Royals expect to compete for AL Central title
Optimism abounds as young, talented club prepares for season
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- These are heady times for the Kansas City Royals. A young team brimming with bright, fresh talent finished strong last year. Kauffman Stadium will host the 2012 All-Star Game. Fans seem energized by the team's potential and promise.
In the Spring Training camp at Surprise, so are the players.
"It's a big year for the Royals," designated hitter Billy Butler said. "We have expectations and we're expected to finish a lot better than any year I've been here. So it's exciting and it means we're preparing to play for the American League Central [title], and anything less is unsatisfactory, so how can it not be exciting? We have the talent to do it. We know what team we have to go through -- that's Detroit. Not downgrading anybody in the American League Central but we're the next team, right behind Detroit."
Sure, it's early. The pitchers and catchers had only their second workout on Wednesday. The infielders and outfielders will jump in for the first full squad practice on Saturday. But there's an edge of sincerity to the optimism that transcends typical spring talk.
"We're expecting to compete this year," right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. "Last year was one of those things where you say the right things, but I think we all felt like last year was a chance to get some of the young guys up and really experience it but when you see guys like Hoz [Eric Hosmer] come up and do what he did."
Hosmer was the most dynamic force among the rookie infusion that also included Aaron Crow, Danny Duffy, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Johnny Giavotella. The Royals caught fire late in the season and attendance actually increased during what is usually a September snooze.
But could fans be expecting too much too soon?
"No. Absolutely. We expect everything and more than they expect in this locker room," Hosmer said. "Obviously Prince [Fielder] is over with Detroit and all of that, but we feel like we've got to worry about what's going on in this locker room first. If we control what we can control -- and that's us going out and working hard every day and getting wins -- we'll be fine after that."
You don't have to remind Kansas City fans that the team hasn't won anything since the 1985 World Series championship, which is only hazy history to the current players.
"That's basically my entire life, so hopefully we can change that," said pitcher Everett Teaford, born in 1984. "You look around and a lot of guys started getting here in early February and ready to go. ... That might be the difference from this year to years past."
The 2011 Royals finished 20 games under .500, so there's a lot of ground to cover just to break even.
"If you look at last year, we played a lot of one-run games that we fell short in. It's just reversing that trend. Championship mentality -- going out there expecting to win those games," Butler said.
The Royals were 25-32 in one-run decisions. To help counter that, they believe they've beefed up the bullpen with Jonathan Broxton and that closer Joakim Soria will be his old self.
"And I think those games are going to turn around and are going to turn into W's," Teaford said. "Jack [Soria] has been out here all winter working out, and I think he's going to have a very good year and we're going to win a lot of those one-run games."
Painting with broad strokes, the Royals' picture appears to feature a potentially explosive offense and a tight defense but a somewhat fuzzy definition of the pitching capabilities.
"I heard someone say the other day that [Danny] Duffy and Hoch [Luke Hochevar] and some of these guys have got a chip on their shoulders because everybody talks about the pitching," Francoeur said. "And my answer to that is, 'Good!' I hope everybody's got a chip on their shoulder. When you finish 20 games below .500, you better show up with a chip on your shoulder."
While the starting lineup looks fairly settled, Francoeur anticipates fierce competition for the pitching spots.
"For me, the big acquisitions this year were [Jonathan] Sanchez and Broxton and hopefully people are excited about that, and everybody knows we needed a couple more arms and we got 'em," Francoeur said. "My big thing is to see guys like Monty [Mike Montgomery] and [Jake] Odorizzi in camp, see those guys step up and throw well and see what they can do."
Often mentioned as a major plus for the Royals is the competitive intensity that they demonstrated last season. Lollygaggers need not apply.
"I think the thing that Kansas City will like about this team and what they liked about us last year is that we played hard," Teaford said. "Even in those games we lost, we played hard for nine innings. We go to the wall every single day and we come ready to win. We don't come in thinking we're going to lose. In no game did we show up thinking we were outmatched, even against the Yankees or the Red Sox. So we'll be ready this year. It'll be fun."
Soria sees the aura of extra effort prevailing in camp as well.
"I was talking with Bruce [Chen] when we were running outside -- you never see anyone lay down and do nothing and just walk around," Soria said. "Everyone is working hard and every single guy in here is hungry to win. They've been winning their whole careers since A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A. Now it's time to do it in the big leagues. So I hope this year is our year."
That point -- the effect of winning seasons experienced recently in the Royals' Minor League system -- is often brought up as an important element.
"It's gotten to the point where guys are going to show up to the field and expect to win. It's infectious," said pitcher Sean O'Sullivan. "When I was with the Angels, that's how it was. When I showed up to the field and it was my turn to throw, it was, 'I better get this job done,' because I didn't want to be the guy who didn't get the job done. And I think this is what this has turned into, and I think it's a good atmosphere to play ball in."
Crow spent most of the winter training in Kansas City and caught the drift of the hometown fans' enthusiasm.
"I think they have good reason to be pumped up about this team," Crow said. "With guys like [Alex] Gordon having such a good year last year and Frenchy coming back and with Hoz and Moose making their debuts, fans have a lot to be excited for. I think the offense is going to be phenomenal again and it's just up to the pitching staff. If we can step up and help those guys out, we're going to be a pretty good team."
Perez, one of the rookies who made an impact last year, is a believer.
"Everybody knows about our team now. We are ready. We've got a lot of good players, a lot of good pitchers," Perez said. "We could make the playoffs this year -- why not?"
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.