Fans lined up in towns throughout the Royals’ region to meet current and former players on the 2011 Royals Caravan. Among them, Billy Butler and Kila Ka’aihue gave fans their perspective from the vantage point of first base.
The first-base tandem made appearances as part of the annual caravan in Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, as did Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Jason Kendall, Mitch Maier and Royals former greats George Brett, John Mayberry, Jeff Montgomery, Joe Randa and Frank White.
The caravan gives fans young and old the opportunity to shake hands with a major league ballplayer, get an autograph, and ask a few questions about the Royals.
“The Royals are my favorite team, so I wanted to come see them,” said 10-year-old Michael Ruhlman of Springfield. “I hope they do better this year than they usually do, maybe make it to the World Series.”
A World Series would appear out of reach in 2011 for the accumulation of young, unproven players the Royals will field this season. But Butler and Ka’aihue weren’t telling fans to give up on this season just yet.
“Our expectation is to win and win now,” Butler said when asked if the players see 2011 as a rebuilding season. “If we thought any other way, we wouldn’t be doing ourselves any good. People don’t expect a lot out of us. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to pack it up and go home. We’ve still got a season to play. Everyone is 0 and 0.”
Butler embarked on the Royals Caravan while the ink was still drying on a 4-year extension to his contract which could earn him as much as $30 million. That signing comes on the heels of the trade of Zack Greinke, who wasn’t up for waiting out the process. Without criticizing his former teammate specifically, Butler insisted that he is committed to helping the Royals build.
“I can’t speak for Zack, but obviously at one point he wanted to stay here,” Butler said, referring to the contact Greinke signed with KC two years ago. “But for me, I don’t imagine myself playing anywhere else. And I’m saying that after four years of not being very competitive and losing a lot of games.
“I realize what the organization has done for me. And I’d rather play my whole career trying to build one winner than to go somewhere else where it’s already been built. I’ve put too many years of hard work in to leave what we’re trying to do here.”
Ka’aihue didn’t agree with Greinke’s assessment that the Royals are in for several more bitterly unsuccessful seasons.
“That’s just Zach’s opinion and that doesn’t affect the rest of us. We’re moving forward,” the big Hawaiian said, reassuring fans that this team can compete with the new pieces now in place. “I’m not expecting to fail. I’m going in with the mindset to win and win right away. It might sound crazy or like on paper it can’t be done, but there’s enough talent on this team that we could make a push. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t.”
Perhaps Greinke was too busy analyzing the timetable for developing the talent that has made the Royals’ farm system the best in baseball. Butler said players don’t need to think about the process, but rather to focus on winning games today.
“Players don’t need to put too much into whether this is a rebuilding process. That’s not their job, to say if we’re in a rebuilding process. If they don’t want this to be a rebuilding process, then go out there and play better. Go out there and win ballgames. That’s Dayton (Moore)’s job. I believe in Dayton and everything we’re doing here.”
What Butler believes Moore is doing is assembling the kind of depth in the farm system that could make the Royals a contender in just a few years.
“I feel like I am part of a long-term process,” Butler said. “We’ve got a lot of really good prospects that are on the brink and we made some good trades, and we’re just building for the future. And it’s going to start this year.
“We have the number one minor league organization for a reason. There’s a lot of guys that are expected to do a lot of great things. And that means very soon here we’re going to be contending on a regular basis.”
When Butler arrives at spring training, he’ll have to introduce himself to a host of new players after the Greinke trade and several other moves changed the roster drastically. Most significantly, Moore added Alcides Escobar to play shortstop, three new outfielders, and Jeff Francis and Vin Mazarro to the pitching rotation.
“What we had before didn’t work, so we had to change, and we changed pretty much every part of it,” Butler said. “That’s nothing against the guys we had before, but we just didn’t have the right mix.
“Now we have a lot of young talent, and it’s all about how we translate the talent onto the field. The bottom line is that we have the talent to do it. Now we just have to go out there and do it.”
The Royals will enjoy having manager Ned Yost from day one this year. Yost joined the team on May 13 after Trey Hillman stumbled to a 12-23 start to last season.
“Ned’s definitely very detailed and very prepared at what he does,” said Butler. “I know when we get done with spring training with him we’re going to be prepared for everything the opponent is going to try to do to us.”
“What we experienced during the season was a calmness about him, but an expectation to win,” Ka’aihue added in regards to Yost. “He seems like a players’ manager, and he gives us a relaxed feeling in the clubhouse.”
Butler and Ka’aihue weren’t interested in arm wrestling for the first base position, as was suggested on the caravan. They both look forward to playing as much in the field as possible, but are willing to bat in the DH spot when necessary.
“Of course I want to play 162 games at first base, but when you’re looking at the long haul of a whole career, it may be smart to split some time at DH,” Butler said. “I played 125 games at first last year, and it probably made me a lot healthier at the end of the season.”
Butler recently received the Les Milgram Award as the Kansas City player of the year after he batted a career high .318 with 15 homers and 78 RBIs. He is the closest thing the team has to a hitting star, with 590 career hits at the young age of 24.
Ka’aihue has yet to post significant numbers at the big league level, but he did start to get his wits about him by the end of 2010. He batted .274 with 6 homers and 18 RBIs in September.
“It’s exciting to have that little bit of success to build on and hopefully I can carry that into this year.” Ka’aihue didn’t think his approach to spring training would change this time around, however. “I’ve gone in every year hoping to win a job, and it doesn’t feel much different this time. I am expecting to play everyday and I’m going to prepare that way.”
While neither man is writing off 2011, they are not oblivious to the hope the franchise has placed in the farm system that is regarded as the best in baseball.
“It’s an exciting time, you know,” said Ka’aihue, who has played with some of the Royals’ top prospects in his minor league career. “A lot of the guys who came up together are finally going to be in the big leagues together. We all pulled for each other in the minor leagues and to do it together, it will be a great accomplishment.”
Butler relishes the help he could have in the batting order.
“We have Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas very close to the big leagues who are supposed to hit in the middle of the lineup, and what better than to see those guys hitting around me. It sounds real fun.”
Making the transition isn’t easy or smooth, according to both first basemen who were top prospects at one time themselves.
“It’s a different game up here,” said Butler. “There’s a transition process. But when you got guys around you who want to see you do good, and you’ve got the talent, that transition can be a lot shorter rather than longer. You’ve got to come up here and play the game like you always have, not putting too much pressure on yourself.”
Help from the minor leagues may be a ways away. But in January, the fans can be as optimistic as the players representing the team on the caravan. Getting an autograph and a chance to talk to a major leaguer, even if his team is expected to wallow through another rebuilding year, is worth waiting in line in freezing temperatures.
“I love it,” said Brooks Beattie, a 10-year-old from Nixa about getting to meet major league baseball players. “I heard about it and I said ‘I want to come.’ It’s exciting.”