Royals look to be on the right path

Royals look to be on the right path

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When baseball people talk about "successful organizations," what they are actually talking about are the people who make those organizations successful. There is reason to believe that the Kansas City Royals now have the right successful people to become one of those successful organizations.

The Royals took the first step in the process in 2006 by bringing in Dayton Moore as general manager. Moore has been an integral part of the front office success of the Atlanta Braves and was widely viewed as a logical GM choice for any organization. Last October, in turn, Moore found the manager he believes will be the centerpiece of the Royals' resurgence: Trey Hillman.

Moore had to go to all the way to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters for his man. Hillman had a substantial North American resume as a Minor League manager, but what he had done in Japan was to take a moribund team and turn it into a perennial contender. At this date, anyone who disparages achievements of any sort in Japanese baseball does so at his own peril. Hillman's background would be ideal for the Royals, a team with 12 losing seasons in the last 13 years.

For Moore, the manager had to be more than a standard dugout tactician. He had to be the franchise's focal point.

"I can't overstate the importance for any organization, especially to our organization, that every young player that's potentially making his decision to join our organization, either through the [First-Year Player] Draft or free agency, and all the existing Minor League players, really aspire to playing for this guy, and are motivated to be a part of a team that he manages," Moore said on Thursday.

"Trey has the energy and the relationship skills to build that type of atmosphere and create that type of continuity that we've got to have long term here."

Hillman has come in with a relentless emphasis on fundamentals, and a message to the Royals that they have to expect something much better than defeat.

"I think you have to tell everyone that they have to raise their own individual expectations," Hillman said. "I can't make anyone think the way I think. You can continue to be positive and consistent with what you say, and I've said it many times: We have to raise our individual and collective expectations. It's a challenge, but I don't think it's anything that can't be managed and can't be attained right now. But it's got to be a collective effort. It can't be just me saying something.

"I'm not trying to do anything that hasn't been productive and successful in the past. I'm just trying to do what we can do, the simple things that we can do and be consistent with those, do them at a high percentage that gives us a better chance to win.

"People talk 'fundamentals' all the time, but if you don't go out and implement drills to do the right things fundamentally, then I think you're just talking about it instead of actually doing it."

The Kansas City players have noticed the difference this spring. They are being held accountable to a greater degree than in the past. They are working more on fundamentals than in the past. But at the same time, after four straight last-place finishes, they are being asked to lift their aspirations to a much higher level.

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"Trey made a good point," outfielder Mark Teahen said. "He told us: 'If we're not expecting to win a championship, we're not going to fall into one.' We're not going to have a bunch of success if we're just hoping to. We've got to expect to do it. As crazy as some people might think we are for saying we're trying to win a championship, that's got to be our approach.

"Since Dayton's been here there's been a different energy. Hillman comes in and he just brings that energetic nature and that belief that we're going to get better and we're going to have success. It's contagious."

It isn't all verbiage. Tangible steps have been made to improve this team. The Royals' long-term growth will be at least in part dependent upon the development of their farm system. But they have made moves demonstrating that they will not merely wait to become competitive.

"In 2006, we were coming off the worst pitching staff in the history of the Royals, one of the worst pitching staffs in all of baseball," Moore said. "We thought we needed to be very aggressive to seek the best talent that we could."

Moore traded with the Mets for starter Brian Bannister, who responded with a 12-9 record and a 3.87 R|ERA. The Royals signed another starter, Gil Meche, to a five-year, $55-million contract, and there were sneers that they had overpaid. But Meche's 3.67 ERA last season was the best by a Kansas City starting pitcher in 10 years. More quietly, but just as effectively, the Royals picked up Joakim Soria in the Rule 5 Draft from San Diego and he evolved into a very capable closer.

This offseason, the Royals signed outfielder Jose Guillen to a three-year, $36-million contract. Again, this was not conventional wisdom's favorite move. Guillen has consistently produced runs, but has occasionally produced difficulties in his previous work with eight different organizations.

"The word 'safe' is a dangerous word for an organization like ours," Moore said. "If we do what we've always done, we're going to get what we always got. We've got to operate differently and be aggressive."

In the case of both Meche and Guillen, Moore said, there were no other viable alternatives, either on the market or internally, that would match the worth of these players. What looked like gambles to some on the outside looked like necessary attempts to improve on the part of the Royals.

This evidence of a new organizational perspective is appreciated by the players.

"You see things going on in the offseason, things going on in the Minor Leagues, it's more than just an attitude," Teahen said. "They're making the changes they need to make to make us a successful organization."

And so, the Royals enter a new era, with a long road to travel, but lofty aspirations. "I would have never come here to Kansas City if I didn't feel we could win a world championship at some point in time," Moore said.

The 2008 Kansas City Royals may still be some distance from that point. But this is an organization with the right people now in place, indisputably headed in the right direction.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.