Royals eager to prove last year no fluke

Sunday, March 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:21 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

KANSAS CITY — A breakthrough by some promising young pitchers, a healthy Juan Gonzalez and one or two lucky bounces could halt Kansas City’s 19-year postseason drought.

The Royals, in Tony Pena’s second full season at the helm, could also melt right back into the small-market pack and return to their familiar losing ways.

It’s a team brimming with potential. It’s a team fraught with potential problems.

Thanks to Pena, last season’s AL Manager of the Year, a positive attitude is one thing the Royals possess. Pena wouldn’t have it any other way; everybody understands that it wasn’t false bravado he was feeding his club last year.

He told it to believe it could win, and it won. A sudden 21-game turnaround made the 100-game losers of 2002 one of the feel-good stories of 2003, and it competed into late September in the weak AL Central.

It was the first time important September games were played at Kauffman Stadium in a decade.

Now their energetic, positive-thinking skipper is delivering a different message to a beefed-up bunch that has good reason to expect bigger things in 2004.

“Last year we came in to create belief,” Pena said. “This year we came in to prepare to win. That’s what we are doing. They believe in themselves now. They believe they can win.”

Nobody was more active in the offseason than General Manager Allard Baird. He signed pitching depth in Scott Sullivan, revamped the catching by bringing in veterans Kelly Stinnett and Benito Santiago, a five-time All-Star, and added versatility and depth with the acquisition of infielder Tony Graffanino.

His signing of Juan Gonzalez to a one-year contract produced the biggest splash.

The previous time the moody, powerfully built Gonzalez found himself driving for a new high-dollar contract was in 2001 with Cleveland. He hit .325 with 35 home runs and 140 RBIs.

After being rewarded with a megabuck contract in Texas, Gonzalez, a two-time MVP limped around and missed 172 games during two disappointing, injury-marred seasons.

Now he’s 34 and in Kansas City with another free-agent pot of gold awaiting if he can put together another monster season.

His buddy, center fielder Carlos Beltran, is also working on a one-year contract and eyeing a lucrative free agency splash in 2005.

It’s logical to expect a huge season from Beltran, who has remained largely under the national radar despite being the sixth player to post three consecutive seasons of 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 30 stolen bases.

“Juan is a guy who is misunderstood,” Beltran said. “We’ve become good friends. He doesn’t like to talk about himself, but he’s a great guy. He helps all the young players. I think he’s going to have a big season for the Royals.”

Pena plans to give him plenty of rest. About five games a week will be the limit for “Juan Gone.”

“Just looking at his history, it’s easy to see that when he’s broken down is when he played in too many games,” he said. “I think we’re deep enough now to let him rest a couple of games a week.”

Shortstop Angel Berroa, the AL Rookie of the Year, will bat leadoff. Then the Royals’ lineup gets scary-good: Beltran hits second, followed by first baseman Mike Sweeney and Gonzalez.

Steady Joe Randa, whose .976 fielding average in the past two seasons leads all major league third basemen, could bat next.

Aaron Guiel shifted from right field to left to make room for Gonzalez. Desi Relaford, if he’s able to hold off Graffanino’s challenge, will be at second.

Relaford was the Royals’ MVP the first half of last season and seems healed from nagging injuries that slowed him in July, August and September.

The back injury that limited Sweeney to 108 games was one reason the Royals lost their lead last season and finished third in the Central behind Minnesota and Chicago.

“I feel great now,” Sweeney said. “No problems at all. I can’t wait to get going. This is far and away the best team I ever played on.”

Offensively and defensively that might be true. What of the pitching? The four starters will be lefties in Darrell May, Brian Anderson, Jeremy Affeldt and rookie Jimmy Gobble.

With a week to go in spring training, Pena was trying to put his staff together. That usually means no one has looked particularly impressive.

Closer Mike MacDougal, who was 10-for-10 at one point in save chances a year ago but faded badly in the second half, was weak, possibly from a stomach virus, and not effective.

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