KANSAS CITY -- Strange to say about a Royals club that spent much of the season in last place, but it was a pretty good year.
Not in the win-loss column, although the Royals did escape the cellar to finish fourth in the American League Central. But this was a team that caught a wave of youth, recycled new blood and organizational promise to surf toward contention. Contention in the near future, it's believed.
Unlike teams of recent vintage, the 2011 edition of the Royals rarely seemed to be out of a game or lacking in enthusiasm or short of talent. There just wasn't quite enough yet to push the team over the top in a multitude of one-run decisions and extra-inning battles.
By the time the season was wrapping up, the Royals were playing the foundation of their future -- first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, starting pitcher Danny Duffy, second baseman Johnny Giavotella and catcher Salvador Perez. The three rookie infielders were combined with flashy, rangy and durable shortstop Alcides Escobar, bounty from last winter's trade that sent top pitcher Zack Greinke to Milwaukee.
Already in place was a productive and defensively proficient outfield that, from left to right, featured breakthrough performer Alex Gordon and bounce-backers Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur. Hosmer's glittering glove pushed Billy Butler into permanent designated-hitter status, where he adapted well and prospered.
If victories did not overwhelm Kansas City, a certain satisfaction over glimpsing the nucleus of the 2012 lineup did.
"If you look at pretty much every position we've got, it's guys we're going to be going into next season with," Butler said. "It definitely is. Just what we've done since this unit has been intact is good. We're feeding off each other and driving the ball and we're putting up some runs. It's helping out the pitching, and it's going to be fun."
Actually, it was a lot of fun in the 2011 season, too. The roster was overrun by an influx of rookies -- many of them in the bullpen. For much of the season, the relievers were all rookies except for second-year man Blake Wood and closer Joakim Soria. One of the fresh faces, Aaron Crow, had such a marvelous first half that he was the Kansas City representative on the AL All-Star team.
Going into the season, the weakest aspect figured to be the pitching rotation, and that proved to be the case. There was no proven No. 1, or even No. 2, starter at hand, and none immediately emerged.
The most encouraging aspect was the second-half surge of right-hander Luke Hochevar, the first overall selection in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. In the past, he sometimes delivered inspiring performances, but inconsistency was his Achilles' heel. Finally, he seemed to find himself after the All-Star break.
"It takes guys some time," manager Ned Yost said. "You can get on a bit of a run and fool some people, too. You've got to do it consistently, year in and year out, and Hoch has put together a real nice run this second half, and now we feel like he's getting it figured out. There's some consistency involved over a year, but a second half is a nice place to start."
Left-hander Bruce Chen, elder of the staff, was reliable after a six-week spell on the disabled list. Felipe Paulino, an in-season acquisition, showed flashes, and Duffy, the promising rookie left-hander, demonstrated great stuff. Lefty Jeff Francis, calmly professional, piled up a lot of losses. Kyle Davies was hurt twice, still had command issues and was finally released.
But pieces were falling into place in other areas, and progress was seen, if victories were not. Yost, who'd been through a similar construction project in his first managerial job with the Brewers, was a model of restraint, although the inevitable desire to win must have been boiling under the surface.
"The thing I keep telling myself is that I cannot have my passion overcome my patience," Yost said at one point. "It's very important right now because you can get crazy. You can't do it. Everybody wants to win, and it's hard to lose ballgames, and you can get to the point where your passion does overcome your patience, and then you've got a problem. You've got to be smart enough and strong enough not to let that happen."
If the Royals didn't collect as many victories as they wanted, they caught a lot of attention in the AL.
Oakland closer Andrew Bailey, after being slapped by the Royals late in the season, observed: "That's a start of a winning team and building in that organization. From here on out they're going to be a pretty good team in the AL, and definitely competing the next couple of years."
And that's the whole idea.
Record: 71-91, fourth place in AL Central.
Defining moment: The sign that the new wave of Royals was in motion came on May 11 at Yankee Stadium. Hosmer, vanguard of the hot-hitting hopes in the rich Minor League system, belted his first Major League home run for the Royals' first run. Then, in the 11th inning, he knocked in the winning run for a 4-3 victory with a sacrifice fly. In the glow of an early New York morning, Hosmer said: "It's funny how things happen. You get called up and the first road trip is Yankee Stadium, the first stadium I've ever been to, and the first big league home run. The sweetest thing is we came out with a win." For many Royals fans, it was the preview of sweeter things to come.
What went right: The free-agent signings of Cabrera and Francoeur were gambles that paid off for general manager Dayton Moore. Cabrera looked like a new player, or at least the one that once sparkled for the Yankees. Francoeur was a leader on the field and off. The other third of the outfield, Gordon, finally found his stride. All three not only hit, but threw out runners with prolific accuracy.
The defense transformed from the league's worst to one of the best in one year. Escobar was a sensational centerpiece for the infield, and Hosmer's picks at first brought new confidence, not only to the guys throwing to him, but to the pitchers. Perez proved a huge plus behind the plate.
The bullpen, until hitting some bumps late in the season, was surprisingly consistent despite its overall youth.
Hosmer's hitting was so good that he wound up batting fourth much of the season, showing good power.
Kansas City improved its baserunning, stolen bases as well as stretching hits. The Royals showed a big improvement and were second in the AL in steals with 153.
What went wrong: The inability to put away close games demonstrated that the club still lacked the muscle necessary to back up an underlying killer instinct.
No member of the pitching rotation projected an every-start aura of victory. There wasn't anyone who attained the stature of being a No. 1 or 2 starter.
Although the team escaped a rash of major injuries, the loss of starters Chen and Davies in mid-May caused a scramble to rectify the rotation, a project that never quite got done.
Davies never got back on track and was released.
Soria had the most blown saves in his career and had such a slump in late May that he took himself out of the closer's role for a while.
Robinson Tejeda, who started the season as one of Soria's setup men, was injured and faded away to Triple-A.
Moustakas, though providing unexpectedly fine defense at third base, got off to an extremely slow start at the plate that dragged on for more than two months before a late-season surge.
Biggest surprise: The overall performance of the three outfielders was stunning. Gordon emerged from his cocoon to fulfill his long-expected promise as a Kansas City star. Cabrera burst past the burden of an awful year with Atlanta and looked like a new player. Francoeur shed pounds and three so-so seasons and looked like the hotshot of his early years with the Braves. Not only did they all hit well, they ran the bases skillfully and threw out the most runners in the Majors.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.