Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 3/7/12
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Cole Hamels? Cole Hamels?!?! It was barely 8 a.m. inside the Kansas City Royals clubhouse, but designated hitter Billy Butler was on a roll. Indeed, if the needling of a top prospect by a homegrown veteran is a sign of a team on the rise, then the Royals are well on their way. Seems left-hander Mike Montgomery, one of the Royals prized young pitchers, once had said that he wished he had a changeup like the Phillies Hamels. Jarrod Dyson, Montgomerys roommate at Triple-A Omaha last season, relayed the comment to Butler, apparently with embellishment. In a major league clubhouse, as opposed to say, a U.S. courthouse, no one is obligated to tell the truth. Butler gleefully took Montgomerys remark out of context, circling a table in the middle of the room, all but shrieking Hamels name repeatedly as Montgomery sat in silence. Monty says hes Cole Hamels! Butler cried as first base coach Doug Sisson approached. I dont know how to respond, Sisson replied, deadpan. Aint played a day in the big leagues yet, and he has the best changeup in the game! Butler yelped. Later, at his locker, Montgomery tried to put the pieces together. One time I said, It would be nice to have a changeup like that. It turned into, My stuff is better than his. How it turned into that, I dont know, Montgomery said. As soon as Dyson said something to Billy, Billy runs with it. Dyson will go with it all day. I think hes mad that I struck him out in spring training. No, Dyson said, Montgomery needed to hear from Butler. It will make him a better person down the road, Dyson said, trying to keep a straight face. Players kid because they love. They kid youngsters because well, the kids need to recognize their importance to the team. Butler acknowledged with a smile that Montgomery actually did nothing to offend the baseball gods. No matter: Butler knows that while Montgomery probably wont make the club out of spring training, he likely will be needed at some point this season. So get ready, kid. The rotation is by far the Royals biggest question, the only reason they are not a fashionable pick as the surprise team of 2012. The teams offense, which ranked in the top five in the AL last season in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, might only get better. The lineup will benefit from a full season of first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas and catcher Sal Perez, even if the tradeoff of Melky Cabrera for Lorenzo Cain in center proves an offensive downgrade. The team speed is above-average for an AL club, and Cain will improve the up-the-middle defense. The bullpen, with free-agent right-hander Jonathan Broxton joining setup man Greg Holland and closer Joakim Soria, looks so imposing, new pitching coach Dave Eiland said, I wouldnt trade it for any bullpen in the game. The rotation, on the other hand, ranked next-to-last in the AL last season with a 4.82 ERA. Left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, acquired from the San Francisco Giants for Cabrera, is the only newcomer. Yet the Royals believe the group will be better than people think. In the best-case scenario, right-hander Luke Hochevar builds off his strong second half, lefty Bruce Chen continues following his Moyer-esque career arc and Sanchez achieves the consistency he never attained with the Giants (Eiland, who calls Sanchez a bit of a drifter, is working with him on staying over the rubber so that he can keep the ball down). Those are the top three starters. Lefty Danny Duffy, easily could be the fourth; he had a 5.64 ERA as a rookie last season, but is the talk of camp thus far, with Hosmer saying he looks like a completely different guy. Right-handers Felipe Paulino, who was something of a revelation last season, and Luis Mendoza, who is out of options, also are strong candidates. Then there is All-Star righty Aaron Crow, who will join the rotation if all else fails; otherwise, hell return to the bullpen and make that group even stronger. Duffy throws 95-96 left-handed. Sanchez can be unhittable. Paulino throws 98 in the eighth inning, Chen says. We dont have the names other people have, like the Phillies. But talent-wise, those three guys are just as good as anybody. Hochevar, of course, belongs in that group as well, and with Montgomery and righty Jake Odorizzi leading the next wave of prospects, depth should not be an issue. No, the issue is whether the Royals can find enough high-quality innings to produce ahem only their second winning season since 1993. General manager Dayton Moore, unwilling to block his younger pitchers, resisted adding a free agent such as righty Roy Oswalt late in the offseason. But the Royals, given the Cleveland Indians early injuries, could be the second-best team in the division after the Detroit Tigers, maybe even a contender for the newly created second wild card. Thus, Moore could be a GM to watch at the July 31 non-waiver deadline. Kansas City, even after the promotions of Hosmer, Moustakas and Co., remains deep in prospects. The teams payroll is projected to increase more than 20 million to 57 million, according to the Kansas City Star. But that number seemingly could rise further if excitement mounts, particularly with the team hosting the 2012 All-Star Game. As always with the Royals, the operative word is, If. Now back to the clubhouse, where Montgomery isnt the only one taking heat. Left-hander Everett Teaford, who had the audacity to watch video of Chicago White Sox lefty John Danks last September, also is a target of Butlers high-pitched squeals. Danks? Butler hollers. John Danks? As Teaford explains, he was watching video of Danks facing the Seattle Mariners in preparation for his own start against the Ms. Billy comes in. He looks at the screen, sees John Danks and just starts blowing me up. John Danks? You think youre John Danks? Hes one of the best lefties in the game! Teaford recalled, smiling. I continued to watch it. Yeah, I dont have the command that John Danks does. But we have the same types of pitches. Billy has yet to forget about that. Ah, but all in good fun. Talk to Butler, to Hochevar, to Hosmer, and the subject invariably turns to the Royals coming renaissance. Most of the teams young players have won in the minors the Royals Triple-A affiliate won the Pacific League title in 2011 and their Double-A affiliate won the Texas League in 2010. The majors obviously are different. But the players expect to keep winning. It wont happen easily; young players dont always progress on a straight upward path. The Royals not only could use an ace, but also would benefit from a Michael Cuddyer type who could provide leadership and help the team break the culture of losing once and for all. All in time. Well know the Royals truly are back two, three, four years from now, when a veteran in another clubhouse taunts a prospect, expressing disgust that the prospect would dare compare himself to an established Royals star. Montgomery? the veteran might say. You think youre better than Mike Montgomery? The day is coming. The day when the Royals finally arrive.
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