KANSAS CITY -- A year ago, Dayton Moore went into his first Winter Meetings as Royals general manager, and it didn't take him long to make his mark.

Moore signed right-hander Gil Meche to a five-year contract and obtained right-hander Brian Bannister in a trade with the New York Mets. He also selected right-hander Joakim Soria in the Rule 5 Draft.

Nice moves. Meche, while not huge on the victory chart (nine), became a much-needed staff leader, Bannister, a rookie, led the club with 12 wins and Soria, quite unexpectedly, became a dependable closer.

"The only thing we were pretty sure of going in was that we'd get Soria," Moore said.

The Bannister deal for reliever Ambiorix Burgos developed during the week, and the Royals were able to outflank other suitors for Meche.

Encore, please, say Royals fans.

Despite another last-place finish in 2007, the Royals feel they're on the brink of a breakthrough with what appears to finally be the right youth in their seemingly continuous youth movement.

The basic everyday lineup looks pretty solid with one glaring exception: a hitter with home run muscle. The Royals need a blaster, preferably a guy who swings right-handed.

Torii Hunter passed on their entreaties, leaving the likes of Andruw Jones and Jose Guillen as possible free-agent targets. But when the Winter Meetings open on Monday in Nashville, Tenn., the trade market might reach an old-fashioned fever pitch, so Moore has to be ready.

"There are a lot of very creative people in the game, and most like to explore the trade possibilities first," Moore said. "There's more risk in free agency. To sign a player, you have to win the negotiations and sometimes you end up paying a player more than you can afford."

A possible problem with trades is that the Royals aren't eager to surrender their most coveted players, youngsters such as Alex Gordon, Mark Teahen, David DeJesus or Billy Butler. They're the core of the anticipated turnaround.

But perhaps they can work around that. The Royals do have some outfield depth that they might spend in trades.

Winter Meetings

"Whenever you get the brightest people in the game together in one place, a lot of opportunities become available," Moore said. "We're looking forward to that."

The Royals, no different from their Major League brethren, also are looking for pitchers. In the Royals' case, they'd like a starter to stand next to Meche and Bannister. They'd also like a middle reliever to fill the vacancy left by Zack Greinke's return to the rotation and a setup man to compensate for David Riske's possible departure via free agency.

For much of last season, the bullpen was the Royals' strongest component, and they don't want to take a step backward.

On Wednesday, the Royals signed Japanese reliever Yasuhiko Yabuta, a setup man, to a two-year contract with an option for 2010.

In this year's Rule 5 Draft, the Royals get the third pick. Last year, when they got Soria, they drafted second.

There's a chance the Royals could lose some players who didn't make the cut for the 40-man roster this time around.

"The roster is at the point now where we can't protect marginal players anymore. It used to be we'd protect anyone who could breathe and play baseball," Moore said.

That, in itself, is a sign of progress.

Trey Hillman, hired from Japan to manage the Royals, will be at his first Winter Meetings in that role. He planned an early arrival to meet with some of his coaches.

Hillman has been in Japan the last several days for a farewell tour after five years of managing the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Moore is looking forward to working with his new skipper and laying the groundwork for 2008 in Nashville.

"Bill Lajoie once told me you don't win a pennant in December," Moore said of the former Tigers general manager.

True enough. But, at the very least, the Winter Meetings are a start.