4 Kansas City Royals Hard-hitting young talent can bring this club back from the baseball boondocks

March 27, 2000

Mike Sweeney and Sal Fasano, the Royals' starting first baseman
and backup catcher, respectively, each spent two weeks this
winter trekking to outposts even farther off the baseball map
than Kansas City. Traveling with a group known as VPI, which
bills itself as a Christian baseball ministry, Sweeney toured
Germany, running baseball clinics for kids and lecturing on his
religious beliefs. Fasano, through the same program, spread the
good word of baseball in Bangkok. "It was great. I'd go back in
an instant," says Fasano. "Some of those kids knew nothing about
the game."

Sweeney and Fasano can now sympathize with manager Tony Muser,
who has been running a domestic baseball mission since taking
over the Royals in 1997. Last year he presided over a group of
players with scarcely more experience than those kids at the VPI
camps, a glorified Triple A team that featured two rookies up
the middle and first-time every-day players at three other
positions. Kansas City lost 97 games, tying a franchise worst.
Still, there were enough pleasant surprises--a club-record 856
runs scored and the emergence of Rookie of the Year
centerfielder Carlos Beltran and speedy first-year second
baseman Carlos Febles--to have the Royals thinking (gasp!) .500
in 2000. "We're not young this year," says Muser. "We're
youthful, but we finally have some experience."

There are signs that the whole organization is growing up.
General manager Herk Robinson has increased the payroll from $16
million last year to about $25 million, and for the first time
in recent memory the spring training buzz didn't center on which
veterans were going to be traded. During the off-season the
Royals aggressively pursued a free agent, albeit their own: Rey
Sanchez, a defensive specialist who last season had a breakout
year with career highs in average (.294), RBIs (56) and runs
(66). In November, Muser, first base coach Frank White and
assistant general manager Allard Baird visited Sanchez, who was
considering a dip into the free-agent market, at his home in
Puerto Rico. Over lunch they beseeched him to stay with the
Royals. "That's the closest I've ever come to begging a player
to sign," says Muser, who coached Sanchez with the Cubs from
1993 to '97. "I think Rey had more fun in baseball last year
than he ever had before."

Says Sanchez, who signed a two-year, $4.6 million deal with the
Royals, "Last year was a tryout camp for everybody here. This
year we all know how we can help the team."

Robinson also signed free-agent closer Ricky Bottalico (20 saves
for the Cardinals last year). To say the Royals' bullpen was
atrocious in 1999 would be kind: They were the first team in
major league history to have more blown saves (30) than saves
(29), and they lost 35 games in which they led or were tied
going into the seventh inning. The Royals not only want
Bottalico to nail down leads but also to show his new bullpen
comrades what a real major league reliever is made of. "Ricky
brings a new presence to the bullpen--hard-nosed, maybe even
over-tempered," says Muser, remembering that Bottalico received
a three-game suspension in '98 for beaning Barry Bonds, which
precipitated a bench-clearing brawl.

"This is a good opportunity for me to get back on my feet and
back to being a closer," says Bottalico, who despite saving
those 20 games had a 3-7 record and 4.91 ERA. Bottalico says
that last season he was still recovering from a 1998 operation
to remove bone chips from his elbow, hindering his performance.
He spent this spring working on a changeup to complement his
low-90s fastball. "Plus," he says happily, "you know this team
is going to score a lot of runs."

They should. Except for designated hitter Jeremy Giambi, who was
traded to Oakland last month, everyone returns from last year's
starting lineup, which included six hitters who batted .290 or
better. Kansas City, in fact, features one of the finest
outfields in the game. Beltran jumped to the majors from Double
A last year and blew the doors off the American League with a
.293 average, 22 homers, 108 RBIs and 27 steals. In his fourth
major league season, burgeoning star Jermaine Dye arrived as a
power hitter (27 homers, 119 RBIs) and a Gold Glove-caliber
rightfielder (league-leading 17 assists, a DVD's worth of
spectacular plays). Leftfielder and leadoff hitter Johnny Damon
set a career high by batting .307 and had 36 steals and scored
101 runs. "We feel like our offense is in place," says Damon.
"We're praying the pitching staff comes through."

While staff ace Jose Rosado (10-14, 3.85 ERA) might be one of
the toughest lefthanders in the league, there's little else on
this starting staff to keep Muser from going deep into his
bullpen on most nights. If Muser gets a decent effort from his
pitchers, .500 might not be mission impossible. "I've been
telling guys to play one game over .500 every month," says
Damon. "That's a real good season, and since no one will be a
free agent after this year, we can stay together. This is
definitely a team we can keep moving with."

