Royals' blueprint is to stockpile talent, watch it mature

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2012 - 11:05 PM

Kansas City hasn't been to the postseason since winning the World Series in 1985. But it appears to be getting closer to that goal.

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Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer

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SURPRISE, ARIZ. - Let's describe the Royals in terms to which Kansas and Missouri flatlanders can relate: After a long, searing drought, there's a big Midwestern storm brewing in Kansas City, a tempest of talent that forecasters say threatens to demolish the AL Central like a cyclone.

It's mostly just dark, ominous clouds on the horizon at the moment -- oh, some squalls arrived early last year, enough to lift the Royals out of their last-place storm shelter -- but the heavy stuff gets closer and closer every day.

"I don't think, when you look around this clubhouse, that there's much doubt about what's coming," said third baseman Alex Gordon, himself a bolt of lightning in the Royals' future. "The rest of the country might not know much about us yet. ... But they will."

Of course, the Royals have been saying that for decades, at least since their 1985 World Series championship, a feat that also stands as their most recent postseason appearance. In the 27 years since that victory parade, the Royals have joined the Pittsburgh Pirates as symbols of ineptitude, of bottom-dwelling flyovers.

With misery comes opportunity, however, and the Royals have stockpiled both. Over the past 15 drafts of amateur talent, Kansas City has picked outside the top 10 only twice, and among the first five selections nine times. Yet until they made Zack Greinke the sixth player taken in 2002, the Royals, always as cognizant of a prospect's price tag as his upside, were astonishingly inept at finding future big-leaguers, as the names Mike Stodolka, Colt Griffin and Jeff Austin -- each a top-10 fizzle -- make clear.

Dayton Moore set out to change that when he arrived from the Braves as general manager in 2006 and convinced ownership to spend, and spend a lot, to sign the best players available in the draft. The result of this surreptitious shopping spree, combined with the usual high picks as a reward for pitiable records, is a farm system stocked with a league-leading level of promise -- and a future that even the current Royals seem a little weary of contemplating.

"I know everyone says, 'Just wait,' or 'In a couple of years ...'" Royals manager Ned Yost acknowledged. "That's fine, that's exciting. I'm excited, too. But our job is to win right now."

The problem is, players don't mature on a dependable schedule, and even blue-chip prospects need experience. A dozen Royal prospects made their major league debuts in 2011, including heart-of-the-lineup cornerstone Eric Hosmer at first base, former No. 2 overall pick Mike Moustakas at third, and a handful of promising relief pitchers. Yost believes a similar number might arrive this season. But as the Rays discovered during their own lose-for-a-decade construction plan, the real storm doesn't begin until starting pitchers make it rain.

That's where the Royals need to find one more helping of patience.

"Sometimes you can throw a [hitter] in there and it's like, adapt or die. And the great ones will just hit," Yost said. "But [with] pitchers ... it's more of a process, and you don't know how long that might take to play out."

He was speaking in general, but the end to the Royals' postseason drought likely will arrive when the pitchers do, no matter how much gunpowder they pack into the lineup. Gordon is coming off a breakthrough year in which he batted .303, bashed 72 extra-base hits including 23 homers, and won a Gold Glove in left field. Hosmer hit 19 home runs after his May call-up, and Billy Butler drove in 95 runs as a 24-year-old designated hitter. Moustakas, second baseman Johnny Giavotella and catcher Salvy Perez (despite a knee injury that will cost him three months of this season), all Royals draftees, have the look, to varying degrees, of ready-to-thrive talents.

But liftoff might wait for the starting pitchers -- lefties Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy and Chris Dwyer, primarily -- each of whom still is learning to harness his repertoire. Duffy made the majors last year, but all three pitchers posted ERAs above 5.00. Former first-round pick Aaron Crow is moving into the rotation after a brilliant, 57-inning season in the K.C. bullpen that earned him an All-Star appearance, and former No. 1 overall Luke Hochevar hopes to build off a strong final couple of months to the 2011 season.

"The pitching is catching up," Gordon said. "This team is being built the right way, and it's starting to pay off."

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