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4 kansas city Royals
Stephen Cannella
March 27, 2000
Hard-hitting young talent can bring this club back from the baseball boondocks
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March 27, 2000

4 Kansas City Royals

Hard-hitting young talent can bring this club back from the baseball boondocks

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by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (AL rank)

1999 record: 64-97 (fourth in AL Central)

Batting average

.282 (3)

Opponents' batting average

.288 (14)

Runs scored

856 (7)

ERA

5.35 (14)

Home runs

151 (12)

Fielding percentage

.980 (11)

Mike Sweeney and Sal Fasano, the Royals' starting first baseman and backup catcher, respectively, each spent two weeks this winter trekking to outposts even farther off the baseball map than Kansas City. Traveling with a group known as VPI, which bills itself as a Christian baseball ministry, Sweeney toured Germany, running baseball clinics for kids and lecturing on his religious beliefs. Fasano, through the same program, spread the good word of baseball in Bangkok. "It was great. I'd go back in an instant," says Fasano. "Some of those kids knew nothing about the game."

Sweeney and Fasano can now sympathize with manager Tony Muser, who has been running a domestic baseball mission since taking over the Royals in 1997. Last year he presided over a group of players with scarcely more experience than those kids at the VPI camps, a glorified Triple A team that featured two rookies up the middle and first-time every-day players at three other positions. Kansas City lost 97 games, tying a franchise worst. Still, there were enough pleasant surprises—a club-record 856 runs scored and the emergence of Rookie of the Year centerfielder Carlos Beltran and speedy first-year second baseman Carlos Febles—to have the Royals thinking (gasp!) .500 in 2000. "We're not young this year," says Muser. "We're youthful, but we finally have some experience."

There are signs that the whole organization is growing up. General manager Herk Robinson has increased the payroll from $16 million last year to about $25 million, and for the first time in recent memory the spring training buzz didn't center on which veterans were going to be traded. During the off-season the Royals aggressively pursued a free agent, albeit their own: Rey Sanchez, a defensive specialist who last season had a breakout year with career highs in average (.294), RBIs (56) and runs (66). In November, Muser, first base coach Frank White and assistant general manager Allard Baird visited Sanchez, who was considering a dip into the free-agent market, at his home in Puerto Rico. Over lunch they beseeched him to stay with the Royals. "That's the closest I've ever come to begging a player to sign," says Muser, who coached Sanchez with the Cubs from 1993 to '97 "I think Rey had more fun in baseball last year than he ever had before."

Says Sanchez, who signed a two-year, $4.6 million deal with the Royals, "Last year was a tryout camp for everybody here. This year we all know how we can help the team."

Robinson also signed free-agent closer Ricky Bottalico (20 saves for the Cardinals last year). To say the Royals' bullpen was atrocious in 1999 would be kind: They were the first team in major league history to have more blown saves (30) than saves (29), and they lost 35 games in which they led or were tied going into the seventh inning. The Royals not only want Bottalico to nail down leads but also to show his new bullpen comrades what a real major league reliever is made of. "Ricky brings a new presence to the bullpen—hard-nosed, maybe even over-tempered," says Muser, remembering that Bottalico received a three-game suspension in '98 for beaning Barry Bonds, which precipitated a bench-clearing brawl.

"This is a good opportunity for me to get back on my feet and back to being a closer," says Bottalico, who despite saving those 20 games had a 3-7 record and 4.91 ERA. Bottalico says that last season he was still recovering from a 1998 operation to remove bone chips from his elbow, hindering his performance. He spent this spring working on a changeup to complement his low-90s fastball. "Plus," he says happily, "you know this team is going to score a lot of runs."

They should. Except for designated hitter Jeremy Giambi, who was traded to Oakland last month, everyone returns from last year's starting lineup, which included six hitters who batted .290 or better. Kansas City, in fact, features one of the finest outfields in the game. Beltran jumped to the majors from Double A last year and blew the doors off the American League with a .293 average, 22 homers, 108 RBIs and 27 steals. In his fourth major league season, burgeoning star Jermaine Dye arrived as a power hitter (27 homers, 119 RBIs) and a Gold Glove-caliber rightfielder (league-leading 17 assists, a DVD's worth of spectacular plays). Leftfielder and lead-off hitter Johnny Damon set a career high by batting .307 and had 36 steals and scored 101 runs. "We feel like our offense is in place," says Damon. "We're praying the pitching staff comes through."

While staff ace Jose Rosado (10-14, 3.85 ERA) might be one of the toughest lefthanders in the league, there's little else on this starting staff to keep Muser from going deep into his bullpen on most nights. If Muser gets a decent effort from his pitchers, .500 might not be mission impossible. "I've been telling guys to play one game over .500 every month," says Damon. "That's a real good season, and since no one will be a free agent after this year, we can stay together. This is definitely a team we can keep moving with."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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