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Moustakas gets running start on 2014 season

Third baseman plays winter ball, hopes to give Royals better production

December can be a lot of fun for ballplayers.

Just ask C.J. Wilson. The Angels left-hander married Brazilian model Lisalla Montenegro and then gifted his Twitter followers with photos taken from remote, beautiful beaches. But Wilson was hardly the only guy enjoying himself.

Evan Longoria hung out with Will Ferrell and the cast from "Anchorman 2.'' Alex Rios visited France. Jason Castro went back to Stanford to finish his degree -- and then headed to Hawaii for a vacation.

Now that's good time management.

Mike Moustakas could have gone somewhere and enjoyed himself, too. But even though he's entrenched as the Royals' third baseman, he sacrificed some of his "me'' time for something a little less glamorous -- winter ball, that is.

While others were chilling, he spent December with the Lara Cardenales of the Venezuelan Winter League, playing for manager Pedro Grifol, whose full-time job is as Kansas City's hitting coach. The two worked to try to help Moustakas grow as a hitter, an investment that could pay major dividends in 2014 and beyond.

In the big picture, this is no big deal. But it's a reminder that the Royals aren't going to be looking just to their newcomers (second baseman Omar Infante and right fielder Norichika Aoki) to make up ground in the American League Central.

They feel good about the cast of 20-somethings already in their lineup, players who helped the Royals recover from a disappointing first half to go 43-27 after the All-Star break, joining the playoff conversation before the Indians and Rays stormed to the wire.

Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler -- all of whom are under team control for at least two more seasons -- showed why they could be headed toward big seasons, especially if Aoki and Infante get on base in front of them.

There's a gap between the Royals and the Tigers, sure. But it's probably not as wide as conventional wisdom would have it.

Despite having one of the top rotations in baseball, the Tigers won the AL Central by only one game last season (over the Indians) and three games in 2012 (over the White Sox). That rotation doesn't look as formidable with Doug Fister now in Washington, and the lineup will miss Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, even with Ian Kinsler joining it.

Assuming Jason Vargas can replace Ervin Santana's 211 innings, there's no reason the Royals can't build off the run they made last season. James Shields' positive approach has rubbed off on the rest of the rotation, which did its part with the 2.97 second-half ERA that was the biggest part of the strong finish. The Royals allowed only 3.3 runs per game after the All-Star break, a scary-good total in the AL.

The pitching allowed hitters to relax, and the Royals' core responded. Hosmer, as much of a key as anyone, was hitting .261 with one home run in 180 at-bats at the end of May, but something clicked at the start of June. He hit .318 the rest of the year, with a homer every 28 at-bats.

Hosmer's second-half OPS was .852, and Perez (.818) and Butler (.804) were also above .800. When you can get an .800 OPS from four or five regulars, you can do real damage.

Infante (.810 OPS in the second half last season) has that upside. So, too, does Moustakas, although he has to reach back into his memory bank to remember being such a consistent hitter.

He was labeled as a natural hitter and future batting champ coming out of Chatsworth (Calif.) High School in 2007. He got to the big leagues at age 22 and hit .263 in 89 games his rookie season. His fielding at third base was more of a concern than his hitting, and he worked tirelessly to try to get better.

Along the way, Moustakas' hitting suffered. His batting average has dropped in each of the last two seasons, to .233 in 2013. He was more productive in the second half of the season than the first -- a hopeful sign -- but was still frustrated with a slash line of only .259/.308/.416.

When Moustakas got the chance to go to Venezuela and do offseason work with Grifol, he jumped. He played there through Dec. 22, returning home to California just before Christmas. He had to feel better about himself as he hit for average (.288) and drove the ball, with nine extra-base hits (including three home runs) and 17 RBIs in his 17 games.

He's got a running start on 2014, when minor improvements could make a major difference for the Royals.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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