Kansas City's Lorenzo Cain cuts an imposing figure in the batter's box and looks graceful chasing down fly balls in center field, where general manager Dayton Moore likes to refer to him as a "glider." But if the scouts who arrive two hours early for a 7 p.m. game want a show, they better downsize their expectations. Cain produces more than his fair share of worm burners and pop flies that rattle the top of the cage.
"Lorenzo has great baseball talent, but if you watch him in batting practice, you think, 'Whoa,'" said Royals manager Ned Yost. "He's not a good BP hitter. Just the opposite."
Alcides Escobar, Kansas City's shortstop, is a fluid defender with a major league arm. He is also the type of player whose impact can't be appreciated with sporadic viewings. Royals broadcaster Jeff Montgomery, the franchise's career saves leader, reached that conclusion from upstairs in the booth last season. The more Montgomery watched Escobar, the more he found himself thinking about his steady and underappreciated former teammate, Greg Gagne.
"Until you've been around the league for a while, people don't realize how good you are. But having a chance to see him play so many ballgames, it's evident that he's a superior-level shortstop," Montgomery said of Escobar. "He makes smart plays. He's very instinctive. He doesn't try to force the issue when he shouldn't. He's just becoming a very well-rounded player."
As the Royals deal with heightened expectations in pursuit of their first winning season since 2003, the focus continues to be on Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, franchise mainstays Alex Gordon and Billy Butler (aka "Country Breakfast"), and the revamped, James Shields-led pitching rotation.
But if the Royals plan to compete for a postseason berth, their strength up the middle could be a significant factor. It begins with catcher Salvador Perez, a strong-armed, power-hitting double threat with an enthusiasm for his craft that's contagious. Throw a gifted shortstop and a multitooled center fielder into the mix, and Yost's team has a chance to be well-positioned for the long haul.
The Royals have their international scouting operation to thank for Perez. Cain and Escobar are a product of scouting and Zack Greinke.
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It's been 28 months since the Royals made a trade that altered the direction of the franchise, sending Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt to Milwaukee for Escobar, Cain and minor league pitchers Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi. The Royals sold Jeffress to Toronto in November, and the Blue Jays designated him for assignment last week. Odorizzi spent a year in the Royals' farm system before Moore flipped him to Tampa Bay with Wil Myers as part of an offseason trade that brought Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City.
Given the potential that Escobar and Cain have displayed and the role Odorizzi played in helping Kansas City upgrade its pitching, Moore has no reason to regret the trade. On the contrary, he couldn't have expected much more.
"We weren't going to make a deal that didn't make sense just because we had a player that wanted to leave Kansas City," Moore said. "We were going to make sure it was a fair deal. We were very consistent with our expectations with every club we spoke to. We wanted to focus on middle-of-the-diamond players -- catchers, shortstops, center fielders. Those are the players we coveted."
Elite starters make big news when they go on the trade market, but they rarely bring big returns. Since late 2007, Johan Santana, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee (three times), Dan Haren (twice), Jake Peavy, Roy Oswalt and R.A. Dickey have been traded for a total of 37 prospects, Joe Saunders and J.A. Happ. Only one of those prospects, Colorado outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, has emerged as an All-Star. Brett Anderson, Michael Brantley and Carlos Gomez are good, productive players, and time will tell what becomes of Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin, Anthony Gose, Travis D'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, to name a few.
Just consider the trade history surrounding Lee, one of the best pitchers of his generation. He has been dealt three times, and the return haul has consisted of Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Jason Knapp, J.C. Ramirez, Tyson Gillies, Phillippe Aumont, Matthew Lawson, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Justin Smoak. Take a deep breath and wrap your mind around that list of names for a moment.
Against that daunting backdrop, Moore faced some additional challenges in trying to get fair value for Greinke. Entering the 2011 season, Greinke was unhappy enough in Kansas City that he changed agents to help facilitate a deal. He also had a limited no-trade clause that allowed him to block deals to 15 clubs, so the Royals were stuck with a limited universe of suitors.
Washington seemed like a natural fit, with pitcher Drew Storen, infielder Danny Espinosa and catcher Derek Norris among the names being bandied around in speculation. The Rangers, Dodgers and Blue Jays expressed interest in Greinke, and the Yankees dipped a toe in the water despite their reported apprehensions about the pitcher's social anxiety issues.
Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin quickly emerged as Moore's most motivated trade partner, with Prince Fielder entering his walk year and owner Mark Attanasio in go-for-it mode in 2011.
"Doug Melvin knew what he was giving up," Moore said. "They had to do what they had to do. I think it was a great baseball trade. Looking back on it, if I was in Milwaukee's situation, we would have tried to make the same type of deal."
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Cain, 26, is running hard to make up for lost time. Growing up in the three-stoplight town of Madison, Fla., he spent his formative years helping out around the house while his single mother, Patricia, worked two jobs to support the family. He never played organized baseball until his sophomore year of high school, and he didn't earn a starting spot on the varsity until his senior year. The Brewers, nevertheless, saw enough promise to select him in the 17th round of the June 2004 draft. They signed him to a $100,000 bonus in April 2005 after he spent a year at Tallahassee Community College in Florida.
Milwaukee management went to great lengths to be patient with Cain, making sure he played a full season at every stop in the developmental chain. Cain amassed some big strikeout totals in the minors, but he also had a chance to refine his swing and learn the strike zone. According to FanGraphs, Cain swung at only 19.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in his first eight games this season. If he continues to work his way into hitters' counts, he could be dangerous.
"He doesn't have an exceptionally long swing, and you can't get him out just by throwing breaking balls, breaking balls, breaking balls," Yost said. "You have to work to get him out now.
"He really reminds me of Mike Cameron. When Mike was hot, he would just kill it. But when he was cold, you could throw fastballs down the middle and he would swing and miss. Lorenzo Cain isn't like that. But when he's hot, my gosh, he hits the most vicious line drives you'll ever see."
Something always seems to come up to stall Cain's momentum. In 2011, the Royals blocked his route to the majors by trading for Melky Cabrera. Last year, Cain was poised for a breakthrough out of spring training. But five games into the season, he crashed into a wall making a game-saving catch and strained his left groin. Throw in a torn left hip flexor and a strained right hamstring in September, and the leg injuries limited him to 61 games played.
Cain knows he has a reputation for fragility. He finds it a little unfair given that he had four seasons in the minors with 500 or more plate appearances. But he worked extra hard to amend it over the winter, traveling to Kansas City once a month from his home in Florida to spend time working out under the supervision of the Royals' trainers.
Cain is also more focused on nutrition after getting married in October. His bride, Jenny, takes part in bikini fitness competitions, so he's not even the most impressive physical specimen in his own household.
"I have to stay in shape to try to keep up with her," Cain said, laughing.
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Escobar, also 26, has come a long way since signing with the Brewers at age 17 out of his native Venezuela. He stood 6-foot-1, 155 pounds at the time -- or 40 pounds lighter than he is now. "Milwaukee scouts liken Escobar to a young Tony Fernandez, with a lean and lanky build and knack for making the plays in the field," Baseball America wrote in 2005.
Yost, who managed in Milwaukee when Escobar and Cain were coming through the Brewers' system, always liked Escobar as a hitter because "his hands worked and he stayed back on the ball." In Kansas City, Yost helped facilitate Escobar's growth by showing faith in him late in games when it would have been easy to lift him for a pinch-hitter. The Royals were still in development mode, so Yost had the luxury of taking a step back and looking at the big picture.
While filling out physically, Escobar has also become more aware of his strengths and limitations as a hitter. His batting average increased from .235 to .254 to .293 over the past three seasons. A look beyond the surface numbers shows a higher percentage of ground balls, fewer fly balls and a higher batting average on balls in play. Escobar has worked to improve his bunting, and he was successful on 87.5 percent (35-for-40) of his stolen base attempts in 2012.
The glove work just comes naturally. In 2011, Escobar ranked third among MLB shortstops in the Fielding Bible runs saved rankings. When his teammates watch him play, they see a feel for the position that can't be captured by advanced metrics.
"Every day he makes a play where you're like, 'Wow,'" Butler said. "We know he can do it. Soon everybody else will too."
Time marches on. In the span of five months, Greinke left Milwaukee for the Angels in a trade, then signed a $147 million deal with the Dodgers as a free agent. He was doing just fine until San Diego's Carlos Quentin went off the deep end Thursday and broke Greinke's collarbone in a confrontation at the mound.
Meanwhile, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain are doing their best to bring some up-the-middle pizzazz to the Royals. If they keep progressing the way Moore and Yost envision, they won't be Kansas City's little secret much longer.