Help is on the way in Kansas City

Young players offer hope with season about to start

KANSAS CITY (AP) — Ever since Darryl Motley caught Andy Van Slyke’s fly to right for the final out of the 1985 World Series, Kansas City has been shut out of the postseason.

That was a quarter century ago — an 0-for-25 slump if anybody’s counting. Interest and attendance for a franchise that once owned this town has waned, and not just because of the postseason drought that’s exceeded the age of many of the current players.

Not until very recently have the Royals even offered hope. Youth movements have come and gone while only once in 17 seasons has Kansas City won more games than it’s lost. With the lowest payroll in the major leagues ($35.8 million) and an opening day starter who has had a winning season (Luke Hochevar), 0-for-25 seems likely to become 0-for-26.

But finally, there is hope. Kansas City’s minor-league system is considered one of the best in baseball, if not the best. That may not translate into a breakthrough in 2011. But help is clearly on the way.

Many of the top prospects, including infielders Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and left-handers Mike Montgomery and John Lamb, were in camp in Surprise, Ariz., drawing more attention than any veteran who’ll take the field in Thursday’s season opener at home against the Angels.

To savvy fans, the fact the top prospects are all starting the season in the minors is both disappointing and reassuring. Another dreary losing year seems inevitable, but it means the Royals aren’t going to rush anyone.

General manager Dayton Moore has worked hard and patiently building up a minor-league system that was in shambles. If necessary, he’ll wait a little longer.

“I’m very excited about the great work that all of our people have done,” he said. “But we’ve got to earn it. We’ve got to prove it. We’re prepared to see this thing through and make sure we do it the right way.”

Manager Ned Yost insists the Royals are not giving up on this year. After all, they went into the final week of spring training hitting .304 and leading the majors with 191 runs.

“Our focus every year is to come into camp to prepare ourselves to win a championship,” said Yost, who took over for the fired Trey Hillman during last season. “And it’s more important this year than it’s been in years past because we have these young kids here.

“That (transitional season) for me is a bit of a cop-out. We don’t ever look at this as a transition year. We’ve never had that mindset.”

Most suspect is the rotation. Zack Greinke, the 2009 Cy Young winner, was traded to Milwaukee because the Royals were tired of his complaining about the slow rebuilding movement. Also gone is Gil Meche, a veteran right-hander who retired.

Hochevar, a former overall No. 1 draft pick, was 6-6 last season with a 4.81 ERA. For his career, the right-handed sinkerball stands 19-32 as he takes over the top of the rotation from Greinke.

Left-hander Jeff Francis will be the No. 2 starter after going 4-6 with a 5.00 ERA with Colorado. The others will be right-hander Kyle Davies, left-hander Bruce Chen and right-hander Vin Mazzaro, who was 6-8 last year in Oakland.

Collectively last season, the five pitchers were 36-39. Chen, a former reliever, was the leading winner with a 12-7 record on a Royals team that finished 67-95.

The most solid spot is the back of the bullpen. All-Star closer Joakim Soria converted 43-of-46 save opportunities and posted a 1.78 ERA. The setup man is most likely going to be Robinson Tejada.

The Royals picked up 35-year-old Matt Treanor from the Texas Rangers for cash this week, giving them an experienced catcher with Jason Kendall mending from rotator cuff surgery in September.

The outfield will be entirely different from the one that opened last year. In left will be converted third baseman Alex Gordon, another former first-round pick who’s never met expectations. In right will be newcomer Jeff Francoeur. In center will be Melky Cabrera, who’s about 20 pounds lighter than he was last year in Atlanta and had one of the hottest springs of any major leaguer, hitting .490 with 25 hits going into the final weekend.

Almost as hot was first baseman Kila Ka’aihue, who was hitting .429 and helping some wonder if Billy Butler will be the Royals’ full-time designated hitter.

Butler, who signed a long-term deal over the winter and is still just 24, has hit a major league-leading 96 doubles since the start of the 2009 season and could still turn into a reliable power hitter. At third base until Moustakas arrives will be Mike Aviles, who has spent more than a year coming back from elbow surgery.

If Hochevar has a breakthrough year and the offense maintains anything close to its spring training tear, the Royals could certainly improve on last year’s 67 wins. In the meantime, fans are being asked to wait a bit longer.

“The morale of our organization was always very high and continues to be very high,” Moore said. “But it’s one thing to build a farm system and it’s a whole different deal to win a championship at the major-league level. There’s a lot of work still to be done.”

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