SURPRISE, Ariz. — There are signs better times are on the horizon for the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals finished 67-95 last season, the eighth time in the past 10 years they have lost at least 93 games. They also finished last place in the American League Central for the sixth time in the past seven seasons.
Expectations are again low this season with the Royals likely opening the season with the smallest payroll in the majors, an estimated $35 million. But there is enthusiasm in the camp — even though it rained Saturday when the team was slated to have its first full-squad workout.
The Royals' minor league system is teeming with highly-touted prospects.
"I know one thing, the excitement has shot up big time," Royals bench coach John Gibbons said Saturday. "Look at all the good young players. It's not just a talented group, but some blue-chippers in there, some impact guys. There's a bunch of them. Still they've got to get here and establish themselves. They all won't make it. They never do, but there is sure a lot to choose from, that's for sure."
Gibbons listed minor leaguers third baseman Mike Moustakas, first baseman Eric Hosmer and left-handed starters John Lamb and Mike Montgomery as future impact players. Of the four, only Moustakas is given much of a chance to make the opening day roster.
"You want to make sure once they get here they are ready," Gibbons said. "If you bring them up in June, that has its advantages, too. We have a chance to have a real good team in the next couple of years."
The Royals, however, are not writing off 2011.
"There's nothing wrong coming in when people don't expect a whole lot of you," Gibbons said. "Then have a solid good year and surprise some people. There's worse things could happen."
The Royals traded away their best pitcher, Zack Greinke, to Milwaukee, but three players they received from the Brewers - shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and hard-throwing right-handed reliever Jeremy Jeffress -are expected to contribute this season.
General manager Dayton Moore also signed free agent outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur and left-handed starter Jeff Francis. Plus, he re-signed left-hander Bruce Chen, who led the club with 12 victories last season, after he had filed for free agency.
"We've got the best minor league system in the game," catcher Jason Kendall said. "Dayton did some very good things in the off-season. I definitely think it's going to be a surprise team, which is a good thing. Fly under the radar and see what happens. We've got some good arms, which you have to have in order to succeed."
All 64 players invited to camp were in uniform with infielder Joaquin Arias the last Royal to check in, but foul weather moved most of the workout into indoor cages and mounds.
"The most important thing is we got through batting practice with our pitchers," Royals manager Ned Yost said.
He said 14 pitchers threw 10 minutes each as scheduled.
"The hitters got to see some live batting practice," Yost said. "With the quality of our pitchers, that's not really a fun thing in the cage right now, but at least we got it done. We've been working here for the last week outside. They've been getting enough ground balls, fly balls and running the bases, so a rainy day didn't hurt us. We got through it."
Yost said the only injury was that minor league catcher Ryan Eigsti got hit in the head on a back swing.
Bruce Chen went nearly four years without winning a major league game before he led the Kansas City Royals with 12 victories last year.
He went from begging for a minor league contract in 2009 after missing the previous season because of elbow surgery, to arriving in spring training this year with a $2 million contract.
"I wanted to be back, but I didn't hear from the Royals for a long time, and there were some other teams offering," Chen said Monday. "Then they said we would like to have you back. We want to see if we're going to trade one of the right-handers. I'm thinking Greinke."
Chen's 4.17 ERA last year was slightly lower than Zack Greinke's, and Chen had two more wins. Greinke, the 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner, was dealt in December to the Milwaukee Brewers.
"They trade Greinke, and we don't talk for awhile," Chen said. "It was like 'Man, it's January, and I better do something quick.' I say to my agent, 'Let's go back to Kansas City and see what their best offer is. Let's see if we can get a deal done.' Both sides were willing to work on something. In less than a week the contract is done."
The 33-year-Chen went 12-7 record and won his final four starts, including a two-hitter against Tampa Bay for his first career shutout. He was hoping for a multiyear contract.
"I never received a two-year deal," he said. "It's more realistic to go with a one-year deal. This is the organization that gave me the opportunity."