February is not only the shortest month on the calendar, it is also the month with the most going on. There's Ground Hog Day, then Valentine's Day and we also celebrate the birthdays of two of our most famous presidents. All of this is fine, but what really stands out for sports fans in the month of February is the heralded activity known as major-league spring training triggering the pre-dawn of a new baseball season.
Pitchers, catchers and a smattering of other players young and old are already in spring training camps in Arizona and Florida getting the winter cobwebs shaken loose and their bodies back in game shape for the start of a new major league season. This includes our own Kansas City Royals, who officially opened camp on Tuesday in Surprise, Ariz.
A year ago at this time. all the buzz at spring training was about the super crop of talented, young players in the Royals minor-league system that were right on the brink of making the leap to the big league ball club and form the foundation of what the Royals' management is hopeful will fuel a more competitive team with a brighter future than what fans have had to go through in Kansas City the past couple of decades.
Experts around Major League Baseball as well as writers, publications and online services that cover the sport have been saying for a couple of years that Kansas City had the richest crop of talent in its farm system of any major-league team. We, the fans, have been reading and hearing about this for what seems like quite a while now, and as 2012 spring training begins this week, it's looking more and more like this could, indeed, be the year we start to reap the benefits from the minor-league harvest that made its way to the Royals' roster in earnest last season.
What a difference a year makes. General manager Dayton Moore has been steadfast and patient in holding to his growth blueprint to rebuild the Royals and bring the team back to a solid competitive level and greater respectability through the acquisition of exceptional young talent through the MLB draft, a strong minor league system and player development, player trades and select free-agency signings to complement the roster and fill in areas of need.
Designated hitter/first baseman Billy Butler, outfielder Alex Gordon, who was just signed to a new one-year contract, and starting pitcher Luke Hochevar are all prime examples of young players who have come up through the Royals' system in recent years, and the Kansas City roster at the end of last season saw an influx of talented young position players who not only were called up to the parent club from triple-A Omaha, but made their way into the starting lineup almost immediately upon their arrival.
I'm speaking specifically of first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike "Moose" Moustakas, second baseman Johnny Giavotella and catcher Sal Perez, all exciting young players who showed last year that they belong in the major leagues and have a long, promising career ahead of them. That's three starters on the infield who were not in the opening-day lineup last April, and all three are expected to start this year. And if Perez becomes the starter over Brayan Pena at catcher, that will be four new starting position players on the infield (either way there will be a new starter at catcher from opening day last season when former Royal Matt Treanor drew the starting assignment).
Hosmer, called up in May last year, played in 128 games for the Royals and ended the season hitting .293 with 19 home runs and 78 runs batted in. Moustakas didn't arrive in Kansas until a month later, and got off to a very slow start before picking it up offensively late in the season. In 89 games, Moustakas hit .263 with five round-trippers and 30 RBIs.
Giavotella didn't arrive in Kansas City until August last season. He played in 46 games, batting .247 with 21 RBIs. Giavotella will battle Chris Getz for the starting job at second base. Getz didn't fare much better last season, batting .255 with no home runs and 25 RBIs in 118 games.
Hosmer, Moustakas, and probable new starter in center field, Lorenzo Cain, part of the trade that sent Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt (now back with the Royals) to the Milwaukee Brewers, all signed one-year contract agreements over the past weekend. Cain spent all last season with the Royals' minor league team in Omaha, but is expected to replace last year's starting centerfielder Melky Cabrera, traded to San Francisco in the National League for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez, who most likely will be the No. 2 man in the Royals' starting rotation.
Giavotella and Perez are among seven Royals' players who remain unsigned in the opening days of spring training.
What's even more exciting, all of these players, except for Pena, Getz and Sanchez are under 25 years of age. You can also add shortstop Alcides Escobar, who just turned 25 in December, to this list. Escobar, another one of the acquisitions in the Greinke trade, hit .254 a year ago, drove in 46 runs and scored 69 in his first year with Kansas City.
The Royals' youth movement is definitely on, and this season we will get a real good look from the very top of the season at how well GM Moore's long-range growth plan is working.
The Royals' 2012 payroll for its 40-man roster entering spring training is $61 million, with several players still unsigned. That is an increase of at least $25 million, or 70 percent, from what it was on opening day in 2011 ($36 million), when the Kansas City payroll was the lowest of the 30 major league teams. In 2010, the Royals' paid $72 million in player salaries.
The Kansas City offense appears to be sound heading into spring training, with all of the major contributors from the third-best hitting team in the American League last season back again this year. The problem is, Royals' pitching a year ago was the third-worst in the junior circuit. Despite their issues on the mound, Kansas City should be well-served in middle and late-inning relief, with a good group of young arms led by right-handers Aaron Crow, Louis Coleman and Greg Holland, and Tim Collins from the left side. Crow will get a look as a possible fifth starter in spring training.
Even though the Royals have added strength to the starting rotation with Sanchez, they are still very lean in this important area and could be their albatross to bear for the entire season unless they are able to remedy or better the situation before leaving Arizona.
Probably the Royals' best move of the offseason, although it came very late, was to exercise the 2013 option the team had on manager Ned Yost. The last thing you want for a club flush with a roster filled with great young talent is to have the manager worrying about his job and have that concern filter down through the team. The Royals eliminated that potential issue by picking up Yost's contract option.
Yost, who is in his third full season leading the Royals on the field, is the right guy in the right place for what everyone associated with the team believes is the right time for a Kansas City breakthrough. One of Yost's strongest attributes as a former player and experienced major-league manager is the way he handles and works with players, both the youngsters and the veterans on the ball club.
No one is expecting this team to pile up 100 wins and run away with the AL Central crown, but certainly a winning season is a very good possibility and, in fact, is one of the chief 2012 goals for the Boys in Blue.
No one is more enthusiastic about the Royals' chances this year than manager Yost. "What I like about this job is absolutely everything," said Yost, the team's 16th manager in its 43-year franchise history. "I love the city. I love the ballpark. Our front office is top notch, our player development is top tier and these young players are a phenomenal group of talented young guys with awesome makeup."
Just the attitude and outlook you want from your manager. I don't know about you, but I'm buying in.
Spring training exhibition games for the Royals begin Sunday, March 4 vs. the Texas Rangers. Play ball!
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