On most days this spring, manager Tony Pe�a opened a dog-eared copy of John C. Maxwell's Winning With People on his desk at training camp and reread some of the blue-highlighted motivational phrases. A few speak directly to how he wants to treat his players, and Pe�a read them aloud to a visitor: "Mutual trust ... invest in others ... empower people." In the Royals' clubhouse inspirational messages were everywhere--losers always have an excuse. winners always have an idea read the one above the locker of pitcher Zack Greinke--and for good reason: There was nothing inspiring about Kansas City's 2004 season.
In losing a franchise-worst 104 games--25 more than the year before--the Royals finished 34 games behind AL Central winner Minnesota and 14 games behind fourth-place Detroit. They were a league-worst 30-63 after June 24, the day K.C. dealt All-Star centerfielder Carlos Beltran in a three-team trade with Houston and Oakland that yielded three prospects.
And despite all the optimism in spring training, '05 may not be any better. You can argue that every team in the division improved in the off-season except Kansas City, with its puny $38.5 million payroll. "We do not have too many big-name players here," Pe�a says, "but we have players motivated to show people they belong in the big leagues."
The Royals' brass believes it has five young players around whom the club can build a winner. Two are homegrown: Greinke, 21, a hard-throwing righthander who is the best prospect K.C. has developed in years, and centerfielder David DeJesus, 25, the leadoff hitter and the team's MVP last year despite playing in only 96 games. Shortstop Angel Berroa, 27, who was the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year before struggling mightily last season, was acquired from Oakland in January 2001. The other two came in the Beltran trade: catcher John Buck, 24, who hit 12 homers in 238 at bats with the Royals last year; and hard-hitting third baseman Mark Teahen, 23, who had been a top prospect in the talent-rich Athletics' farm system.
Those young players aren't going anywhere, says general manager Allard Baird. "I want our fans, mothers and fathers, to know they can buy their child a John Buck T-shirt knowing he's going to be here for the life of that T-shirt," he says.
Six years? Seven years?
"Well, at least five," Baird says, referring to the years before Buck is eligible for free agency. "And I think we'll be able to keep one, maybe two [of the youngsters] longer than that."
The big hit early in camp was Teahen, who hit a combined .301 at Double A Midland and Triple A stops in Sacramento and Omaha last season. On a side field one morning, with former Royals Hall of Famer George Brett throwing batting practice and Negro leagues great Buck O'Neill observing from behind the cage, the 6'3" Teahen sprayed line drives all over the field. After one laser to deep right center, the 93-year-old O'Neill piped up, "The ball just jumps off your bat, kid," and later he said, "Now, that's a good-looking hitter."
Of all the youngsters, though, DeJesus might be the most intriguing. He's a feisty New Jersey guy with the potential to hit 15 to 20 home runs and steal as many bases, and has excellent range and an average arm. Of course he's no Beltran. "If we told our fans we were creating another Beltran with David, it would be a flat-out lie," Baird says. "But he will be a player who will help us win."
Says DeJesus, "I'm working on seeing the ball better at the plate. The thing about major league pitching is, you hardly ever see a straight pitch. The ball's always sinking or tailing." He's showing signs of progress. Leading off against Giants lefty Noah Lowry in one exhibition game, DeJesus took the first two pitches for strikes, then worked the count to 3 and 2. Lowry tried going low and away, and DeJesus slapped the ball hard up the middle for a base hit.