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Young players hold key for Royals in '08

Royals' young players key in '08

The Royals go into this season with a new manager, a new outlook, a new scoreboard and, thanks to a late reprieve, a new right fielder.

The question is, will it result in a new place in the American League Central standings?

Kansas City fans are hungry to be somewhere other than last place, the Royals' fate for the past four years. Given that history and the strong reputation of the AL Central, optimism is tempered with caution.

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"I'm expecting a lot out of our team," left fielder Mark Teahen said. "Talent-wise we're a lot better than we have been the last few years, and we've just got to take care of ourselves. I know other teams around the league or the division have improved as well. I think talent-wise we match up well, we're just less experienced, so it's all how we continue to develop the young players and settle into the league."

The Royals open on Monday afternoon at 12:05 p.m. CT by visiting the Detroit Tigers, a team that swung perhaps the most impressive offseason deal in obtaining third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins.

The 15th full-time manager of the Royals, Trey Hillman, makes his Major League debut after five years in Japan marked with considerable success. Compared with old-school predecessor Buddy Bell, the 45-year-old Hillman is preppy with a penchant for detail, face-to-face communication and the game's fundamentals.

"We don't have too many guys that hit home runs," outfielder Joey Gathright said, "so small ball is probably our best bet for us to go out and win some games. I think Trey knows exactly what he's doing."

One guy who is expected to hit home runs, though, is Jose Guillen who signed at considerable expense (three years for $36 million) to put juice into what has been a run-parched attack. He's averaged 26-plus homers and almost 94 RBIs in his past four full seasons.

Guillen was facing a 15-day suspension at the start of the season for violation of drug prevention rules; instead, he'll be in the lineup. The penalty received a 10-day stay as Major League Baseball and the Players' Association negotiated on revisions to the Joint Drug Agreement.

Beyond that, the club will play the first four games with a 24-man roster. They'll be a man short because backup catcher Miguel Olivo was suspended for a fight while with the Marlins late last season. The penalty was reduced from five games on appeal.

Hillman's energetic approach to Spring Training seemed to pump a new attitude into the players.

"I think it was a little more intense -- the workouts in the back fields. I think the guys are more focused on what we're trying to do this year and more confident that we're getting better and excited to move forward," catcher John Buck said.

The Royals' optimism has bloomed with the emergence of younger players such as third baseman Alex Gordon, left fielder Mark Teahen, designated hitter Billy Butler, center fielder David DeJesus, shortstop Tony Pena Jr., Buck and Gathright.

The defense, a Hillman priority, looks stronger than last year.

So does the pitching staff, headed by Gil Meche.

"I feel confident with our starters," Buck said. "Every day we have a starter that's going to compete. In the past, we've always had that suspect starter -- flip a coin on which guy's going to show up. We've got five guys who can go out every day and give us a chance to win today. Not just three out of the five, or two out of the five."

Hillman's mantra has been if the club has good defense and pitching, don't worry -- we'll figure out a way to score runs. Now is the time, whether it's a Guillen blast or a bunt or stolen base.

"I thought last year we were going to do a little bit better than we did," said Meche, the Opening Day starter. "But we got off to a slow start. "We turned it around and were a little more consistent. Everybody kind of stepped it up and got comfortable and we were playing good baseball."

Meche referred to June, July and August, a period in which the Royals were actually two games over .500 at 41-39.

In addition to renovating part of their roster, the Royals have started on a two-year rebuilding project at Kauffman Stadium, where they'll open on April 8 against the New York Yankees.

One of the additions will be a gigantic video scoreboard that has risen over center field to inform and entertain fans.

What's needed most is to post some winning scores against AL Central opponents.

"It's the tough division," Buck said. "But if you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best. We just don't have to go as far to get to them."

Pitching matchup
KC: RHP Gil Meche (9-13, 3.67 ERA in 2007)
Meche did an outstanding job in last year's opener, defeating the Red Sox, 7-1, at Kansas City. Now he gets the honor again at Detroit, where he'll face a hostile crowd and what's assessed to be a very hostile lineup. Meche's record last year belied his effectiveness; it easily should have been reversed if he hadn't gotten the worst run support in the American League. He's posted a 4-1 career record in nine games at Comerica Park.

DET: RHP Justin Verlander (18-6, 3.66 ERA)
It's the first Opening Day assignment for Detroit's young ace. Verlander is 6-0 with a 2.26 ERA in eight career starts against the Royals.

Crown Points
This is the Royals' 40th opener. They have a 14-25 record, including just 4-14 on the road. This is the fifth time the Tigers have been the opponent, including the third time at Detroit. The Royals have lost three times -- 3-1 in 2006 (home), 11-2 in 2005 (away) and 5-1 in 1980 (home). They won, 7-4, in 1977, and that was at Tiger Stadium. Catcher John Buck, center fielder David DeJesus and left fielder Mark Teahen each will make their fourth straight Opening Day starts. For Teahen, this is his third position in three years. He was in right field last year and at third base the previous two. Meche is the first pitcher to make back-to-back starts since Jeff Suppan (2000-01-02).The home opener is April 8 against the Yankees.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• FSN-HD

On radio
• KCSP 610

Up next
• Tuesday: Off-day
• Wednesday: Royals (RHP Brian Bannister, 12-9, 3.87) at Tigers (LHP Kenny Rogers, 3-4, 4.43), 1:05 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Royals (RHP Zack Greinke, 7-7, 3.69) at Tigers (RHP Jeremy Bonderman, 11-9, 5.01), 1:05 p.m. ET

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["opening_day" ] }
{"content":["opening_day" ] }