SURPRISE, Ariz.’”Believe or not, Royals fans have hope. At least they are acting like it in Arizona. Though it is unlikely they can compete in 2007 in the vicious American League Central, the Dayton Moore regime has fans dreaming of the franchises glory years. In turn, the franchise is trying to make sure their young players are aware of those years.
“One of our themes this spring is to educate our players on the history of the Royals,” farm director J.J. Picollo said. “They need to know there is a tradition here.”
To do so, the Royals have instituted an alumni guest instructor program that brings former Royals to camp to talk to the players about the club’™s history. This past winter, they sent out letters to every team alum whose address they had on file and asked them if they wanted to participate. The response was strong and the guest speakers include the likes of Willie Wilson, John Mayberry, Mike Boddicker, Jeff Montgomery and Joe Randa. The guests will address the team, but will also give specific talks to players who share similar styles to them. For example, Picollo noted, a player like speedster Derrick Robinson has a lot to gain from a personal chat with Wilson.
The Royals will also have Dr. Robert Linder give a talk to the minor leaguers over dinner one night next week. Linder teaches a course on baseball history at Kansas State.
While the Royals teach the past, there is also talk of their bright future which is on display most notably in the big league clubhouse, where third baseman Alex Gordon, righthander Luke Hochever and outfielder Billy Butler have lockers next to each other in the far left corner.
“They are guys we plan on being here a long time,” Picollo said. “They more time they spend together and the more they grow together the better the chances of making it happen.”
Butler, for one, is doing his best to ensure his place in the Royals’™ future with his work on his defense this spring. Though he spent most of last year in right field, he has been moved to left field this spring in deference to Mark Teahen who was pushed off of third base by Gordon.
“I’™m getting better out there,” Butler said. “I am going to be an adequate defender in left or right, whichever on they put me at. And that is what I am trying to prove here in big league camp.”
The 20-year-old gives a remarkably honest assessment of his game’™s most discussed aspect.
“I think my strength (on defense) that gets overlooked is that people don’™t see how hard I work out there,” the 2006 Texas League batting champion said. “I work hard everyday and people don’™t see how far I came from where I started out there. I am probably still below-average but I think I am getting close to being an adequate outfielder.”
Picollo explained that the Royals have put him in left field because Teahen is more athletic and instinctive. Because Kaufmann Stadium has a tricky right-field corner the club felt Teahen would be a better fit there. Butler is unlikely to make the big league club, but he is not that far away so the club is preparing for his inevitable arrival.
“He doesn’™t want to be a one-dimensional guy,” Picollo said. “He wants to be a part of the entire game and he is too young to say he is just a DH.”
Butler isn’™t the only one of the Royal prospect trio making changes to his game, though Hochevar’™s are subtler.
“I get a little long with my stride and it makes me hit my front side real hard and it kinds of jars me back and keeps the ball up,” Hochevar said. “So now we softened my front side and shortened it up a little bit so I am able to get on top of the baseball and get it down in the zone much easier and it has made a big difference thus far.
The Tennessee product also had somewhat of a metaphysical take on the pressure that comes with being the first overall pick, as he was in the 2006 draft.
“It is not like now that I am the number one pick I need to be somebody else or I need to be better,” he said. “If I do that, then I will have out of body experiences and I won’™t pitch how I pitch. You know, try and be somebody that I am not.”
While Gordon, Hochevar and Butler are cutting their teeth with the big league club, there was plenty of action on the minor league fields. And by plenty of action I mean a simulated game. But for a Baseball America writer looking to see some players he wrote about for the Prospect Handbook, it was fine.
The star of the afternoon was lefthander Brent Fisher who showed just how deceptive he can be. Righthander Erik Cordier, who was observing as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery, explained.
“Fish hides the ball really well. It stays behind his body so hitter doesn’™t get a look at it until very late. Plus, he throws his breaking ball from the same spot and that adds to his deception.
On cue, Fisher fanned Chris Lubanski swinging on a vicious curve.
It was a bit of a surprise when the Royals sent Fisher back to the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2006 after he dominated the level in his debut in 2005, but Picollo cited a number of factors. For one, he is from the Phoenix area and did not turn 19 until last August so he is still quite young. Furthermore, the club felt that he could learn a lot from Mark Davis, the 1989 AL Cy Young winner and the Royals’™ AZL pitching coach.
As for Cordier, he threw for the first time last week after having his surgery four months ago. Needless to say, his first throws were ugly.
“I could have thrown as accurate lefty I had so little feel for it,” Cordier said. “I fell asleep with a ball in my right hand that night so I would have better feel for it the next day. It is something I have done off and on since I was a kid and it worked this time. I might start doing it more often.”
The 21-year-old will likely miss the entire 2007 season but hopes to be ready for instructional league.
Speaking of injured Royals, shortstop Jeff Bianchi is back throwing after having season-ending shoulder surgery last summer. So far there have been no setbacks.
“I’™ve been throwing more and more,” Bianchi said. “There is a little soreness because I am throwing from different angles for the first time, mostly on double plays.”
Bianchi has a career line of .414/.500/.721 in 140 AZL at-bats over the last two seasons and his bat certainly seems ready for a full season assignment.
“That is not my biggest worry,” the 2005 second-rounder said. “I have to be healthy first.”