On the morning that position players reported to Surprise, Ariz., Tony Pe�a bounced around the Royals' camp as if he'd gulped from the fountain of youth, shaking hands and slapping backs, cackling and chirping, suffused as always with optimism. Gray T-shirts he had designed lay draped over each player's chair in the clubhouse. The newest of Pe�a's inexhaustible supply of motivational tools, they carried the words, OCTOBER JUNTOS PODEMOS (TOGETHER WE CAN). That might sound like Little League, but the Royals, whom Pe�a transformed from scufflers to contenders, buy it. "He's charismatic, upbeat, positive," says second baseman Desi Relaford. "Honestly, he was probably the biggest factor in turning the organization around last year."
Coaxed and prodded by Pe�a, Kansas City spent most of 2003 in first place, and only a September stumble kept the Royals from becoming the first club to make the playoffs after a 100-loss season. "Last year we had no expectations," says Pe�a, who was named AL Manager of the Year. "This year, the belief is there. Today, we worked out for four straight hours and you didn't see anybody complaining."
Behind Pe�a's sunniness lies the realization that things could have turned out much worse last year. Opponents outscored the Royals 867-836, a run differential that, according to Bill James's formula, should yield a 78-84 record. But Kansas City batted .304 with runners in scoring position, compared with .274 overall, and the Royals exploited their division's mediocrity, going 27-11 against Detroit and Cleveland, 56-68 against the rest of the majors. "Coming back with the same ball club was not going to cut it," says general manager Allard Baird.
Faced with the prospect of substantial turnover—the Royals' September roster included 15 free agents—Baird took advantage of the declining price of mid-level veteran talent. For the most part, he went after complementary players rather than stars and signed them to one-or two-year deals. To repair a bullpen that finished last in the AL with a 5.54 ERA, Baird resigned, late-season pickups Curtis Leskanic, a rejuvenated flamethrower who struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings, to a one-year, $1.38 million deal (he made $2.8 million last season), and Scott Sullivan (two years, $5 million), a workhorse against whom opponents hit .205. "We targeted these guys not so much for the name," Baird says, "but for how they would fit in on this ball club."
Kansas City's final acquisition of the winter was a prominent name nonetheless. Rightfielder Juan Gonzalez, a two-time MVP, signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal (he made $12 million with the Rangers last season) in January after the free-agent market for outfielders had bottomed out. At his finest Gonzalez has been an elite offensive player, at his worst injury-prone, selfish and sullen. ( Gonzalez didn't get off to a good start with his new team, reporting to camp two days late, though his 22 pieces of luggage made it on time.) The Royals believe Pe�a and centerfielder Carlos Beltran, a fellow Puerto Rican who spent time working out with Gonzalez over the winter, will make Gonzalez feel more comfortable.
Despite adding a marquee player, the Royals retain their anonymity. The club's best starter last season was Darrell May, a 31-year-old finesse lefthander Baird plucked from the Yomiuri Giants two winters ago. Baird scouted May in Japan and liked his precision and deceptiveness and his willingness to throw breaking balls when behind in the count. May was an economical option (he signed for two years, $4.95 million), and he was ready to return Stateside after four years in Japan. He struggled in 2002 and the early part of last season, fighting a torn groin muscle and bouncing between the bullpen and the starting rotation before stabilizing as a starter and leading the club in innings (210?) and ERA (3.77). "I felt like my back was against the wall," May says. "It was either going to happen now, or I might not have any more chances."
A similar urgency should accompany Kansas City's optimism. Beltran is probably in his last season as a Royal, but the Twins and the White Sox have regressed. A better chance for Kansas City to win the division is unlikely to present itself anytime soon.
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