KANSAS CITY -- Nothing defines 2011 for the Royals better than the May 6 callup of first baseman Eric Hosmer from the Minor Leagues. That signaled to Kansas City fans that it was game on. The future might not be now, but it was certainly just around the bend.
Hosmer, one of the many prized prospects in the booming farm system, was hitting .439 for Omaha and there was no holding him back. Five days later, he banged his first big league home run off A.J. Burnett at Yankee Stadium. The infusion of new talent continued throughout the season, giving fans a promising preview of brighter days ahead.
In fact, despite the club's low standing, folks got so fired up that attendance boomed in September, rising to an average of 26,532 for the final month -- more than 5,000 above the season average. The team responded with a 15-10 record in September and pulled out of last place in the division.
Looking ahead is the prevalent practice of Royals fans these days, but before leaving 2011 behind, here's a glimpse in the rear-view mirror of the year's top five story lines:
5. Chen tops pitchers, then signs again
For the second straight year, left-hander Bruce Chen led the Royals with 12 victories and became a free agent. Once again, however, he re-signed with the Royals to give the pitching staff stability. In addition, the team believes it gave the rotation a needed boost by trading with the Giants for lefty Jonathan Sanchez.
4. Crow makes All-Star team as a rookie
Rookie right-hander Aaron Crow, taken out of his usual role as a starting pitcher, was the Royals' representative on the American League All-Star team for his dominating work as a reliever. He was just one of several rookie relievers to emerge as effective operatives out of the bullpen including Greg Holland with a 1.80 ERA, 5-1 record and four saves.
3. Outfielders throw defense into spotlight
There was new life to the Royals' defense, and nothing showed it off more than the Major League-leading 51 assists piled up by the outfielders. Left fielder Alex Gordon led the Majors with 20 assists, right fielder Jeff Francoeur had 16 and center fielder Melky Cabrera 13. Backup Mitch Maier had the other two. Mix in superior shortstop play by Alcides Escobar, the prime picks at first base by Hosmer and the strong arm of catcher Salvador Perez and the defense was much improved.
2. Gordon finally has that breakout season
For four years, Gordon never quite fulfilled the expectations raised by his No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 Draft. But after overcoming medical issues, changing positions from third to the outfield and altering his swing a bit, Gordon had a smashing season -- .303, 23 homers, 45 doubles, 87 RBIs and a Gold Glove in his first full season in left field. He also scored 101 runs, swiped 17 bases and had a 19-game hitting streak.
1. Rush of rookies lays future foundation
Twelve players made their big league debuts for the Royals this year and four others also had rookie status. Jumping into everyday roles were Hosmer at first base, Mike Moustakas at third base, Johnny Giavotella at second base and Perez at catcher. Left-hander Danny Duffy broke into the rotation with Crow and his buddies manning the bullpen. The conclusion is that the cream of a rich Minor League system has already arrived, giving the Royals the talent necessary to became serious title contenders within the next two or three years.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.