel. All Holland did last year was strike out 103 batters in 67 innings and hold righties to a .205 on-base percentage.

• The starting rotation is not overpowering with Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Bruce Chen behind Shields, but it's pretty good at getting the ball to the pen. Last year Shields challenged his fellow rotation-mates to join him in the quest for 200 innings, and Kansas City's starters finished second to Detroit with 986 2/3 innings pitched. The Royals might not suffer all that much from the loss of Ervin Santana and the addition of Vargas, who averaged 203 innings a season from 2010-2012. "You have to pry the ball from that guy's hand with a crowbar," said a scout.

Yost would be very happy if his starters crossed the 1,000-inning barrier that barely eluded them last season.

"When you have experienced veteran pitchers, you want to milk as many innings as you can get out of them," he said. "The score dictates that. When you're winning 2-1 or 1-0 or 3-2 going into the seventh or eighth inning, you're more apt to go to the bullpen. When you have a two- or three-run lead you're more apt to give your starters more leeway, so at the end of the year that fantastic bullpen isn't overworked and it's ready to go in August, September and October."

Yes, take note that he's factoring October into the equation.

At some point soon, the Royals expect their kids to make big pushes. Yordano Ventura stands 5-foot-11, 180 pounds and tops out at 102 mph. Power lefty Danny Duffy, who was supposed to make an impact two years ago, is now 21 months removed from Tommy John surgery. And Kyle Zimmer, Kansas City's first pick in the 2012 draft, has the stuff, command, poise and mound presence of an elite prospect. The Royals privately gush over Zimmer, and think he has a chance to arrive after the All-Star break and provide the kind of lift that Sonny Gray gave Oakland or Michael Wacha brought to St. Louis last season.

Defense reigns

Few if any teams were more proficient at catching the ball than the Royals in 2013. According to FanGraphs, the Royals led the majors with 93 defensive runs saved. In the 11 years of data available, the only team with a higher number was the 2005 Phillies, who finished with 95 defensive runs saved.

Gordon, Hosmer and Perez all won Gold Gloves, and center fielder Lorenzo Cain might have pocketed one if he had appeared in more than 115 games. Even though Gold Gloves don't have the cachet they once did, these guys are legit.

Assessing defense makes for a spirited debate, with old-school execs trusting their scouts and the "eye test" and analytically inclined executives poring over reams of data from services who employ video scouts to judge how catchable batted balls really are. The Royals monitor the data, but Moore makes it clear to the team's scouts that he wants players with the discipline to stay focused for nine innings in the field, and the makeup to care about defense even when they're 1-for-their-last-25 at the plate. "Dayton's whole focus was on getting nine athletes on the field from the moment I got here," Yost said.

Shields, who came to Kansas City from a pitching-and-defense oriented environment in Tampa Bay, declined to make comparisons between the Rays and Royals. But there's no question where the priorities lie in Kansas City.

"The emphasis they put on defense here is exactly where it needs to be," Shields said. "This is one of the most exciting teams I've ever seen. Our defense made some phenomenal plays last year, and the routine plays are definitely overlooked. We take pride in that every single day."

Yes, questions remain. Can a pitch-to-contact rotation lead the Royals to a division title when Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are orchestrating a season-long whiff-a-thon in Detroit? Will the Glass family give Moore the latitude to go out and make an impact deal at the trade deadline to get the Royals over the top? And when it comes down to the big series in September, can the Royals make the jump from an 86-game feel-good story to a 90- or 92-win postseason club? "Those last four to six wins can be the toughest ones to get," said a scout in Arizona.

A certain amount of skepticism is unavoidable for a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 1985, but the Royals say they learned a lot about themselves last season. We'll find out soon enough how well the lessons took.