Royals floor it in plan to contend

Division rivals' struggles provide chance to win now

May 15, 2011|By Phil Rogers

How wide open has the American League Central become?

The Royals' building plan, designed to make them contenders in 2012 and a playoff team by '13 or '14, was pushed forward after the White Sox, Twins and Tigers opened the season a combined 37-56.

That was their combined record on May 5, when Royals general manager Dayton Moore picked up the phone to tell owner David Glass he was going for it.

Moore decided it was time to bring first baseman Eric Hosmer to the big leagues — a move that could wind up costing Glass $10 million to $15 million for one month. Think about that.

The Royals were going to wait until early June to promote Hosmer because that would delay his first crack at salary arbitration until after the 2014 season. Now he will be in line for so-called Super 2 status after the '13 season and be eligible for arbitration four times, not just three. That will cause the dollars to stack up, especially with agent Scott Boras involved.

Given the presence of Alex Gordon and a wave of prospects expected to reach the big leagues in the next 15 months, Hosmer's situation ultimately could force the Royals to trade a salary or two. Moore admitted as much the day the Royals brought up Hosmer, telling the Kansas City Star's Sam Mellinger that "the truth of the matter is, in 2016, 2017, I mean, it could (backfire)."

But Moore's thought process was transparent. Hosmer, who was tearing up the Pacific Coast League, clearly was ready to take over first base from Kila Ka'aihue, and the task facing the Royals had become catching the Indians, not one of the three teams with track records and payrolls above $100 million.

For the Royals, catching the Indians is doable. Cleveland has finished ahead of them two of the three previous seasons.

"When we had an organizational meeting in 2007, one of the things I said, with all our people there, was that we were going to put the best team on the field that we could every night, period,'' Moore said. "I didn't say 'as long as it doesn't affect our payroll.' I said 'period.' And I believe that."

The early returns suggest the 21-year-old Hosmer is worth the gamble. He played a major role in the Royals' taking two of three against the Yankees last week, their first series triumph at Yankee Stadium since 1999, and was hitting .333 with two homers, five RBIs, five walks and a 1.159 OPS after his first six big league games.

Boras sounded an ominous note when he said he wasn't interested in exploring a long-term deal because he foresees another spike in salaries. But Royals fans should celebrate that they have a major stake in the 2011 season. Who knew that could happen?

The Indians, who visit the Royals on Monday and the White Sox on Wednesday, have slowed down a little from their 20-8 start. They lost back-to-back series against the Angels and Rays, and in doing so said goodbye to a 14-game home winning streak.

During the streak that ran from April 3 through May 10, the Indians outscored their opponents 86-36. It was their longest home streak since 1994 and the third-longest in franchise history.

There's little question about the Indians' lineup and bullpen. Both are solid. But can the young rotation hold together? Fausto Carmona and his mates entered the weekend ranked seventh in starters' ERA. Not even manager Manny Acta could say he saw that coming.

The degree of difficulty for Indians starters just went up. Ditto starters from the White Sox, Tigers and Twins. Hosmer has arrived, and with him a big piece of the Royals' bright future.

How long gone? Don't be surprised if the Red Sox eventually bring in Bengie Molina to supplement their catching tandem of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek. Only the Twins, with Joe Mauer on the disabled list, are getting less out of their catchers, as Saltalamacchia and Varitek have combined to hit .183 with no homers and a .248 on-base percentage.

Molina, 36, split last season between the Giants and Rangers, earning World Series shares from both. But the Rangers signed Yorvit Torrealba instead of retaining him. Molina talked to several teams, but none met his asking price.

Jose Molina told the Boston Globe not to write off his brother yet.

"I wish he would play again," said Jose, the oldest of the three catching Molina brothers. "When we were in the offseason, he was banged up from the World Series, and I said, 'Bengie, keep getting ready, you'll have a job.' (Then) he felt (retiring) was the best thing to do, but right now I want him to play. I love seeing him play because I know wherever he goes, the team is going to have success. I wish it would happen, but it's up to him."

Saying goodbye: Drayton McLane bought the Astros from John McMullen in 1993. He's close to announcing an agreement to sell to Houston businessman Jim Crane.

McLane brought a World Series to Texas for the first time, but the team has deteriorated in recent years. The pending sale has heightened tension around the franchise, as business head Pam Gardner and general manager Ed Wade are in trouble.

George Postolos, a former president of the NBA's Rockets, is close to Crane and expected to step in to run day-to-day operations. Both are big numbers guys. Wade, who has had to cut payroll from $108 million in 2007 to $72 million this season, could get time to prove his value to Crane, as the Cubs' Tom Ricketts has given Jim Hendry.

The last word: "They take everything close. So if it's not called a strike and it's a ball, then they walk. It's lawyer-ball. That's how they roll." — Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson on the Athletics.

progers@tribune.com

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