There seems to be no end to Royals' blues Free agency, injuries hit a Kansas City team that already was at bottom

March 31, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

What else can go wrong? The Kansas City Royals already were at the bottom of the American League Central when they lost veteran shortstop Jay Bell and designated hitter Chili Davis to free agency. Now, it looks like they'll have to do without pitching ace Kevin Appier for most or all of the 1998 season.

In other words, the Royals are the perfect first opponent for a team that is trying to extend last year's season-long stay at the top of the AL East.

The Orioles always seem to draw the Royals in the first week of the season. They opened against Appier and Kansas City each of the past two seasons and last year took advantage of five games against the Royals in the first eight days to get out to a lead they never relinquished.

That opportunity has presented itself again. The Orioles again play the Royals five times in their first eight games and should be in a position to get another quick jump on the rest of the division.

Right-hander Tim Belcher will draw the Opening Day assignment in today's opener at Camden Yards, suddenly thrown into the No. 1 starter role because of the shoulder injury that forced the Royals to place Appier on the 60-day disabled list Friday.

Belcher won 13 games last year, which qualifies him for the Opening Day start because that is nearly as many wins as the rest of the Royals rotation combined (16). He has to have a big season, and so do at least two other Royals starters, for the club to get off the floor in the AL Central.

There is some good, young talent. Left-hander Jose Rosado is a talented prospect who appeared ready to break through last year, but could not overcome the limited run support that made the Royals one of the worst offensive clubs in the American League. It doesn't figure to get much better.

The attack is either nonexistent or the Royals have found a way to apply stealth technology to a baseball lineup. Bell and Davis took 51 home runs and 182 RBIs off the table when they accepted lucrative contracts to play elsewhere this year. First baseman Jeff King is coming off a terrific year (28 HRs, 112 RBIs) and third baseman Dean Palmer had a great spring (.358, six HRs, 16 RBIs), but they'll have little protection in an otherwise inexperienced batting order.

Outfielder/designated hitter Jeff Conine eventually will provide some, but he also will start out on the disabled list and won't be available for at least the first 10 days of the regular season.

Manager Tony Muser has tried to compensate by putting an emphasis on fundamentals, hoping that the Royals "remain competitive by minimizing mistakes and playing solid baseball."

"It's not about stars; it's not about money; it's not about big markets and little markets and supermarkets and all that," Muser told the Kansas City Star last week. "It's about playing baseball right. I believe it will work. If we play the game right, we will win."

Orioles manager Ray Miller knows how he feels -- he spent enough time with the Pittsburgh Pirates to know all about small-market baseball -- but he can't see any benefit in underestimating the Royals.

"I don't sympathize with them, because nobody gave me any sympathy when I was in Pittsburgh," Miller said. "We still put a team on the field and they will, too. They're going to be a scrappy team that will play the game. Sometimes, the difference between a top-notch club and a lesser club is just a few experienced players in key positions."

General manager Herk Robinson agrees, even though he knows that his club will open the season at a decided disadvantage -- even in the relatively soft American League Central.

"I've got a good feeling about this bunch," Robinson told the Star. "Of course, I had a good feeling about other teams, too, and we disappointed. I know that, but I do sense a lot of enthusiasm about this team now. A lot of enthusiasm."

It'll take more than that, but Muser insists that there is a huge difference between the Royals and some of the other small-market teams that have traded away their best home-grown players.

"There's tons of young talent here," Muser said. "Of course, it's just that -- young talent. We have to see how it develops. But we haven't traded away our young talent. It's still here."

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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