As star prospects arrive, losing days could soon end for Royals
Baseball America recently ranked Kansas City's farm system as baseball's best
Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers among those on verge of majors
The Royals will likely keep most of them in the minor leagues to start the season
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- One morning in August of 2008, Eric Hosmer was sitting in the window seat of a plane headed from Kansas City to Utah when the woman next to him got a tap on the shoulder. A well-tanned man in his fifties standing in the aisle wanted to know if the woman would be up for swapping seats with him. "I looked up, did a double take, and was like, that's George Brett!" Hosmer recalls. "I remember thinking, this woman's probably getting a pretty sweet upgrade."
Taken with the third overall pick in baseball's amateur draft earlier that summer, Hosmer had just signed the largest bonus in Royals history ($6 million) and was headed to Ogden to join the organization's rookie league team. Brett and Hosmer had never met, not until the moment the Royals legend squeezed into his middle seat next to the future face of the franchise and introduced himself.
Over the next two hours "we talked about everything," Hosmer says. "I asked him what he told the umpire in that famous pine tar incident. I asked him what it takes to stay in the big leagues for as long as he did. When I got off the plane, the first thing I did was call my dad to tell him I just met George Brett."
During the flight Brett told the Hosmer something that would stick with the phenom. "Be patient," Brett had told him. "And your time will come."
It is two and half years later and Hosmer's time is almost here. He struggled through his first pro season in 2009 but after Lasik surgery, he established himself as the Royals top prospect after leading the high Class-A Carolina League in hitting (.354) and OBP (.429) last year.
The time is also coming for Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, Chris Dwyer and the K.C. Kids who are drawing bigger raves than The King's Speech. Said Jim Callis of Baseball America, which ranked the Royals' crop of prospects as the best in baseball, "The Royals have one of the deepest and most talented farm systems in recent memory." Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein proclaimed it the best farm he'd ever seen. Fangraphs wondered if the Royals farm system was the best of the past decade.
"You can't help but read some of that stuff," Hosmer says. "The way I look at it, you can't shy away from it. More than anything, it's exciting. We've all come up together, and we talk about being up together in Kansas City, and how fun it's going to be."
This spring, the Cactus League is littered with must-see attractions: the glistening new Rockies and Diamondbacks facility in Talking Stick is the Versailles of spring training camps; the Cactus League is home to both World Series teams and phenoms like Mike Trout, Aroldis Chapman and Chris Sale.
The Royals were bad in 2010 and could be even worse in 2011 -- "with that pitching, they could lose 100 games," says a scout -- and Royals camp in Surprise, where seven of the organization's top 10 prospects are in camp, is one of the most intriguing this spring. "There's so much ridiculous talent that even if they miss on some of them, they'll still be a force in a few years," says an AL assistant GM. "There's a lot of excitement, as there should be, but maybe also a lot of pressure on those kids."
We'll soon start finding out whether the hype is justified. All indications are that Mike Moustakas -- who, with Hosmer and catcher-turned-outfielder Wil Myers, form the core of position players K.C. plans to build around -- will be the first to arrive, perhaps as soon as Opening Day. A SoCal native, Moustakas spent time around major league clubhouses as a kid --- he was a batboy for the Mets, where his his uncle, Tom Robson, was a hitting coach under Bobby Valentine. "I remember watching Robin Ventura and Rey Ordoņez, two of the best, getting to the ballpark early and always out there taking grounders," says Moustakas. "Just incredible work ethic."
Moustakas is known for his own tireless work ethic. But because of his limited range in the field, scouts wonder whether the linebacker-strong third baseman will eventually end up at first or in the outfield. This much is clear about the second overall pick in the 2007 draft: the kid can rake. Moustakas belted 36 homers (tied for most in the minors) and slugged .630 in two minor league stops in 2010. "He's a future .280, .290 hitter with the capability to hit 30, 35 home runs every season," says manager Ned Yost. "He's going to be a middle of the order guy here for a long time."
"He broke into Triple-A and he was terrific, but the truth is, by that time of year the pitching there is a bit watered down," says GM Dayton Moore. "He's getting there. He's not as natural as Hosmer or Billy Butler is at handling the balls away from him, but he's working hard on it. He's got a very short, compact swing. He's working the count better. He's developed patience. He's now not fearful to hit with two strikes. He's definitely a middle-of-the-order bat. Realistically, we can hope to see him in the first half."
The 21-year-old Hosmer should join his pal Moustakas, 22, later this season. "I could see some scenarios where you see [Hosmer] up pretty soon too," says Yost. "But he's still growing into his body. It's hard to project what a guy like that's going to do, other than that he's going to be a very good offensive performer. He's probably going to hit with a higher average [than Moustakas] with not quite as much power."
The dazzling young pitchers -- the lefty troika of Mike Montgomery, John Lamb and Danny Duffy are the headliners -- will arrive soon after that. Assistant GM JJ Picollo recently told the Kansas City Star that he saw "April, May and June as the three most important months in recent Royals history. What these prospects do in Double-A and Triple-A in the first three months will have an impact on how quickly we see ourselves competing."
The future, of course, can't come soon enough in Kansas City, where the Dayton Moore Era enters Year Five. Yes, the embattled Royals GM is aware of the pounding he's taken for his signings of free agent busts like Gil Meche and Jose Guillen, and, more recently, for OBP killers Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur. "[Braves scouting legend] Paul Snyder told me a long time ago, you're gonna make mistakes," says Moore, a former assistant GM in Atlanta. "You got to keep staying aggressive. One of the reasons why we went after Gil and some of the other guys was that we wanted to change the mindset -- we wanted to compete. Everything we've been doing over the offseason is trying to plug holes."
Of the more recent signings, he says, "I get beat up a lot internally, with our own people, about guys with on base percentage. We want guys with good on base percentage, but we can only acquire guys that are available to us. Of course we all want those guys!"
Moore adds, "It's no secret we have to do it here with scouting and player development. That's what we've said we're going to do at day one. We're getting there. We have [closer Joakim] Soria signed potentially through 2014 and Billy Butler potentially through 2015. Other than Cleveland we have the youngest 40-man roster in the game. We have to get younger and more talented in the next one to three years."
Moore was standing on the resplendent grass at Surprise, where another morning workout was about to begin. "I feel like this is my second month on the job. We've been so far below sea level," he said, "and now, it's like, 'OK, here we are. We know what we have to do.'"
The GM gazed for a moment out into the fields, looking very much like an impatient man.