"I was really pleased, impressed and proud of the way the guys continued to play down the stretch. I'll let the critics decide whether things were watered down because of September call-ups, but I really felt like with the way our schedule fell, most of the clubs were still playing for something, and I was pleased the way we got after it the way we did instead of shutting it down."
The Royals are counting on that mind-set to carry over in 2009, Hillman's second year at the helm.
If the Royals shape up as a different club, is Hillman a different manager?
"I better be. Because if I'm not, then I didn't learn anything," he said. "I made a lot of mistakes, but I'm glad I made some of them. I think it turns up the learning curve. But I do think that we did raise the expectations, and I believe that's one of the reasons that I was hired as manager."
Maybe Hillman will have learned how to get along with his opinionated slugger, Jose Guillen, with whom he sometimes sparred this past season. That would be a positive step.
And perhaps Guillen will be in a better frame of mind if he's not trying to carry the club on his back offensively. He should get help from newcomers Coco Crisp, the switch-hitting and speedy center fielder, and Mike Jacobs, the lefty-swinging cruncher who'll play first base.
The fast finish which lifted the Royals to 75 wins and fourth place gave them a more buoyant step as they head toward the new season.
"I'm hopeful that that provides a little bit of energy force going into Spring Training," Hillman said, "especially with the additions of a Jacobs and a Crisp."
Season in Preview
A lot can change by Opening Day, but as 2008 becomes 2009, this is who is projected to take the field for the Royals:
| CF||Coco Crisp|
| SS||Mike Aviles|
| LF||David DeJesus|
| RF||Jose Guillen|
| 1B||Mike Jacobs|
| DH||Billy Butler|
| 3B||Alex Gordon|
| C||Miguel Olivo|
| 2B||Alberto Callaspo|
| SP||Gil Meche|
| SP||Zack Greinke|
| SP||Brian Bannister|
| SP||Kyle Davies|
| SP||Luke Hochevar|
| CL||Joakim Soria|
Hillman sees a couple of young players who could experience breakout seasons.
"I think that Alex Gordon, after two full seasons, and Billy Butler, after a season and a half, both those guys have an opportunity to go to the next level and be more impactful from a consistency standpoint offensively," he said. "Defensively, I was pleased with what Billy was able to do."
OK, but there's a big question about who will be playing at first base. The candidates are stacked like cord wood -- Jacobs, Butler, Ross Gload, Ryan Shealy, Mark Teahen. Did we forget anyone? Oh, yeah, Kila Ka'aihue, but he's likely to be hitting homers in Triple-A again.
The Royals see Gordon as a permanent fixture at third base, perhaps a vision in the George Brett mode, although he didn't show that often enough this past year. On the other hand, Mike Aviles was a rookie revelation, arriving to take over shortstop in June and whacking away at a .325 clip.
David DeJesus had another good season, and he's emerging as the Royals' best pure hitter, at least in Hillman's eyes, and could wind up at No. 3 in the order. He'll scoot over to left and, along with Guillen, flank Crisp.
Yet, Hillman sees the key to the season as, well, you know what.
"I always believe you build championships on the mound first," he said, "and the thing that was encouraging was the consistency of Zack Greinke, the consistency and improvement of a more seasoned guy in Gil Meche and then the emergence of Kyle Davies in September -- wow, the light bulb went on."
The other rotation hopes are Luke Hochevar, coming back from a side injury that ended his season in mid-August, a rejuvenation of Brian Bannister, who slogged through a tough sophomore season, and the only left-handed hope, Horacio Ramirez.
Traded away were two right-handed setup men, Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez, and the Royals corralled free agent Kyle Farnsworth, a big power pitcher, to step in. From the left side, they still had Ron Mahay and John Bale to help bring the game to closer to Joakim Soria.
There was to be a new look behind the plate for these guys with Hillman nodding to Miguel Olivo as the primary catcher over John Buck. They had opposite roles in 2008, and the advantage is that both are capable starting catchers.
There's a lot of stuff to be sorted out in Spring Training, which this year will be a week longer to allow travel and training for Major Leaguers playing in the World Baseball Classic.
It means extra time for the Royals to sort out the bullpen questions and sift through all those first basemen.
"Nobody wants to be at Spring Training for eight weeks. The players don't, I don't, but we're going to be," Hillman said. "If it's going to happen to us, this is a good year. ... I think the eight weeks, in a strange way, is going to be good for the Kansas City Royals."
Grading on a curve:
On a scale of one to 10, the Royals get a seven for maintaining their young, promising core of players and adding speed in Crisp and power in Jacobs without too much sacrifice. An aggressive approach to add a power right-hander to set up netted them Farnsworth.
CF Crisp, 1B Jacobs, RHP Farnsworth, RHP Doug Waechter, LHP Horacio Ramirez.
OF Joey Gathright, 2B Mark Grudzielanek, RHPs Leo Nunez, Ramon Ramirez, Jeff Fulchino and Kip Wells.
The road ahead:
The Royals are forging ahead toward respectability, maybe not quite ready to be the new version of the Tampa Bay Rays but getting there. At lot depends on young hitters such as Gordon, Butler and Teahen fulfilling their promise. There will be a new atmosphere in Kansas City in the form of major renovations at Kauffman Stadium, still a jewel in its fourth decade. There has to be a new atmosphere on the field, too, if the Royals are to end their 23-year absence from the playoffs.