Big-hitting Moustakas is wise beyond years
Royals' future third baseman brings strong values to clubhouse
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Mike Moustakas was telling a reporter how he came to get No. 8 on his Kansas City uniform when veteran Jeff Francoeur strolled by his locker.
"He said if he didn't have 8, he wasn't coming to camp," Francoeur interjected with a grin.
The kid was being kidded, meaning he was accepted, he was OK. The phenom fits in. Moustakas is just plain "Moose," no self-important gift from the baseball gods.
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"It's crazy what a year will do. I went from No. 76 to No. 8 and now I get to hang out and share the same locker corner with Jason Kendall and Jeff Francoeur," he said. "It's nuts and I'm really happy about it because I get to pick Kendall's brain every day and get to listen to Frenchy talk every day. They're great guys and it's been a lot of fun."
Moustakas took over No. 8 from traded Willie Bloomquist, and the low number reflects his stature in the Royals' immediate future. His arrival as the team's most highly hyped prospect is near, if not by Opening Day then sometime this season.
He's certainly made an impression, mostly by his approach to the game.
"He's a kid that if you tell him to stand on his head and throw the ball over there, he'll stand on his head. So he takes instruction well and he works his butt off," said Mike Jirschele, his manager last season at Triple-A Omaha.
"His way is not set in stone. He's always open to suggestions, anything to get better, and those are the type of guys that get better," said Hall of Famer George Brett, a camp instructor.
"You have a kid that led the Minors in homers and his 'ballyhooing' has come from his offense. That this kid is out working on his defense every morning while everyone else is in the [batting] cage speaks volumes for him," said Royals manager Ned Yost.
"He's down-to-earth and he's very humble in everything he does," said third baseman Mike Aviles. "You'd never know he was a first-rounder. He's just a cool kid."
He's also a kid with the power to crash a three-run homer over the center-field wall at Surprise Stadium, as he did in Monday's Cactus League game. The long ball was hit off a left-handed pitcher, by the way. When Moustakas tied for the Minor League lead with 36 homers last season and conquered Triple-A, it only enhanced his calling as the Royals' soon-to-be third baseman.
Moustakas is a bubbly, outgoing 22-year-old from Northridge, Calif., who has happily chatted with a succession of print and broadcast reporters this spring. "When people are interested in what the team is doing and come and ask me, it's a real blessing just because of the talent we have in this clubhouse. I'm just fortunate to be here right now," Moustakas commented.
But he knows when to talk and what to say.
"Being able to just know your place, especially in a big league clubhouse, is real important for a guy," he said.
There is a genesis for his ability last season to hit .347 with 21 homers and 76 RBIs in just 66 games for Double-A Northwest Arkansas, and follow with a solid .293/15/48 line in 52 games for Triple-A Omaha.
He credits "the best parents I could ask for," Mike and Connie Moustakas, for his determination and inspiration. His father was his coach and mentor.
"He just always pushed me to do my best. I mean 4-for-5 when I was younger wasn't good enough," Moustakas said. "He demanded perfection and that's what I always shot for. And I thank him to this day for that."
Some boys might have resented that, but not young Mike.
"He kept motivating me and made me a better player," he said. "My dad is a competitor and he instilled that in me."
Every team on which Moustakas has played since he signed his pro contract has had a winning record. That fits right in with dad's philosophy.
"Nothing really matters other than the wins and the losses, and that's kind of how he taught me to be," he said. "That's how it's got to be, especially in this game. I hate losing and that's what he ingrained in me."
There's another family resource in his uncle, Tom Robson, a former Major League player and hitting coach.
"His big thing was, 'This pitch, this moment,'" Moustakas said. "You've got to let everything else go by. Whatever happened in the past is over with. You've got to think about what's happening now -- this pitch, this moment. That's been my philosophy toward hitting and toward baseball."
Moustakas is not reluctant to seek advice from the resources at hand in the Royals' clubhouse.
"You've got guys like George Brett and Frank White sitting around here, then you've got Kendall. And those guys know more about baseball than I do -- that's just a fact, a simple fact, and I'm here to learn as much as I can. If you need to know something, you've got to ask a question," he said.
Brett noticed that Moustakas struck out a lot in Spring Training last year, but that there's a slight change this year.
"His swing is a little bit different, a little bit more under control, a little more contact-ish, and he hasn't lost any of his power. So you put all those things together and you might have a pretty good ballplayer," Brett said. "He's on the right road, I know that."
Asked to compare himself with Moustakas, Brett believes the kid has more power at a comparable age because the current weightlifting programs weren't the norm in his day.
But, like Brett, Moustakas isn't likely to let a fastball get past him. And, in time, he could be a presence like Brett.
"He's a leader-type guy, he's going to speak up. And he's a winner. He wants to win and he's not happy losing. If he goes 4-for-4 and we get beat, he's not happy," Jirschele said. "He's definitely a big presence for you in the dugout during a game."
He's paired in the clubhouse and in Royals' hopes with first baseman Eric Hosmer, who also homered in Monday's game.
"They fit right in with what we're doing," Yost said. "They're both quality kids, in the clubhouse and outside the clubhouse. We know they're extremely talented but their makeup is off the charts for kids their age. They're special kids."
There are decisions to be made, of course, as to when the Moustakas era will start in Kansas City. Involved are business considerations; if he opens the season with the Royals, the clock starts ticking for his salary arbitration and then free-agency eligibility. Holding Moustakas' arrival until June would effectively delay his entry into the arbitration process and certainly delay his potential free agency for a year. There is some sentiment in the organization as well that he'd benefit from additional time at the Triple-A level. After all, there are viable alternatives at third base in Aviles, Wilson Betemit and Pedro Feliz.
Aviles is giving Moustakas all the help he can.
"He's a good kid, he's a big part of the future," Aviles said. "It just so happens that we're playing the same position this year, so far anyway, but that never means anything really. A lot of things can happen. But he's such a good kid and wants to learn and it's hard to be rude to a kid like that."
The Royals want to assess how he does in the Cactus League as well.
"Who's he hitting it off, where's he getting his hits, who's pitching against him? It's Spring Training, is it early, is it late? There are lot of factors involved," general manager Dayton Moore said.
All of which Moustakas insists he leaves to the front office and his agent, Scott Boras.
"I've always been the kind of guy who just goes out and works as hard as he can. And whatever happens, happens," he said. "I mean, there's a lot of things you just can't control in this game, especially on the business side of it. As a player, you can't read too much into that stuff. Just go out and play hard and play the game you love. I don't ever think about what's going on outside the field just because I'm having so much fun playing baseball."
Meantime, Moustakas certainly fills his position of poster boy for the Royals' future quite well, and projects the organizational vision quite succinctly.
"We're about winning championships," he said.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.