The Royals expect James Shields to be a difference maker. But were they close enough to being a playoff team before they added him?
That's the question about the deal in which the Royals sent future All-Star Wil Myers to the Rays.
It's too early to know but general manager Dayton Moore loves the way this is trending.
"This team is very good,'' said Shields, who will face the White Sox's Chris Sale on Monday at U.S. Cellular Field. "It is fundamentally sound. We worked really hard in spring training to get where we are. The guys are banging the ball around."
While the American League Central has been a balanced division, it has been safe for two decades to write off the Royals' chances before the first pitch. They last went to the playoffs in 1985 when the late Dick Howser was the manager and Bret Saberhagen was a 20-game winner at age 21.
Their manager, Ned Yost, is a combined 100 games below .500 in his nine years as a manager, but can't wait to get this season started. He believes the Royals have achieved their goals of improving their starting pitching and fielding, with the lineup a plus.
Shields is one of only six players on the opening day roster who has postseason experience. But he loves the skill and sense of purpose among his new teammates, which was visible in Arizona.
The Royals blew away the Cactus League with a 25-7 record, thanks in large part to a reconstructed lineup scoring 6.8 runs per game, the most in the majors.
"One thing I'm proudest of is the way we handled ourselves in the clubhouse and (brought) our attitude in the clubhouse out onto the field," Shields said. "That's one of the reasons we won so many games in spring training and hopefully we can translate that into the season."
Moore went into the off-season believing he no longer could count on the organization's homegrown starters. He dealt Myers (Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year) for Shields and right-hander Wade Davis, opened his arms for Ervin Santana when the Angels deemed him expendable and committed $25 million to re-sign veteran right-hander Jeremy Guthrie, who landed in Kansas City last July.
The lineup stayed intact, with the biggest difference being that left fielder Alex Gordon took up permanent residency in the leadoff spot after being developed more as a run-producer. Shields said he knew his new teammates could hit but has been blown away by their play in the field.
Catcher Sal Perez and shortstop Alcides Escobar — acquired from the Brewers alongside center fielder Lorenzo Cain for Zack Greinke in an excellent trade — are major assets. Corner outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Gordon are death to aggressive baserunners, first baseman Eric Hosmer is extremely athletic and third baseman Mike Moustakas has worked hard to remove his label as a defensive liability.
Shields should enjoy working with Perez after spending his career with the Rays' interchangeable catchers, none of whom were of Perez's quality.
"He's a very passionate player,'' Shields said. "He's into every single pitch. He loves the game. I didn't know how good of a game-caller he is.''
These aren't the same old Royals, and they're eager to start proving it.
Inauspicious start: If the Yankees make the playoffs this season, Joe Girardi probably will deserve Manager of the Year honors.
His opening day roster likely will include four players obtained late in spring training who were not wanted by their previous teams — first baseman Lyle Overbay and three outfielders, Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch and Vernon Wells. General manager Brian Cashman had to get busy after breaking his leg in a sky-diving accident. But Cashman continues working the phones to upgrade, with a first baseman atop his list.
"It is the GM's job, when he sees a problem, to fix it,'' Cashman said.
The Yankees' lineup in the Monday opener against the Red Sox will include Chris Stewart at catcher and Eduardo Nunez, not Derek Jeter, at shortstop. Jeter joins Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson to give Cashman $80.5 million worth of players on the sidelines. That's more than the payroll of the Royals and eight other teams (Rodriguez alone makes more than the Astros' 25-man roster, which checks in at $24.3 million).
One scenario making the rounds this week has the Yankees pursuing Andre Ethier from the Dodgers as a long-term replacement for Granderson, who isn't expected to be re-signed. Ethier, in the first year of a five-year, $85-million deal, joins Carl Crawford in blocking Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig, who will open the year in Double A after going to Los Angeles for the Freeway Series.
Time to figure it out: The Tigers' lack of an established closer was one of the major stories of the spring, with the volume getting cranked up when Bruce Rondon was sent to the minors. Manager Jim Leyland threw out the dreaded term "closer by committee,'' but the Detroit Free Press' John Lowe was not among the alarmists.
Lowe points how the closers for the three National League division champs in 2012 had a total of five career saves before last season. The Nationals got 32 saves from set-up man Tyler Clippard after Drew Storen underwent elbow surgery; the Reds got 38 saves, including 27 conversions in a row in one stretch, from Aroldis Chapman after Ryan Madson was sidelined in spring training and the Giants got 21 saves by midseason from Santiago Casilla, then turned to Sergio Romo as the replacement for Brian Wilson.
Does Leyland have guys like Clippard, Chapman, Casilla and Romo on his opening day roster?
"Look for anything, because that's the way it's going to be,'' he said. "This is going to be tough. It'll be a second-guesser's delight.''
Don't be surprised if Rondon is the closer in the second-half of the season.
"We got something special," Leyland said. "(He's) not quite ready yet to close games at the major league level."
Proceed with caution: The Phillies have $64.5 million invested in the idea of winning behind Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay this season but Halladay was throwing batting practice all spring, including in his final tuneup. He gave up eight hits in 41/3 innings against the Blue Jays on Thursday, and in the outing before that Jays' minor leaguers banged him around.
Velocity has been an issue all spring, with his fastball parking in the high 80s. Yet Halladay insists that physically he feels as good as he has in "probably five years.'' Scouts see the 36-year-old regressing quickly, as his 4.49 ERA last season suggested.
Halladay expects to prove them wrong.
"It's not a boxing match,'' he said about pitching. "It's not strength vs. strength. It's a chess match. It's a competition of the mind and execution and being smarter and being more prepared."
Hands off: The Cubs and other rebuilding teams may have a harder time getting over the top than they had planned. Teams are now signing elite players to longer extensions than ever, which will hurt the supply of players in future free-agent classes.
The $180- and $167-million deals for Justin Verlander and Buster Posey, respectively, on Friday came on the heels of nine-figure extensions for Felix Hernandez, David Wright and Evan Longoria, with the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright settling for $97.5 million.
It was stunning when the Tigers signed Miguel Cabrera to a $152.3-million contract in 2008. But since then Dave Dombrowski has locked up Prince Fielder, Verlander and Anibal Sanchez to mega-contracts, giving Detroit a foursome signed for $626.3 million over 29 combined seasons. Al Kaline's head must be spinning.