--S.C.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON The savior? After becoming the first team in the majors to have more blown saves than saves, the Royals brought in Bottalico to stop the bleeding. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON

around the HORN

OFFENSE
[3 1/2 stars]
DEFENSE
[2 1/2 stars]
STARTING PITCHING
[1 1/2 star]
BULLPEN
[1/2 star]
MANAGER
[2 1/2 stars]

by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (AL rank)

Batting average .282 (3)
Runs scored 856 (7)
Home runs 151 (12)

1999 record: 64-97 (fourth in AL Central)

Opponents' batting average .288 (14)
ERA 5.35 (14)
Fielding percentage .980 (11)

next up...

When Jay Witasick was acquired from the A's last spring, the
Royals stuck him in the bullpen and hoped his above-average
fastball and power curve would steady a shaky relief corps. That
plan didn't work. In seven innings over his first four
appearances Witasick walked eight, struck out zero and had a
4.91 ERA. By the end of May, Tony Muser, in desperation, had
tried him in the starting rotation, where the 27-year-old
righthander wasn't much more successful. "I needed a lot of
work," says Witasick, who lost four of his first five decisions.
But Muser stuck with him, and Witasick finished the year with a
flourish. He won five of his final seven starts, added a
changeup to his repertoire and cemented a spot in the rotation.
"His stuff qualifies him to be a power closer," says Muser, "but
he pitched better and better as a starter."

the lineup
projected roster with 1999 statistics

Manager: Tony Muser (fourth season with Kansas City)

BATTING ORDER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

LF Johnny Damon L 75 .307 14 77 36
2B Carlos Febles R 147 .256 10 53 20
CF Carlos Beltran S-R 37 .293 22 108 27
RF Jermaine Dye R 89 .294 27 119 2
1B Mike Sweeney R 85 .322 22 102 6
3B Joe Randa R 169 .314 16 84 5
DH Mark Quinn (R) R 151 .333 6 18 1
C Brian Johnson[1] R 259 .231 5 18 0
SS Rey Sanchez R 306 .294 2 56 11

BENCH

OF Todd Dunwoody[1] L 234 .220 2 20 3
IF Paul Sorrento[1] L-R 248 .235 11 42 1
C Sal Fasano R 348 .233 5 16 0
IF Jeff Reboulet[1] R 406 .162 0 4 1

STARTERS PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Jeff Suppan 112 10 12 6.5 1.36 4.53
LH Jose Rosado 50 10 14 6.3 1.29 3.85
RH Blake Stein* 190 1 2 5.8 1.53 4.56
RH Jay Witasick 203 9 12 5.4 1.73 5.57
RH Tyler Green[1][2] 256 4 6 4.9 2.02 7.69

BULLPEN PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Ricky Bottalico[1] 100 3 7 28 1.80 4.91
RH Jerry Spradlin[1][3] 246 3 1 0 1.56 4.87
RH Jose Santiago 272 3 4 2 1.27 3.42
RH Doug Bochtler[1] 284 0 0 0 1.31 5.54
RH Chris Fussell 314 0 5 2 1.93 7.39
LH Billy Brewer[1] 333 1 1 2 1.71 7.01

[1]New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched

PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 164)
*Will begin season on DL
[2]Triple A stats
[3]Combined AL and NL stats

the book
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Royals

"You can't go into Kansas City anymore thinking you'll play
three easy games and get out. The Royals have good team speed
and do a lot of little things to score runs without much
power.... There's no telling how good Carlos Beltran can be once
he gets a sense of the strike zone and learns how to hit
breaking balls.... Johnny Damon is unorthodox but is a good,
pesky leadoff hitter who can fly.... The Royals can't afford to
get people hurt in the infield because their backups are
questionable.... Carlos Febles is a future All-Star at second
base. He was helped immensely by shortstop Rey Sanchez, who
overachieved at the plate in 1999 but is a very competent
fielder.... Pitching is a problem. If Ricky Bottalico pitches as
he did for the Phillies earlier in his career, then the
bullpen's in good shape; if he can't get the job done, the team
is in trouble.... Jose Rosado is the closest thing the Royals
have to a staff ace, but none of the other starters have put
together a full, consistent season."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)