KANSAS CITY (AP) - Judging strictly by the spring training stats, the Kansas City Royals are the team to beat in the American League.
The long-woeful Royals had a better record - 20-10-1 - than anyone in the exhibition season and scored more runs - 230 - than any other team in the Cactus League.
But they're also the franchise that has just one winning season in the past 17 years and will launch the year against the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday afternoon (3 p.m. start) with five rookies, including four in the bullpen, and an opening day starter who's never experienced a winning season.
Nevertheless, manager Ned Yost cannot help but be encouraged.
"We, as a club, swang the bats really, really well," Yost said Wednesday as workers, bundled against the cold, scurried around getting Kauffman Stadium ready for the first pitch.
"We were very consistent defensively all spring long," said Yost, the former Milwaukee manager who took over during last season when Trey Hillman was fired. "We had one bad game, and it was a stinker. I've never been to a spring training like that where we were that consistent over the entire course of the spring."
The Royals' payroll of $38.5 million is the lowest in the majors and one reason they're not expected to finish much better than last again in the AL Central. In place of 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, who was traded to Milwaukee, the Royals will open their season with right-hander Luke Hochevar. The right-hander was 6-6 last year with a 4.81 ERA.
The Angels will spend the season celebrating their 50th anniversary. They were 80-82 last year, their first losing season since 2003. Manager Mike Scioscia will open the season with right-hander Jered Weaver, the majors' 2010 strikeout leader who was 13-12 last year with a 3.01 ERA.
Weaver's 233 strikeouts made him the first Angels pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1977 to lead the league.
"That guy knows how to pitch. He hits his spots and he's deceptive," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said.
At 18-13, and boosted by newcomer Vernon Wells in the outfield, the veteran-laden Angels had an encouraging camp of their own.
"We feel good," said outfielder Bobby Abreu, one of several Angels hitters who put together a solid spring. "We feel that we have a good team put together. We have some pretty good starting pitchers and some guys in the bullpen that can do the job with no problem. We've got offense, we've got defense, and a group of solid players who know how to play the game. We've got speed and power together, so we just have to play our game."
Definitely not encouraging was the soreness in the left foot of first baseman Kendrys Morales. The Angels' cleanup hitter broke his left ankle last May 29 when he jumped on home plate after a game-winning grand slam. He'll be back in California getting the foot evaluated when the Angels mark their first half-century and begin pursuit of their sixth division title in eight years.
"There's no doubt that Morales was a big part of the lineup last year," Abreu said.
Hunter, who was moved from center to right field last season to accommodate the promotion of Peter Bourjos, is happy to be opening on the road.
"When you open up at home, you have ticket situations and requests for certain (media) things," he said. "But on the road, you can just relax. So it's going to be a lot more relaxing opening on the road."
One of the more interesting aspects of the 2011 Royals will be youth. Between the rotation and All-Star reliever Joakim Soria will be four bullpen rookies, Nate Adcock, Aaron Crow, Jeremy Jeffress and left-hander Tim Collins.
A fifth rookie, outfielder Jarrod Dyson, also made the club. Back in Triple-A Omaha, in the meantime, are several other promising youngsters who may well be called upon to make their big league debut before the season is up.
When his young team got their first look at Kauffman Stadium, Yost could see the anticipation in their eyes.
"You definitely saw the excitement. It was real evident when we got here last night," he said. "They walked in the clubhouse, then went out to see the field. It's a pretty special time. They've worked their whole life for this opportunity and it's finally here. It's a very, very exciting time."