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Royals Welcome New And Old Teammates To Spring Training

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

It’s a new year, but the Kansas City Royals believe that spring training in Surprise, Arizona, is the starting point for making another run at a World Series championship. Familiar players are returning, but some newcomers are blending in, too.

No team in Major League Baseball has won back-to-back World Series titles since the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000. 

On the first day of full-squad workouts, veteran Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer saunters into the Surprise, Arizona, clubhouse, shortly after 8 a.m. He’s wearing dark sunglasses to shield his eyes from the bright Arizona sun.

Hosmer greets a gaggle of media members with a group interview. He answers questions about how he and the team are preparing for 162 regular season games and possibly more in October.

Like a kid returning to school after summer vacation, Hosmer spots his teammate Kendrys Morales and lights up. “That’s the first time I get to see Kendrys,” Hosmer declares. “It’s a blast.”

Spring training is reunion time for Hosmer and other World Series players returning to the Royals, but it’s also a time to get acquainted with the newcomers.

In Arizona last year, no one knew what kind of production Morales would provide as a replacement for popular slugger Billy Butler. As it turned out, Morales gave the team everything it looked for and more.

“He’s a fun-loving guy. He’s just one big teddy bear. Everybody loves him. He makes everybody laugh, I think, fitting into our environment,” says Dale Sveum, Royals batting coach. “Obviously, the other stuff goes unsaid being a switch-hitter, hits the ball out of the ballpark from both sides, drives runs in.”

Credit Greg Echlin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Royals Hall of Famer Mike Sweeney helps batting coach Dale Sveum.

Morales hit 41 doubles and drove in 106 runs to lead the team, and with 22 homers, he shared the team lead with Mike Moustakas. By comparison, Billy Butler drove in only 66 runs for the Oakland Athletics.

The biggest splash this off-season was the return of left fielder Alex Gordon, who could have gone anywhere as a free agent but chose to remain with the Royals.

Hosmer, too, admits he was on pins and needles about the prospects of Gordon’s return. “You know he’s the leader. He leads by example in here. It’s something that we all realize,” says Hosmer. “If Gordo says something and he has a problem with something, there’s a good chance you’re not doing the right thing because he rarely speaks when something’s going on. It just would have been weird seeing him in a different uniform.”

Gordon stayed, but others moved on. Pitcher Johnny Cueto, the versatile Ben Zobrist and relief specialist Ryan Madsen all signed lucrative multi-year contracts elsewhere. On the other side of the Surprise spring training complex, 36-year-old pitcher Jeremy Guthrie is in practice with the Texas Rangers.  

“Sometimes the right decision isn’t always the easiest one and this is one of those circumstances where it wasn’t easy at all. But you move forward and you feel like this is where I’m supposed to be,” says Guthrie from the Rangers clubhouse.

The Royals starting lineup is almost set, but Royals manager Ned Yost is anxious to see if a minor league prospect or a major league journeyman earns their way onto the Royals roster. “It’s going to be interesting to see who that surprise is going to be,” says Yost. “Last year, it was Chris Young. It was Ryan Madson. Those were two huge surprises for us. We’ll see who it is this year.”

Here’s a name to jot down: relief pitcher Brian Duensing. He seems to have the right connection. When Duensing got married, Alex Gordon was a groomsman in his wedding. They were teammates at the University of Nebraska, and their wives were sorority sisters there. But Duensing knows, despite a track record of pitching seven years for the Minnesota Twins, he’s got his work cut out.  

“It’s going to be all put on me. It depends on how I do,” says Duensing. “There’s a lot of good pitchers in this organization.”

For now, it’s all about stretching, practicing some defensive drills or swinging in the batting cage each morning. When the exhibition games start next week, the fringe players hoping to make the roster will be putting it all on the line trying to impress the coaches. The core players are just as interested.

Remember when seldom-used Christian Colon came off the bench in Game Five of the World Series? In his first post-season at-bat, Colon hit the tie-breaking single that gave the Royals a 3-2 lead in the series-clinching victory.

That’s the type of player the Royals are looking to find in spring training as they try to get another World Series win.

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