"I've had people approach me and say, 'You know, a .500 season would be just great.' "
One morning new Royals manager Trey Hillman noticed that his prized young hitter, Billy Butler, was half-asleep as he fielded grounders at the team's spring facility in Surprise, Ariz. So Hillman brought Butler a cup of water and urged him to take a few sips. Then he threw the rest in Butler's face. "It surprised me, but it worked," says Butler. "I was awake for the rest of the day!"
Will Hillman, who never played or coached in the big leagues, have as much success stirring a dormant franchise that has had one winning season in the last 13? Fresh off a managerial stint in Japan during which he led the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters from fifth place in the Pacific League to a Japan Series Championship in four years, Hillman, 45, is earning players' raves for his communication skills, attention to detail, willingness to joke around and positive attitude. "His attitude is simply: We're going to win," says catcher John Buck.
Hillman has little patience for the low expectations that the Royals, who lost 93 games and finished at the bottom of the AL Central in 2007 for the fourth straight year, perennially generate. "I've had people approach me and say, 'You know, a .500 season would be just great,' " he says. "I don't think .500 seasons typically win championships, and I want to win championships."
To that end Hillman has to do more than change attitudes; he has to solve a lot of problems, especially on offense. Last year Kansas City had the fewest homers (102), the fewest total bases (2,145) and the worst slugging percentage (.388) in the AL, and the club ranked next to last in total runs, walks and on-base percentage. The signing of free agent Jose Guillen, who had 23 homers and 99 RBIs with the Mariners last year while playing half of his games in hitter-hostile Safeco Field, should bolster the middle of the lineup, but it won't turn the offense around. Expect the Royals to rely on situational hitting. "You're not going to hit a lot of home runs at Kauffman Stadium," says third baseman Alex Gordon. "We don't have the 30-40 home run guys, so we have to do the hit-and-runs, the bunts. I think manufacturing runs is going to be key for us."
Another help would be breakthrough seasons for three of K.C.'s youngest players. The 24-year-old Gordon, the second pick in the 2005 draft, had a down-and-up rookie season in which he hit under .200 with 12 extra-base hits in the season's first two months, but .275 with 43 extra-base hits thereafter. Mark Teahen is an athletic 26-year-old who's moving to his fourth position (leftfield) in three years while trying to regain the power he showed in 2006, when he hit 18 home runs (compared with seven in '07). The baby-faced Butler, the 14th pick of the '04 draft who turns 22 on April 18, cheerfully wields one of the most reliable bats on the team. In half a season as a rookie last year, Butler hit .292, usually as the DH in the cleanup spot. "I've yet to see him in a bad mood," says Buck. "He's always smiling, always talking -- unfortunately -- and always hitting. As long as he keeps that last one going, he can be as silly, happy and talkative as he wants."
Butler's ability to use the whole field, his knack for making adjustments at the plate and his recall of how guys have pitched him before set him apart from most young hitters. "I've never had a player that young be able to do some of the things he can do," says hitting coach Mike Barnett. "He approaches an at bat like a guy who has been up here for 10 years."
Hillman has been up for even less time than Butler, but he's fully aware of what he and the Royals are up against in the loaded AL Central. "To win, we have to beat the odds," he says. "There's no prognosticator out there who will pick us to win the Central or even the wild card. But every year somebody beats the prognosticators. We've got to be that team." -- Kelli Anderson
Issue date: March 31, 2008