Commentary

Royals' kids looking to make their mark

1B Eric Hosmer leads pack of young players who could finally make K.C. a contender

Originally Published: March 5, 2012
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When Kansas City prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas arrive at Surprise Stadium each day, they pass a covered batting cage adorned with portraits of franchise greats. During the short walk from the parking lot to the clubhouse, they can look up and see likenesses of George Brett, Frank White, Amos Otis and several other Royals favorites gazing down from up high.

The real-life George Brett, the greatest player in franchise history, is around in the flesh to provide guidance in his role as the team's vice president of baseball operations. When Brett isn't cultivating his tan, throwing batting practice or inviting the clubhouse attendants out to his place for backyard barbecues, he's monitoring the organization's young players more closely than they could imagine.

[+] EnlargeEric Hosmer
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelEric Hosmer, 22, is considered to be the best among the Royals' core group of young players.

Brett took tremendous pride in Kansas City's reputation as a marquee franchise in the 1970s and '80s, and he wants to see a renaissance. So when Hosmer and several other rookies arrived from Triple-A Omaha last season, Brett began making mental notes. He watched the young players in the batting cage, during stretching and shagging balls in the outfield to get a better read on what makes them tick. Did they have the talent and dedication to bring back the glory days of Whitey Herzog and Dick Howser?

It didn't take Brett long to get his answer. He learned that Kansas City's top prospects don't take shortcuts or look for pretty girls in the stands when they should be focused on business. They're diligent in their work habits, attentive to detail and linked by a shared sense of purpose.

"These guys all like each other," Brett said. "They all came up through the system together and they don't want to let their buddies or the organization down. They want to build the tradition back up to what it used to be. They know how good we used to be and how bad we've been in the last 10 years. They want to get back to that point in the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, when we were, in my opinion, one of the top two organizations in baseball."

The kids are the handiwork of general manager Dayton Moore and his trusted scouting and development team. Early in his regime, Moore took a lot of grief for spending almost $100 million on long-term deals for pitcher Gil Meche and outfielder Jose Guillen. But as Kansas City's drafts improved and prospects' names started to appear on top 50 and 100 lists, the tone began to change.

Last year the Royals went 71-91 -- nothing special by any measure. But the win total marked only the second time since 2003 that they've surpassed 70 victories. They posted a run differential of plus-17 in July, August and September. And based on the Pythagorean theorem, which is used to tie a team's run differential to its expected win total, they should have gone 78-84.

Most important, there are signs of better days ahead. Scan the starting lineup, and six projected position players (DH Billy Butler, second baseman Johnny Giavotella, catcher Salvador Perez, left fielder Alex Gordon, Hosmer at first base and Moustakas at third) were drafted, signed and developed by Kansas City. In addition, shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain were acquired from Milwaukee in a December 2010 deal for starter Zack Greinke. Add starter Luke Hochevar, reliever Aaron Crow and several other pitchers and reserves to the mix, and at least a dozen players on the Opening Day roster will be products of the system.

Diehard Royals fans are a lot more hopeful about the team's long-term future than they were in 2008, when Mark Teahen and Ross Gload played significant roles for a 75-win club. Their enthusiasm was readily apparent during the winter caravan, and now they're fantasizing about the team's first playoff appearance since 1985.

"I've been seeing this is coming for two years," manager Ned Yost said. "I've been through it twice, in Atlanta and Milwaukee. You get a group of talented young homegrown players, and your fans get excited."

Growing pains

Even as the Royals are being mentioned as a potential second-place finisher behind Detroit in the AL Central, Moore refuses to take anything for granted. General managers are paid to be worrywarts, but history tells him that rosy development scenarios don't always work out as planned.

Ned Yost Last year when we had all these kids in spring training, they thought to a man that they could play in the big leagues. As the season progressed and they came to the big leagues, there was a sense of, 'Now I know I can play here.' It doesn't sound like much, but it is.

-- Royals manager Ned Yost

Moore thinks back to 2005, when he was working in the Atlanta front office and the "Baby Braves" were the rage. A total of 18 rookies helped the Braves win their 14th straight division title. But seven years later, only one of those players, catcher Brian McCann, has made an All-Star team. Andy Marte, Chuck James, Kyle Davies, Macay McBride and Ryan Langerhans were among the underachievers.

"We're not naive to the fact that this is very fragile with young players," Moore said. "Some of them are going to reach expectations, but most of them are not."

Nevertheless, the Royals had several reasons to be upbeat about the 2011 season:

• Hosmer, 22, arrived from the minors in early May and went on to lead big league rookies with a .799 OPS and rank second to Atlanta's Freddie Freeman with 153 hits. In spring training, the Royals penciled him in for 250-300 big league at-bats; he finished with 523.

