SURPRISE, Ariz. — The scene is indelible, iconic and forever unchanging. Wonderfully so. The images of ballplayers limbering up this week as spring training opens here in the Greater Phoenix area and throughout Florida herald the coming change of seasons.
Gifted poets are endlessly evocative in its emotional pull. So, too, are less-gifted poets. Much of their muse centers on hope, specifically renewed hope.
Cue the Royals, who officially open preparations for their 45th season Tuesday when pitchers and catchers shift from their current unofficial conditioning workouts. The infielders and outfielders formally join the mix on Friday.
Spring games start a week later.
This is the club’s most anticipated camp in more than a generation and comes flowered in the spring hope that an overhauled rotation just might bridge the longstanding chasm between what has been and what once was.
That the Royals’ rotation is better is hard to argue after retaining free-agent Jeremy Guthrie and agreeing to take on Ervin Santana’s contract – some $12 million, ahem – before acquiring James Shields and Wade Davis in a franchise-altering trade.
That deal sent outfielder Wil Myers, the sport’s consensus minor-league player of the year in 2012, to the Rays along three other promising prospects.
It was, simply put, a statement by general manager Dayton Moore that, at long last, he believes his club is ready to win. That’s no small thing for a franchise that owns just one winning season since 1994 and no postseason appearances since 1985.
“If we don’t start winning,” Moore said, “we’re never going to be ready to win. We’ve got to start. I can’t predict we’re going to win our division or whatever, but we’ve got to start.”
Still, the deal drew swift and sharp criticism from some quarters.
“Barring something completely unexpected,” ESPN analyst Keith Law declared, “(this) will be the move that brings Dayton Moore’s tenure in Kansas City, one marked by massive improvement in the team’s farm system, to an end.”
Moore agrees Myers is a budding star and acknowledges Shields might depart as a free agent after the 2014 season. Even so, he saw it as a deal he couldn’t refuse.
“Three or four years from now,” Moore said, “Wil Myers is going to be doing well, and we’re going to have to have the next-best guy. We’ve got to focus on what course does this put our organization in?
“I believe, and it’s my hope, that it’s going to set us on a different course whether Shields is here in 2015 or not. That’s what I go back to all of the time with that deal.”
Further, make no mistake: Shields is the guy the Royals wanted; the guy they’ve wanted for two years or more. Not just because of his ability – which isn’t inconsiderable – but also for the mind-set he brings to the front of the rotation.
September Nights is the title of Shields’ book and captures his mind-set in its opening words: “September nights hold magic for any team lucky enough to be in contention for the final act of the season.”
Shields has not only been there; he’s been there while spending his career in Tampa Bay, which operates under financial restrictions far more severe than those handicapping the Royals.
“We can’t control what ownership decides to do,” Shields wrote in regard to the Rays’ annual personnel turnovers. “We don’t know if we’re going to lose half of our tem next year…Why not take care of business before that window of opportunity slams shut?”
The Royals wanted that guy at the head of their rotation. They viewed any alternatives, even those that would have enabled them to retain Myers, as less appealing.
“They’re not easy decisions,” Moore said, “but I just look at it this way: All of those homegrown guys who signed with us long term, they expected us to put the best team we can on the field.”
The Royals’ lineup appears set for years to come.
All-Star designated hitter Billy Butler is under club control through 2015. So is left fielder Alex Gordon, who holds a player option for 2016.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar, first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas and center fielder Lorenzo Cain are under club control through 2017. The club options on catcher Salvy Perez’s extended deal run through 2019.
The situation is much the same in the bullpen. Closer Greg Holland won’t be eligible for free agency until after 2016. The Royals control Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins and Aaron Crow through 2017.
The time is now, the Royals believe, to make a push – and they did so in expanding the payroll north of $80 million for the first time in franchise history and in dealing away some prize gems from their next prospects class.
“We’ve proven we can build farm systems everywhere we’ve been,” Moore said. “Whether it’s Mike Arbuckle in Philadelphia, us in Atlanta, us here in Kansas City…we’ve built farm systems. We’re going to continue to develop players.
“Some years are going to be more fruitful than others, but we’re going to be able to do that. What we’ve got to do is prove we can win at the major-league level…I think we have the talent on the field to win.”
The tendency will be to draw quick conclusions from what happens here in the Arizona desert over the next seven weeks. Often it will be deceptive.
It was only last spring that Hosmer, coming off an impressive rookie season, torched the Cactus League by batting .398 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 28 games – before stumbling through a miserable season-long sophomore slump.
But know this: A revitalized Hosmer is one of the bigger keys to the Royals’ season. If he hits well enough to reclaim his No. 3 spot in the lineup, then Gordon can return to leadoff duty.
Similarly, the Royals need a productive full season from Moustakas and for right fielder Jeff Francoeur to recapture his 2011 form.
“We’ve got to get production out of our corners – first, third, left and right,” manager Ned Yost said. “We got it out of left last year. I think Moose and Hos grew up a lot last year by going through what they’ve gone through. I think they’re going to be OK.
“And Frenchy has killed himself working out all winter. He’s ready. He’s got a chip on his shoulder. I think he’s going to be fine.”
If so, the Royals should be fine, too.
Their youthful bullpen should remain a strength; their defense is average or better at all locations; and Perez, a budding star, is healthy after missing 10 weeks last year following a spring knee injury.
“I don’t care what anybody says about our team – good, bad or indifferent,” Yost said. “This is the time of year when everybody wants to predict how good everybody is or how bad they are. It’s all bull. It’s just on paper right now.
“We’ve got a good group. We’ve just got to compete.”
Poetry comes in many forms.