By Ross Newhan
The results of spring, individually and collectively, can be either an illusion or a significant steppingstone to a successful season.
The Kansas City Royals entered a Monday night game against the Dodgers with a 21-6 spring record, easily the best in baseball.
Their young talent is not an illusion--built through the draft over a series of years--and during the last winter owner David Glass and General Manager Dayton Moore felt what Moore described by phone as the "narrow window of opportunity" was right, given "the young talent that is now under club control for a period of years" to support it with veteran additions to the rotation.
The 21-6 record does not carry into the season, but the confidence that it has created does, and while many general managers generally dismiss spring statistics, Moore does not.
Was it important for the Royals to win in the spring, to prove that the enthusiasm created among the young players by the veteran additions, translated to the field?
"Absolutely," Moore said in our interview.
"The Royals haven't been to the playoffs since 1985 (and have had only one winning season since '95), and so we're consistently reminded of the need to create a winning culture.
"We know that on April 1 our record goes back to zero, but winning as we have in the spring is definitely, I believe, a reflection of our talent and quality depth."
Parity grips baseball. In the last two years alone, 13 of the 30 teams have made at least one postseason appearance. Nine teams have won the World Series in the last 12 seasons, and their average payroll rank has been 10th. Both Tampa Bay and Oakland, with the second lowest payrolls in 2011 and 2012, made the playoffs in those respective seasons.
In addition, with a second wild card team in each league now qualifying for the playoffs, many more clubs have acquired playoff fever.
Whether Kansas City can unseat the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central is uncertain, but it's a wide open division otherwise, and the Royals have delivered a spring message.
Building on the homegrown talent of Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, Moore took three offseason steps to strengthen the rotation, the development of pitching having failed to keep up with the development of position players as the Royals took advantage of generally high draft positions because of their poor finishes during the season.
First, he acquired Ervin Santana from the Angels, then re-signed Jeremy Guthrie, who pitched well for the Royals after his mid-season acquisition last year, and, believing there is "still enough quality in the pipeline," traded one of the he top hitting prospects in baseball, Wil Myers, to Tampa Bay for starters James Shields and Wade Davis.
"I feel like our younger, position players responded immediately," Moore said. "The rotation now has a presence to it, and our entire camp had a more stable feel and sense of stability.
"The one thing that should allow our young players to continue to mature at their natural rate is the better starting pitcher. We should be able to compete more effectively from the first day to the last."
Moore and staff took over in mid-season of 2006. Gordon and Butler were in double A, "and I thought we were looking at an eight to 10 year process of building from within and developing the waves of players that would allow us to make a move of the type we did in trading Wil Myers.
"As I mentioned, it's a narrow window in which you have quality young players under club control or signed to long term contracts, and we felt we had reached the point where we could enhance that nucleus by creating a veteran presence in our rotation that would enable us to build a winning culture that the city has been without for too long--at least on the baseball field."
A long tenure in baseball has taught me to approach spring results cautiously.
However, there is no denying that the Royals have some attractive young players augmented by a stronger rotation, and 21-6 is impressive at any time of the year.