For a few weeks last summer, the Kansas City Royals could see a future that was bright, clear and exciting. These Royals were young, talented and filled with enthusiasm -- and it wasn't just that they finished 33-33, or that attendance at Kauffman Stadium increased by 39 percent in the final weeks.
It was the meaning of it all -- that, finally, the worst seemed to be over, that the Royals appeared to be on the cusp of being a pretty darn good baseball team. It wasn't a team constructed with pieces from here, there and everywhere, either.
They were mostly true Royals, drafted, signed and developed. These were the players that fans had heard so much about, the players who were going to change everything. Baseball America ranked Kansas City's farm system No. 1 overall in 2011, calling it one of the strongest in years.
In those final 66 games, the Royals hit home runs, stole bases and threw out runners from the outfield. Suddenly, potential wasn't a dirty word.
"It was the most fulfilling thing I've experienced in my professional life," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "We knew we had to do this through scouting and player development. Everyone aspires to do it that way. Certain markets can patch their holes with free agency. But for us, there's no other way, and it takes awhile."
How long would that be, Dayton?
"It's an eight- to 10-year process," he said. "Knowing how these jobs are, especially in today's climate, it's tough to get that much time. It takes three to five years to get guys to the Major League level, and then two to four years playing at the Major League level."
When Moore held his first organizational meeting after the 2006 season, he set a simple goal of making the Royals a homegrown team by the 2013 season. He was effusive in his praise of his baseball staff -- Mike Arbuckle, Scott Sharp, Rene Francisco and many others -- for getting it done.
"We've got to get to the point where our farm system produces two or three players every single year," Moore said. "That's guys competing for spots on the roster -- whether it's for bullpen depth or a fourth or fifth starter. Last year was the first time we had two or three players doing that."
If things work out the way the Royals hope, the 2012 Opening Day lineup could be, perhaps, the most homegrown in baseball.
KC's 2012 Opening Day Lineup?
If things work out the way the Royals hope, the 2012 Opening Day lineup could be perhaps the most homegrown in baseball
'07 Draft, 1st round
'08 Draft, 1st round
'08 Draft, 2nd round
'06 FA Venezuela
'04 Draft, 1st round
'04 Draft, 1st round
In addition, three more first-round picks -- Aaron Crow, Luke Hochevar and Mike Montgomery -- could be in the rotation at some point in 2012.
This was exactly what Royals owner David Glass had in mind when he hired Moore six years ago. He promised him the resources to build a great organization, and more important, the time to do the job right.
"[Glass] made it clear he wanted a model organization, a strong program in Latin America," Moore said.
In the decade before Moore arrived, the Royals had spent a total of $225,000 in Latin America. These days, $225,000 might get a lower-level prospect signed.
"The Glasses allowed us to create 23 positions that weren't here before -- and 17 of the people we hired had roles in successful organizations," Moore said. "Those guys keep you focused during the tough times."
Glass may have stayed the course because it has seemed clear the last few years that the Royals were headed in the right direction -- even though they continued to lose at the Major League level.
Scouts say there's another wave of talent coming, that the Royals are writing the blueprint for turning a smaller-market team into a consistent winner.
Now, about 2012. For all the excitement that accompanied Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, etc., into the Major Leagues last season, there's still work to be done.
It'll be fascinating to see how the young players adjust. And if newly acquired Jonathan Sanchez pitches the way he did in 2010, the Royals could have a shot at flirting with .500.
However, young players don't come with guarantees. As exciting as it was to see 12 players make their Major League debuts for the Royals in 2011, not all of them are going to make it.
There's also the matter of dealing with expectations. Now, they'll be expected to win in the big leagues. That's a huge challenge because they have so little experience, and it's not clear how good they're actually going to be as scouting reports get around.
This group competed for championships throughout the Minors, and Moore thinks that's important. He never thought much about winning in the Minors during his 12 years with the Braves. But that was then.
"It was develop, develop, develop," Moore said. "But we already had a winning culture. We made a conscious effort here to stress winning in the Minor Leagues -- not over development, but we did want to stress it. We felt it was going to be crucial to having a winning attitude. [Legendary Braves personnel man] Paul Snyder used to talk about how Javy Lopez ... Tom Glavine ... Jeff Blauser and those guys won in the Minor Leagues. They moved up together, and brought that culture right into Atlanta. And so, we felt it was important to do it here."
Still, this will be the Opening Day when the next generation of Royals officially will become this generation of Royals.
"We're not there yet," Moore said. "We won 71 games last year. I do feel we're going to win more games in 2012 and 2013 -- and a lot more in 2014. It's a very talented group. They want to win and expect to win. That's a credit to our scouting and player development. They had a vision. We want to see them remain humble and keep striving to improve."
Moore said it's heartening to walk around Kauffman Stadium and see fans wearing jerseys -- not just of George Brett, but of Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.
"You see a generation of fans embracing the Royals, and that's as important as anything we do," Moore said. "As baseball people, we want to win a World Series. But the big picture is creating an environment in which fans are attracted to our players, and see the stability of the organization and the vision for what team will look like over the next four or five years. We've got a long way to go. We haven't done anything yet. So you've got to stick to the process. That's what we're doing."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.