Promising future: Royals taking lumps as they grow up together

KANSAS CITY (AP) — Just about every locker in the Royals clubhouse has some kind of memento from the first half of the season. Lineup cards from a major league debut, framed in plush velvet and expensive wood. The ball from a first hit, carefully mounted in a custom shadow box.

Evidence of success — and the fact Kansas City remains among the youngest teams in baseball.

So it’s hardly a surprise there have been significant growing pains this season. Just about everybody has taken their lumps, from 22-year-old hotshot third baseman Mike Moustakas’ trouble at the plate to the uneven starts of Danny Duffy, the rookie left-hander whom many consider a future ace.

The net result is Kansas City (37-54) once again has the worst record in the American League at the All-Star break, a mark that could have been even worse after the Royals clung to second place as late as May 12.

The Royals have slip-slided their way to 111⁄2 games behind AL Central-leading Detroit since then in a division that is simply begging for a team to take control over the second half of the season.

“I’m very disappointed with where we are record-wise now,” Royals manager Ned Yost said, “but that doesn’t take away my enthusiasm I have with what we’re doing and how we’re developing.”

And that may be the biggest difference from years past: Team officials accustomed to losing once looked to the future with a wary eye; now there is genuine hope that better things are still to come.

“They’ve got some talent, a lot of talent,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “They’re going through some growing pains, no doubt, but there’s nights when they’re going to kick the (stuffing) out of people.”

That played true during the Royals’ final first-half homestand, when they lost a pair of close games to Detroit before piling up 13 runs in a rout. They came back to drop a 2-1 pitchers’ duel in the series finale.

The starting lineup for Kansas City that Sunday afternoon had an average age of just over 25 years old, roughly the same as most minor-league lineups.

Duffy has become the team’s top starter, with all of 10 big league games under his belt, while the bullpen has been one of the club’s strengths despite being almost entirely devoid of experience.

All-Star reliever Aaron Crow is just 24, and the elder statesman is 27-year-old former All-Star closer Joakim Soria, who could be dangled as trade bait heading up to the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

“There’s a lot of guys that are prospects in the minor leagues that are 24, 25, that are yet to break in. These guys are 25 and they’re playing every day,” said Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who may have more riding on the second half than anyone else in the organization.

It was Moore who took over the beleaguered franchise in 2006 and immediately began rebuilding the farm system, realizing the small-market franchise could never expect to bid top dollar for free agents as the Yankees and Red Sox. So while other teams competed for championships, Kansas City focused its attention — and its sometimes meager resources — on building quietly from within.

The fruit of that labor has finally been on display at Kauffman Stadium the past few weeks, where fans are turning out to see heralded prospects such as Moustakas and Hosmer rather than for a free T-shirt on Tuesday nights or the fireworks display after Friday night ballgames.

Moustakas has flashed Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base, even if it seems he left his bat in Triple-A. Hosmer, the big first baseman, has shown signs of being able to hit 40 homers and drive in more than 100 runs. Alcides Escobar has the potential to be among the best shortstops the club has ever had, while Chris Getz has developed into a serviceable double play partner at second base.

“It says a lot about Dayton and how much confidence he has in what he’s done, and how much confidence we have in what he’s done, in putting this together,” Moustakas said. “We’ve lost a lot of close ballgames, one hit and we’re right there. It’s frustrating, but I mean, we’re right there, you know?”

The youthful exuberance in the Royals clubhouse makes the losing a bit easier to bear. After all, so much about the big league experience is new to the guys swinging the bats.

Yost and Moore aren’t content with another dismal season, though, and neither are some of the guys who have been around for a while. Even though outfielder Alex Gordon is just 27, and designated hitter Billy Butler a mere 25 years old, both spent several years on the big league roster.

They’ve come to realize that what happens on the field is the only measure of success, and that fans who have stuck it out through a 26-year playoff drought are tired of the wait-’til-next-year rhetoric.

“I’ve been here four years,” Butler said. “When does the future become now?”

It’s a question that has been asked in Kansas City for more than two decades, and one the Royals front office believes is closer than ever to being answered.

“I like this group,” Moore said. “We’ve had change every year, and it’s important to make changes when things aren’t going well, but this group of players likes each other, they work hard together, the chemistry is strong. I see them growing together and getting better together.”

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