SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When Kansas City begins Cactus League play on Sunday, manager Ned Yost will keep a weathered eye on how his players field and throw the ball. He'll be hoping to detect a change in the Royals' defensive climate.The last two years, it was a storm of disastrous proportions, as the Royals ranked last in the American League.
2010 Spring Training - Kansas City Royals
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"A lot of that was infield defense and was fixed the day we traded [Zack] Greinke. And a lot of the outfield defense was fixed the day that we signed [Melky] Cabrera and [Jeff] Francoeur," Yost said.In the Greinke deal, the Royals acquired shortstop Alcides Escobar. Cabrera is expected to man center field with Francoeur in right. "We've got a Gold Glove right fielder. We've got an All-Star-caliber shortstop," Yost continued. "Billy [Butler] and Kila [Ka'aihue] are a year further down the process and really focusing on their defense. We just have to figure out who's going to play second and who's going to play third, and all of our candidates we have there are pretty decent defenders, so we're going to be better defensively." Butler and Ka'aihue are likely to alternate between first base and designated hitter, glove whiz Chris Getz is the preferred second baseman and former shortstop Mike Aviles is among the third-base choices, which also include rookie Mike Moustakas and veterans Wilson Betemit and Pedro Feliz. Alex Gordon, a converted third baseman, is the left fielder, and he adapted to his new position effectively. Francoeur and Cabrera bring strong arms to the equation. "Gordo, too. Look at all the assists Gordo had at the end of the year, too," Yost said. "Infielders typically are very good throwers when they convert to the outfield. He made some phenomenal throws last year from left field. And played a great left field." Jason Kendall was a fine defender behind the plate last year, throwing out 24 percent of would-be basestealers despite a shoulder so bad that he underwent extensive surgery. He also was one of the best at fielding bunts. Kendall probably will miss the start of the season, but backup Brayan Pena was named the best defensive catcher this winter in the Dominican League. Teams that rank last in defense aren't going to finish first in the standings. "You don't see many teams get in the playoffs or win the World Series without having a pretty decent defense," Francoeur said. "You're never going have a Gold Glove guy at every position or a magician in the infield, but I think it's important to have guys that can make the routine plays. I think that's the key." The thing is, if you can't make those routine plays often enough and let in a bunch of runs, you better be able to score a lot yourself. "The last team I can think of that had, quote-unquote, below-average defense that went far in the playoffs was the Red Sox a few years back," Getz said. "But if you're going to do that, you better make up for it in a huge way offensively, along with having solid pitching. We don't have those capabilities to compensate for a weak defense. So we need to be solid in that aspect. Everyone knows that if you have solid pitching and solid defense, it's at least keeping you in the game." With Greinke gone, the Royals' starting pitching is an uncertain commodity. At the same time, a tight defense can certainly help improve a pitching staff immensely. Take it from starter Kyle Davies. "Once you see you're in a tough inning and the defense makes a great play to get out of it, I think you get confidence from it. It gives you a lift, it gives the whole team a lift," Davies said. "You have guys now that can make outstanding plays, that can turn a tough double play. It might not be looked at like, 'Wow, that was outstanding,' but you know what, we did it and it got us out of the inning. It preserved pitches and it allowed you to go further in the game." So throw strikes and let your defense do the work. It starts with Escobar, a rookie last year with Milwaukee. He made 20 errors but showed exceptional range and a strong arm. "Escobar is still going to make his errors, but the thing is they're going to be on balls that other guys don't get to. They'd be base hits. He's got that type of range," Yost said. Escobar takes over from Yuniesky Betancourt, who went in the Greinke deal after making vast improvements in his defense last season. Betancourt had fewer errors (18) while playing more games than Escobar but with less range, particularly up the middle. "I thought Yuni did a really, really nice job," Yost said. But, when asked how much of an upgrade Escobar would be at shortstop, Yost had a succinct answer. "Pretty big," he said. Escobar is 6-foot-1, skinny and glides easily over the field. "His hands are just as solid as Yuni's. This kid is going to have more range, this kid is going to get to more balls," Yost said. "Yuni had a good arm, this kid's got a cannon for an arm." On double plays, Getz should be smoother than Aviles, who moved to the more unfamiliar second-base position out of necessity last year. "If you get a double-play opportunity, those balls have to be turned, and there were a lot of cases last year when we didn't turn them," Yost said. "That's an area where we need to focus on and get better at." Although Cabrera is slotted for center field, he could get competition from Lorenzo Cain, who also came in the Greinke deal with the reputation of good defense, and Jarrod Dyson, the rookie who covered center quite well for the Royals late last season. The other end of the middle defense, behind the plate, is obviously essential because there is so much involved in the position. Kendall, a 15-year veteran, had it figured out. "When we had Jason catching last year, we never had issues and we didn't realize how good it was going until Jason had surgery," Yost said, "and then it was constant issues with game-calling or constant learning situations." That's when Pena, the backup catcher, and Lucas May, just up from the Minors, took over. Rather than bring in a well-seasoned catcher this year, the Royals decided that those two, plus Manny Pina, gave them enough depth at least until Kendall was ready. For Yost, a former catcher, good defense is the No. 1 qualification for that spot. "I'm talking about all aspects of the defensive game," he said. "Because calling a game is about 50 percent of everything else. You've got to be able to call a game, you've got to be able to receive a ball. You can't be running back and forth to the backstop, picking balls up. You've got to block balls. You've got have some semblance of a throw percentage, all that." Pena, 20 pounds lighter, became more agile and flexible and it showed this winter in the Dominican. "Right now, he has the ability to get lower in his stance, which was a problem last year," Yost said. "His targets were always too high for me, he had to work to get a lower target down. He's got more mobility in his legs where his target is definitely down lower and in a better part of the zone where I want it." In Spring Training, the Royals are emphasizing defense with one-on-one instruction or sessions for small positional groups early in the morning, well before the full-squad workout. PFP, or pitchers fielding practice, is a spring staple. Don't underestimate the importance of pitchers being able to get off the mound to help out. The Royals will suffer some this year, though, because Greinke was one of the best fielding pitchers in the game. The teaching will continue into the regular season with work before and during batting practice. There's a definite spirit-lifting aspect to a good defense, especially when there's a spectacular play. Francoeur will attest to that. "I remember my rookie year in '05, when I was playing with Rafael Furcal in Atlanta; he would get a ball in the hole and throw out a guy from deep short. It ignites a team when you make a good play," Francoeur said. "How many times have you seen a guy throw somebody out at home plate and they come back in and rally the next inning? It's a momentum-swinger and something that can change a game." Based on the last two years, the Royals could use some game-changers. "I expect to be much better defensively this year," Yost said. "We've gotta be."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.