Stretched out alongside a pool in Surprise, Ariz., one afternoon this spring, Mike MacDougal, the 26-year-old Kansas City closer with all of 24? career innings, flipped on his cellphone. When he saw that the phone was out of service—it had been all week—MacDougal cursed and, with the same right arm that has uncorked 103-mph fastballs, threw the phone into the air as high as he could. It landed on a nearby lawn just as the sprinkler system, as if on cue, activated. Within seconds MacDougal's phone was soaked, and permanently out of service. "Oh, well," the mellow Floridian said with a shrug. "I bought a new one anyway."
Everyone on the Royals' pitching staff this year should have MacDougal's happy-go-lucky temperament. General manager Allard Baird decided that throwing a markedly inexperienced staff to the wolves was the right move for an organization coming off its first 100-loss season. "We're in a rebuilding mode," says Baird. "We're giving every opportunity to our younger pitchers." Gone from a staff that had the second-highest ERA (5.21) in the league last year are 17-game winner Paul Byrd (a free agent who signed with the Braves) and nine-game winner Jeff Suppan (released by the Royals and picked up by the Pirates), the only K.C. pitchers who had more than four victories in 2002. Also departed is closer Roberto Hernandez (26 saves; signed with the Braves as a free agent), the one bright spot in a bullpen that had an AL-high 5.29 ERA. "There are going to be bumps," says Baird, "but I like what we have."
Three starters—Runelvys Hernandez, Jeremy Affeldt and Miguel Asencio—are all under 25, have combined for 11 career wins and made their major league debuts in 2002 after undistinguished work in the minors. No. 4 starter Chris George, a 23-year-old lefthander, split time between Kansas City and Triple A Omaha over the past two seasons. "We hope they're going to be able to do the job so we can build something special around them," says first baseman Mike Sweeney. "If not, it's going to be a long year."
The pitchers with the biggest upside are MacDougal and Affeldt, a 23-year-old righthander who possesses a fluttering sinker and a nasty slider. Affeldt credits the departed Byrd for helping him mature as a person and a player last year. Besides attending church together every week, Affeldt and Byrd sat side by side in the dugout during every game when neither was starting. "Paul would break down every hitter," Affeldt says. "He'd constantly ask what I thought the batters were expecting. It changed my perspective."
How fast Affeldt and the other young arms develop could determine how much longer Sweeney, a three-time All-Star and fan favorite, wears a Royals uniform. Sweeney signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension last March, but included in the deal is a clause that allows him to become a free agent after the 2004 season if the Royals don't finish .500 or better this year or next. Lately Sweeney has become increasingly disgruntled with the club, citing owner David Glass's desire to reduce the payroll from last season by some $10 million, to $37 million (it's at about $41 million now), the departure of Byrd and the likelihood that centerfielder Carlos Beltran, who rejected a three-year, $25 million offer in December, will be traded. ( Beltran, 25, is eligible for free agency after the 2004 season.) "Tearing up this team is against what [Glass] told me when I signed my extension," Sweeney says. " Mr. Glass said he would build this team around me and increase payroll, but now they're going the opposite way."
Sweeney finished second in the AL in batting last season (.340). Help in the order comes from Beltran (if he remains with the team), a 30-30 threat; third baseman Joe Randa, who has driven in at least 80 runs in four straight seasons; and leftfielder Raul Iba�ez, who, since adjusting his stance on the advice of former Royals third baseman Kevin Seitzer in May 2001, has hit .290 with 37 home runs and 156 RBIs in 231 games.
Yet no matter how many runs the Royals put on the board, the pitching staff will probably give up more. "I'm realistic," says Affeldt. "I know that on any other team, I'm probably a bullpen guy. But this is the reality here, and we think we're all up for it."