Royals report to spring training full of hope

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — Ned Yost can barely contain his excitement, which is saying something, considering that he often comes off gruff to those who don't know him well.

The reason is quite simple: After a year of growth, when a flotilla of prized young prospects finally broke into the major leagues, Yost believes Kansas City has the pieces in place to contend for its first playoff berth since winning the 1985 World Series.

"They could be good," Yost acknowledged prior to the team's first full-squad practice on Saturday.

"They're going to be a vastly improved team," Yost said. "How good can they be? I don't know. I think they're going to be pretty darn good, but time will tell."

Fans in Kansas City have grown accustomed to needing patience, going through numerous so-called youth movements over the past three decades. The Royals had the worst record in the majors from 2000-09, losing 100 or more games in four downtrodden seasons.

Their only winning record since 1994 was a modest 83-79 in 2003.

There is a different feeling surrounding this youth movement, though, as if this one will finally pay off. There's 22-year-old Eric Hosmer at first base, 23-year-old Mike Moustakas at the hot corner, and 21-year-old catcher Salvador Perez flashing signs from behind the plate.

That's only the start: second baseman Johnny Giavotella is 24, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Esocbar are 25, while the grizzled veterans of the lot are 28-year-old corner outfielders Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur, both coming off surprisingly strong seasons.

Most of them have been in camp since early February, getting a jump start in spring training.

Yost believes that's a sign of how mature a group of 20-somethings has become, and remembers his time with the Milwaukee Brewers, when Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks would arrive to spring training early. The trio set the tone for future success.

"When we first started out and we weren't really good," Yost said, "you would have six or seven players there early. When the young kids started getting there and they started feeling what they could accomplish, it was like this."

Everyone was in camp by Friday except left-hander Jose Mijares, who has been dealing with some visa issues in his native Venezuela. Otherwise, camp is already in full swing.

"It's exciting," Yost said. "The kids can't wait to get here and can't wait to get started. It just shows how far our organization has come. You can wait awhile to get your butt kicked, but when you come to spring training and you have a sense you have a chance to compete, guys can't wait for that, and it's evident in the numbers we have there."

With the optimism floating around the desert, it's sometimes hard to believe that the Royals lost 91 games last season, finishing fourth in the AL Central and 24 games back of Detroit.

Part of that were growing pains for all those youngsters breaking into the majors.

Once September rolled around and they had a few games under their belts, the Royals became one of the most dangerous teams in baseball, playing spoiler for others down the stretch.

"Do I have more anticipation on what I feel we can accomplish? Definitely," Yost said. "Last year, we were waiting for these kids to get here and that was the first time all these kids were together in spring training. So that was a lot of fun — that was real exciting.

"Now they've been there and done that. They're ready to compete a full season."

Hosmer in particular appears to be a star in the making. He hit .293 with 19 homers and 78 RBIs after his May 6 promotion, generating a lot of chatter for AL rookie of the year.

Moustakas got off to a much slower start before hitting .379 over his final 36 games. Perez hit .331 in 39 games, and showed signs of becoming one of the game's premier defensive backstops.

Kansas City underwent a similar renaissance in the late 1990s, when Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney and Jermaine Dye made their big league debuts. They were supposed to break through in 2000, but a potent offense failed to overcome dreadful pitching in a 77-85 campaign.

Perhaps with that in the back of his mind, general manager Dayton Moore bolstered the rotation by trading for Jonathan Sanchez and adding a couple arms for the bullpen.

Yost understands, though, that he won't know what he has until the games begin to count.

Until then, everything else is just talk.

"We know we're going to have a great defensive team," he said. "That's going to be one of the strengths of our team. I think our pitching is going to be vastly improved. I think we're going to command the baseball a lot better. I think our kids are going to swing the bat.

"You add that up, it's going to be real, real interesting to see what we can accomplish."

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