As Kansas City's 2011 season wended its optimistic way toward building the future, four prospective pillars emerged from the Minor Leagues to man everyday positions -- first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, second baseman Johnny Giavotella and catcher Salvador Perez.
Upon their young shoulders rested a large portion of what's been analyzed as a bright new world of winning for the long-suffering Royals and their fans. They've experienced just one winning season (2003) in the last 17.
Now that quality quartet, at least for the start of the 2012 season, is down to two -- Hosmer and Moustakas. It's the Moose and Hoz duet.
During Spring Training, Perez suffered torn cartilage in his left knee and underwent surgery. He might be out until about the time the All-Star Game lights up Kauffman Stadium on July 10. And, even then, he's likely to be limited to three or four games a week for a while.
Giavotella was optioned to Triple-A Omaha to add polish to his defensive game. The Royals are quite sure the tough-as-nails second baseman will hit in the Majors, but for now, they preferred the surer gloves and wider range of Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt.
And if any of the 25 players picked for the roster stumbles, the rich Minor League system probably will have a remedy.
"That's what's so great about the youth on this team -- the depth is unbelievable here," Hosmer said. "If you're not doing the job, there's plenty of guys down there that are willing to come up and fill in."
Making things tougher for 2012, one of the Royals' reliables, closer Joakim Soria, had to make a date to have Tommy John surgery on his valuable right elbow. So he's also absent as the Royals open their season on Friday night against the Los Angeles Angels.
"We've just got to do what we've got to do," Moustakas said. "Injuries are a part of every sport. It stinks when you lose a guy like Salvador as a catcher and then Jack. We're just going to have to find ways to plug guys in with what we've got ... and keep going without missing a beat. Hopefully."
Moustakas and Hosmer, rookies just last year, are starting to sound like veterans. As the team's two most-heralded hitting prospects in recent times, they've been through all the hype, the hullabaloo, the high-intensity scrutiny. And they've fit right in as part of the glue in the Royals' cohesive clubhouse atmosphere. If there's happy noise going on, they're likely to be part of it. Yet they're new enough that this Opening Day will be their first in the Majors.
Now they face 2012 as integral parts of the Royals, a young team that is seen as on the rise with the ability to at least be a .500 team, even if surpassing the powerful Detroit Tigers in the American League Central would seem a reach.
The Moose-Hoz combo stretches across the infield, anchoring each side, and both drew raves for their fielding last year. Moustakas didn't hit much at first, but he didn't let it affect his defense. Hosmer's glove enabled the other infielders to throw almost anywhere, knowing he'd probably pick it.
In the batting order, too, they're in important spots that require productive hitters. Hosmer, who debuted with 19 homers, 78 RBIs and a .293 average, is in the No. 3 slot. Moustakas, who jumped to .379 in his last 36 games after a .182 initiation, will swing in the No. 6 slot and possibly at times in No. 5. Both of them are left-handed hitters.
"It's a lot of pressure on 'em," manager Ned Yost said. "They can handle it."
Moustakas is 23, and Hosmer is 22, and their baseball horizons, at this point, seem unlimited. Yet they prefer not to look too far down the road.
"Everyone to a man thinks of what their role is to this team and how to help this team out on a day-by-day basis," Hosmer said. "I think over time our roles will get bigger and bigger, but for right now we're still going to experience our first Opening Day, and I think for us, it's just to come in and do whatever our job is in the lineup. There's enough guys on this team that if we do our part, we think we can be in the place we want to be at the end of the day."
The two players stand as the foremost symbols of the Royals' youth revolution, a group of players expected to revitalize the franchise.
"I've always been a guy that doesn't really look that far ahead," Moustakas said. "I try to stay focused as best I can on what's going on today, and what happens in the future is going to take care of itself. As for all that stuff, it'd be unbelievable if we could all stay together in the organization but, realistically, I don't know if that can happen or will happen. But it'd be something cool to see."
As the Royals went through Spring Training at Surprise, Ariz., Hall of Famer George Brett was a daily presence, donning uniform No. 5 to help coach the players and to stand as a reminder of how great a career can be.
That's not lost on Moustakas, currently occupying Brett's old position of third base.
"As a baseball player, I think everybody wants to be the best that they can be," Moustakas said. "Nobody's going to say it, but everybody wants to be an All-Star, everybody wants to be a Hall of Famer, but if you set your goals up like that, thinking about that too far in the future, I just don't like doing that. I just like to go out on a daily basis and prove to myself that I belong here and that I'm going to stay here. That's kind of the way I go about it. Just make sure I earn the right to be here every day."
Nor is it lost on Hosmer, who holds down the three-hole in the batting order where Brett used to prosper.
"I think every player wants a career like George's or something like that, but if you get too far ahead of yourself and start thinking that too far longterm, you get yourself in trouble. So, for me, it's just taking it day by day and come in every day and be the best player I can be to help this team win," Hosmer said.
Brett, of course, was in the midst of the Royals' glory years -- the playoff battles with the Yankees in the 1970s, the pennant of 1980 and the World Series triumph of 1985. The Royals haven't been in the postseason since.
"That's the great thing about George," Moustakas said. "He loves those World Series memories, he loves those playoff memories and he wants nothing more than to have this organization get back to those glory days. We're all excited, we're all in this together and we feel like we have a chance to do that."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.