ONE MORNING newRoyals manager Trey Hillman noticed that his prized young hitter, Billy Butler,was half-asleep as he fielded grounders at the team's spring facility inSurprise, Ariz. So Hillman brought Butler a cup of water and urged him to takea few sips. Then he threw the rest in Butler's face. "It surprised me, butit worked," says Butler. "I was awake for the rest of the day!"
This is an article from the March 31, 2008 issue
Will Hillman, whonever played or coached in the big leagues, have as much success stirring adormant franchise that has had one winning season in the last 13? Fresh off amanagerial stint in Japan during which he led the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fightersfrom fifth place in the Pacific League to a Japan Series Championship in fouryears, Hillman, 45, is earning players' raves for his communication skills,attention to detail, willingness to joke around and positive attitude. "Hisattitude is simply: We're going to win," says catcher John Buck.
Hillman haslittle patience for the low expectations that the Royals, who lost 93 games andfinished at the bottom of the AL Central in 2007 for the fourth straight year,perennially generate. "I've had people approach me and say, 'You know, a.500 season would be just great,' " he says. "I don't think .500seasons typically win championships, and I want to win championships."
To that endHillman has to do more than change attitudes; he has to solve a lot ofproblems, especially on offense. Last year Kansas City had the fewest homers(102), the fewest total bases (2,145) and the worst slugging percentage (.388)in the AL, and the club ranked next to last in total runs, walks and on-basepercentage. The signing of free agent Jose Guillen, who had 23 homers and 99RBIs with the Mariners last year while playing half of his games inhitter-hostile Safeco Field, should bolster the middle of the lineup, but itwon't turn the offense around. Expect the Royals to rely on situationalhitting. "You're not going to hit a lot of home runs at KauffmanStadium," says third baseman Alex Gordon. "We don't have the 30-40 homerun guys, so we have to do the hit-and-runs, the bunts. I think manufacturingruns is going to be key for us."
Another helpwould be breakthrough seasons for three of K.C.'s youngest players. The24-year-old Gordon, the second pick in the 2005 draft, had a down-and-up rookieseason in which he hit under .200 with 12 extra-base hits in the season's firsttwo months, but .275 with 43 extra-base hits thereafter. Mark Teahen is anathletic 26-year-old who's moving to his fourth position (leftfield) in threeyears while trying to regain the power he showed in 2006, when he hit 18 homeruns (compared with seven in '07). The baby-faced Butler, the 14th pick of the'04 draft who turns 22 on April¬†18, cheerfully wields one of the mostreliable bats on the team. In half a season as a rookie last year, Butler hit.292, usually as the DH in the cleanup spot. "I've yet to see him in a badmood," says Buck. "He's always smiling, alwaystalking--unfortunately--and always hitting. As long as he keeps that last onegoing, he can be as silly, happy and talkative as he wants."
Butler's abilityto use the whole field, his knack for making adjustments at the plate and hisrecall of how guys have pitched him before set him apart from most younghitters. "I've never had a player that young be able to do some of thethings he can do," says hitting coach Mike Barnett. "He approaches anat bat like a guy who has been up here for 10¬†years."
Hillman has beenup for even less time than Butler, but he's fully aware of what he and theRoyals are up against in the loaded AL Central. "To win, we have to beatthe odds," he says. "There's no prognosticator out there who will pickus to win the Central or even the wild card. But every year somebody beats theprognosticators. We've got to be that team."
CONSIDER THIS amodest proposal ...
Though he won'tturn 27 until September, leftfielder Mark Teahen (left) is the sort of youngplayer who might be a better fit for a contender rather than a rebuilding teamsuch as Kansas City. The Royals need middle-of-the-order bats to complementthose of rising hitting stars Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. Teahen is a solidmajor league regular, but his lack of a power stroke limits his upside.Moreover, Teahen, who is entering his fourth season, has just hit hisarbitration cycle (meaning he will become more expensive with each passingseason for the cost-conscious Royals) and is blocked by Gordon from playingthird base, his natural position. A particularly good trading partner for K.C.would be Cleveland, which has sifted through mediocre talent at leftfield andthird base and which has enough depth to trade a strong pitching prospect suchas Adam Miller.
Home runs hit byK.C. outfielders last season, the lowest total by a major league outfield inthe last 15 seasons. New rightfielder Jose Guillen slugged 23 by himself lastyear while playing half his games in the Mariners' cavernous Safeco Field.Having belted at least 23¬†homers in four of the past five seasons, hegives the Royals their first true outfield power threat since Carlos Beltranwas traded in 2004.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER TREY HILLMAN FIRST SEASON WITH KANSAS¬†CITY
|JOSE GUILLEN (New Aquisition)||¬†||RF|
|TONY PE√ëA JR.||¬†||SS|
|ALBERTO CALLASPO (New Aquisition)||IF|
|RH||Brett Tomko (New Aquisition)||263||4||12||7.2||1.50||5.55|
|RH||Yasuhiko Yabuta (R)* (New Aquisition)||178||4||4||6.5||1.18||2.73|
New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws *Japanese league stats
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
JUNE 12, 1989
"BO, IT'S your turn. One last swing," holleredhitting coach Mike Lum. The righthanded Jackson darted into the cage and jumpedup to the plate--on the lefthand side. He took his one cut, and it was the lastscene from The Natural. The ball towered past the dome lights, crashing off theHardware Hank sign on the facade of the second deck in far right centerfield,450 feet away and only 30 feet short of the longest rightfield homer ever hitin the Metrodome. --Peter Gammons
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