• Moustakas, 23, hit only five home runs and walked a mere 22 times in 365 plate appearances as a rookie. But he showed a knack for putting the bat on the ball (only 51 strikeouts) and made serious defensive strides at third base. "He never took his at-bats into the field," Moore said. "That's the sign of a player who gets it and understands the importance of the team first."

• The Royals thought Salvador Perez might be ready for a September callup. But when veteran catcher Matt Treanor suffered a concussion in August, Perez joined the big league club, instantly clicked with the pitching staff and hit .331 in 148 at-bats. The Royals were sufficiently impressed to sign Perez to a five-year, $7 million contract with three option years that could bring the overall value of the deal to $19.75 million.

• Pitcher Danny Duffy allowed 51 walks and 15 home runs in 105 1/3 innings. But he's left-handed, hits 93 mph on the radar gun and showed enough flashes to make the Royals think he can be a difference-maker if he harnesses his control.

"There's always the big, dark unknown with young players," Yost said. "Last year when we had all these kids in spring training, they thought to a man that they could play in the big leagues. As the season progressed and they came to the big leagues, there was a sense of, 'Now I know I can play here.' It doesn't sound like much, but it is. They know in their heart that they can compete here now."

It takes a village

When George Brett holds court on the importance of running out groundballs and being accountable, Kansas City's kids are obliged to pay attention. Nothing spells "cachet" like 3,000 hits and a Hall of Fame plaque.

But Hosmer, Moustakas and friends have two other voices of experience much closer to their age bracket. Gordon, the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft, sits a couple of seats away from the two hotshots in a far corner of the clubhouse. And Jeff Francoeur is right beside him.

Jeff Francoeur
Francoeur

Alex Gordon
Gordon

Gordon and Francoeur both understand the pitfalls that come with excessive hype. Early in Gordon's professional career, Brett observed that the kid had "unlimited potential" -- a declaration he now regrets because it ratcheted up the expectations to unreasonable levels. Gordon was perilously close to a washout before revamping his swing with the help of hitting coach Kevin Seitzer and making a successful transition from third base to left field. He won a Gold Glove last year and ranked fifth among left fielders in OPS (.879) behind Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, Josh Hamilton and Carlos Gonzalez.

Francoeur, the 23rd overall pick in the 2002 draft, played his way out of Atlanta and drifted to the Mets and Texas before resurrecting his career in Kansas City. Last year he was a 20-20 homer-steal man and ranked second to Miguel Cabrera among big league hitters with 47 doubles.

Francoeur reflects on his early days in Atlanta, when Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones told him he needed to become a more selective hitter if he wanted to perpetuate his early success. He tries to school Kansas City's young players on the inevitability of slumps and the occasional tough times ahead, but he knows it's something they need to discover for themselves.

"You can try to tell them things all you want," Francoeur said. "But until players experience certain situations for themselves, they just don't know. I never experienced failure for my first 2½ years in the big leagues. I came up and had two 100-RBI seasons, and I thought I knew everything."

Hosmer's bountiful gifts are apparent whether he's raking at the plate, playing a nimble first base or chewing up ground on the bases faster than his reputation would suggest. Camp was barely under way last spring when Hosmer's teammates took note of him pulverizing baseballs over the batter's eye in center field.

"He's the best player I've ever seen as a teammate," Gordon said. "I call him 'the Freak.' I could go on and on giving him compliments."

Naturally, the buzz has begun to spread beyond the Kansas City clubhouse walls. When Francoeur went golfing recently with former Texas teammates Michael Young and Ian Kinsler and newly-minted Ranger Joe Nathan, they peppered him with questions about Hosmer.

"It's cool when you have guys who've accomplished what they've accomplished asking about a 22-year-old kid," Francoeur said. "And it's cool to be able to brag about a guy like that because you want to -- because you know he's a great guy and a great teammate. He's everything you want him to be."

Hosmer is so cool, he was capable of growing a full beard as a teenager. This spring he added a new slant by getting a mohawk, which he lovingly dubs the "Energy Hawk." It makes for lively conversation on Twitter and some humorous banter in the clubhouse.

Hosmer fancies himself a real-life version of Rick "The Wild Thing" Vaughn. But if his teammates had to issue a scouting report on his haircut, it would rank low on the 20-80 player evaluation scale.

"It sucks," Francoeur said. "He's got everything else figured out, but he needs help with that."

Hosmer, a Scott Boras client, might ultimately decide to chase the big bucks when he hits free agency several years from now. But he's intent on making a mark in Kansas City regardless of how long he's around. That batting cage mural has made a big impression on him.

"It's motivating to see the pictures on that wall," Hosmer said. "It's the first thing you see when you go by the parking lot, so it's pretty cool. Obviously you want to make it one day."

Kansas City's kids know all about the organization's history. Now they aim to write a whole new chapter.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer