Royals ready to ride wave of optimism into season
Yost 'enthused' about club's potential as KC embraces winds of change
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Hardly anyone seems to recall, probably including Ned Yost, that the Royals' manager underwent gall bladder surgery early in Spring Training. What the heck, he was back at work the next day and hasn't paused since.
No pain in the gut or anywhere else for Yost these days as he contemplates the 2013 season. And, please, please, don't describe him as excited, ecstatic or, for goodness sake, afflicted with pennant fever. The gruff, old-school manager might gag.
W: Sale L: Shields SV: Reed
Yost doesn't like looking beyond the next game, inning or pitch for that matter, but with some encouragement he finally summoned up some words to frame the Royals' big picture for the impending season.
"I don't want to use the word excited [long pause], but I'm very enthused," Yost said. "I just think, right now, we're in a good spot. I'm really happy with our starting pitching. I'm really happy with our bullpen. I'm really happy with our defense. I'm happy with the adjustments we've made at the plate and the ability to score runs.
"I'm not bummed about anything. I don't have any concerns. You always feel good, but you've got, inwardly, three or four guys you're a little concerned with. I don't have that this year at this point in Spring Training."
This was earlier in the week, the end was in sight for a successful camp and Yost got on a little roll. One vital fact was the Royals had escaped major injuries to that point.
"You can't get too excited because it's a long year. We're going to have ups, and we're going to have downs," Yost continued. "If you get too excited, you start to have a little bit of a down period, like every club has -- generally every club will go through two or three of them. ... They're not going to be near as drastic as they were last year, I don't think.
"But everybody starts to go overboard when that happens. I think we're a very solid club. I think we've got tremendous veteran leadership on this club, and I think we're going to be in a position to compete every day."
Pretty impressive wide-screen analysis for a guy who prefers the old one-game-at-a-time view. Fact is, Yost reflects a widely held feeling that the Royals should do better than they have in a while.
And it's been a while. You don't have to remind Kansas City fans that they haven't seen a postseason since the glory of 1985 or that they've had just one winning season (2003) in the 18 years that have passed since the 1994 strike.
Last year's club finished third in the American League Central, 16 games behind first-place Detroit and 13 games behind second-place Chicago.
General manager Dayton Moore, sensing that his youngish lineup was maturing in unison, put together what could be the finishing touch -- a strong pitching rotation. Radical turnabout, too, with the front four starters all new from a year ago. Moore brought back 2012 midseason acquisition Jeremy Guthrie as a free agent signee and traded for Ervin Santana from the Angels and James Shields and Wade Davis from the Rays.
The change was so complete that 2012's Opening Day starter, Bruce Chen, lost a battle for the No. 5 rotation spot to Luis Mendoza and rotation regular Luke Hochevar was bumped to the bullpen.
"Huge," said pitching coach Dave Eiland, in charge both years. "With the five guys we're going to run out there, you pretty much know what you're going to get every day. There's going to be times when each one of them is going to stub his toe, but they should be few and far between. I'm expecting to get close to 1,000 innings out of the five of them. I say close, 850 to 1,000 innings if they all stay healthy. I don't know how many innings we got out of guys last year, but it's a pretty solid, reliable rotation. And, as good as our bullpen is, this rotation is going to make it even better because they're not going to be overworked."
(The Royals' five most-used starters last year combined for 121 games started and 723 2/3 innings. Altogether, the club used 13 different starters who totaled 890 innings, second-last in the AL.)
The bullpen has been formidable the last two years, stocked with hard-throwing kids. The closer role transitioned from Joakim Soria to Jonathan Broxton to, in the second half last year, Greg Holland, and he's been a good fit. Then there's Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera, J.C. Gutierrez and Tim Collins, a left-hander, plus the transferred Hochevar and Chen.
Third baseman Mike Moustakas is one of many talking up the pitching staff.
"We're excited to have those guys in our rotation and couple that with the strength of our bullpen, which was our anchor last year. When we get to that sixth or seventh inning, we're going to be tough to beat if we've got a lead," Moustakas said.
Catcher Salvador Perez this year should be there from Opening Day. Forecast as a future All-Star, a year ago he was limping from knee surgery.
"We've got Salvy back for the whole year," Moustakas said. "That's a huge gain; we didn't have him for half the year last year. So we start the season with him, and things are going to roll."
The rolling, of course, also centers around Moustakas and his young friend across the diamond, first baseman Eric Hosmer. Their wheels got a little squeaky last year, Hoz all season long and Moose in the last couple of months.
"It's just the natural progression of experience for Hosmer, Perez and Moustakas. You just see them growing, maturing and getting better all of the time," Yost said.
Moustakas and Hosmer excel at defense and so does the middle of the infield, shortstop Alcides Escobar and second baseman Chris Getz. Escobar, continuing to be spectacular in the field, also developed last year as a productive No. 2 hitter. Getz is a good contact hitter with speed.
The outfield also is superior defensively with Gold Glove left fielder Alex Gordon, power-armed right fielder Jeff Francoeur and the wide-ranging Lorenzo Cain in center.
"Every single game I see Gordo leading off with a base hit, double or a triple and the next thing you know we're scoring three or four runs in the first couple of innings most every game," said an appreciative Shields.
Francoeur has to snap back from a drastic falloff at the plate last season. It's been a slow process this spring, but he's shown signs of progress toward the end. Cain missed much of last season with three leg injuries, so the primary concern with him is staying healthy.
"We believe that we're going to do better, but let's start going out there and doing it," Gordon said. "Guys have been working their tail off this spring, and a lot of guys look locked in."
All through Spring Training, the Royals were atop the standings, although none of it actually counted.
"You really don't care about wins and losses, but it really does help in confidence -- going out there and winning games and carrying it over," Gordon said. "So far, as a team we look pretty good, so hopefully we can continue that right into the season. It's going to be hard to do, but we look forward to it."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.