The most anticipated, and most anxiety-inducing, Royals team in years treated Thursday morning like any other.
The team’s youthful core of Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon packed bags bound for Friday’s home opener in Kansas City after a rainout postponed the series finale against the Detroit Tigers. Catcher Salvador Perez playfully wrestled backup outfielder Jarrod Dyson to the ground. Rookie pitching sensation Yordano Ventura shrugged off his two-day shift to the bullpen.
The Royals opened the season with a pair of excruciating walkoff defeats against the Tigers, the American League Central Division overlords and a club this team seeks to unseat.
Yet the Royals showed no signs of the strain. The anxiety belongs to the team’s fanbase, not the 25 men on the roster.
“These players are excited to get back home,” manager Ned Yost said. “And play in front of our fans.”
The Royals square off against the White Sox on Friday afternoon. Thus continues a season that fans feel doubles as a referendum on the tenure of general manager Dayton Moore. He raised a franchise from the ground, built a highly decorated farm system and delivered the rarity of a winning baseball season in 2013.
Now, can they take the next step?
The team’s first two games left something to be desired: The Royals’ offense went quietly against Detroit’s dynamic pitching duo of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Their vaunted bullpen cost them in both games. And the managerial machinations of Yost invited questioning.
After a winter of spending and a spring training of waiting, the early results feel magnified. But the hopes for this club are still high. Rival executives and national prognosticators alike feel this team, in Moore’s seventh full season in charge, can contend for the playoffs.
The reasons for excitement are manifold. The decision two winters ago to trade Wil Myers, and a package of other high-profile prospects, to Tampa Bay for starter James Shields caused an outcry among certain segments of the fanbase. But the arrival of Shields paid dividends on the field. The Royals won 86 games, their highest total since 1989.
Shields becomes a free agent after this season. He figures to fetch a nine-figure contract on the open market. Rival executives consider the Royals a long-shot to retain him. Thus the external pressure on the club is heightened, in no small part because Myers won the American League Rookie of the Year award with the Rays in 2013.
The club sought to fix their holes this winter. The Royals set a new record with a payroll worth more than $92 million, an increase of more than $10 million from last year’s previous record. For a frugal team, they issued a pair of larger contracts: A four-year, $32 million deal for starter Jason Vargas and a four-year, $30.25 million deal for second baseman Omar Infante.
The contract for Vargas is the second-largest for a free-agent pitcher in franchise history. The organization out-bid the Yankees for Infante’s services.
A week before spring training, Moore referred to this payroll as a “gamble.” Forbes valuated the organization at $490 million, the 29th-lowest among 30 teams.
In response to the interest generated by last season, the Royals hiked ticket prices a league-high 24.7 percent. The average price is still $24.73 per game, which is lower than the league average and 19th overall.
Yost saluted the fans for their ardor during 2013.
“The way they supported us last year,” Yost said. “The energy they brought, we’re looking forward to getting back to Kansas City for that.”
The team left Detroit on Thursday afternoon. The pageantry of the homer opener awaited.
Yost dislikes ceremony. But he conceded the importance of Friday, a symbolic signpost in a critical season in this franchise’s history.
“It’s a big day,” Yost said. “No doubt.”