Postseason berth could be in reach for rapidly-maturing team in AL Central
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- For a dose of energy, intensity and clear-eyed optimism, I would recommend talking to Ned Yost about the prospects of the 2014 Kansas City Royals.
Yost has been an advocate for his young club for some time. But now, more than ever, the facts are lining up on the side of the Kansas City manager and his still-developing team. The Royals made a 14-game jump in the standings last season to 86-76. Plus, they became better as the season progressed. They were 43-49 before the All-Star break, 43-27 after that. They were 22-12 after Aug. 24.
It is still difficult to project the Royals as the winner of the American League Central, while one of baseball's elite teams, the Tigers, resides in the same division. But the idea of Kansas City as a Wild Card this season makes perfect sense. After all, if you improve significantly from 86 victories, you're entering the postseason neighborhood.
There are solid reasons to believe that the 2014 Royals will take those forward steps. And Yost has chapter and verse handy.
"I think that we've grown, I think that we've matured," Yost said Wednesday at Surprise Stadium. "I think that with the additions of [right fielder Norichika] Aoki, [second baseman Omar] Infante, that's going to increase our run production. If I had one thing that we really needed to improve on, [it] was run production. Our pitching, we led the league in pitching. Our bullpen was as good as you could find. Our defense was Gold Glove-caliber all around the infield for the most part.
"When we scored four runs or more, our record was ridiculous [64-13]. I mean, four runs. But [at times] we couldn't do it. We played more one-run games than anybody in the AL. So run production is going to be paramount for us."
On the run prevention side, the Royals have already made their point.
"We think that we have a very good pitching staff," Yost said. "You know, we lost [Ervin] Santana, but we gained [Jason] Vargas. Vargas is a very solid veteran, a very solid performer. So we haven't taken any hits. We have [Yordano] Ventura starting. He's a young kid. He throws 100 [mph], but he can command three pitches for strikes.
"We've got the same bullpen. We lost Hoch [Luke Hochevar] which was a big blow to us, but Wade Davis has been successful out of that role, not only for us last year at the end of the year, but for Tampa Bay. So, yeah, we think we're going to be better than we were last year, but it all predicates on health. We have to stay healthy."
Another legitimate reason for optimism is that most of the starting position players still qualify in the broad category of "young players." They have become better over time. They could become better still.
"Every single one out there, they're not finished products," Yost says. "They're going to continue to grow. And you can see a huge growth spurt in them this spring, because at the Major League level, you get here on pure talent, but you stay here and excel and take your game to the next level up here, in your head.
"You have to do that with a professional approach every time you walk to the plate, every time you walk through that clubhouse door. Through energy, through work ethic, through passion for the game, our kids have really grown in their approach. Last year, [third baseman Mike] Moustakas had a great spring. People say: 'What's the difference between Moustakas having a great spring last year and a great spring this year?' Last year, he just hacked. He had no idea what he was doing at the plate. This year, he's having a great spring but with a very specific, disciplined approach at the plate. So that's a big leap for him. Is he going to have ups and downs? They all do. Everybody in Major League Baseball is going to have ups and downs.
"But [our players] are going to be far most consistent now because they understand the mental side of the game better. It's just growing up, it's just gathering experience, learning what works, what doesn't."
Yost has taken considerable abuse from those who might not have his patience with young players. But he has been through the developmental process as a coach with the Braves and as a manager in both Milwaukee and Kansas City. He wasn't allowed to finish the Milwaukee job, but he managed and helped to develop the Brewers' talent that put up the franchise's best record in 2011. He knows how this is done.
"We were patient with them, we were positive with them, we continued to work with them through all the smoke and noise that comes with them when they're growing up at the big league level," Yost said. "You've got to tune all that stuff out. We tuned it out with Hos [first baseman Eric Hosmer] we tuned it out with Moose [Moustakas], with [shortstop Alcides] Escobar. And these guys are all starting to get to the point that they're all solid, consistent, if not All-Star type players. It's just having patience.
"When I see a player that I believe in, I'm very seldom wrong about them being impact-type players. I've got a pretty good track record on that, in my own head, not in anybody else's head. Do you want to jump up and say: 'Yeah, I told you so.'? Maybe a little bit. But not a whole lot. I just want them to be successful like I know they can be and will be."
That's where the 2014 Royals come in. This team has been trending upward for some time. It won't be changing direction now. Differing with Ned Yost on this topic is not a sensible move.