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Royals eye defense as way to climb

Royals eye defense as way to climb

KANSAS CITY -- There were many concerns when the Royals turned their attention to 2010. After all, winning just 65 games and finishing in a tie for fourth place in the American League Central last year was a real sore spot.

Let's see, the Royals scored the second-fewest runs in the AL. Their pitching staff gave up the third-most earned runs and the bullpen ranked dead last in the league. And the defense had the AL's most errors to also rank last.

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Yet, throughout Kansas City's cold, snowy winter, general manager Dayton Moore talked most often about repairing the defense. In fact, after signing Rick Ankiel to roam center field, Moore declared: "I like our team a great deal. We're going to play much better defense."

Ankiel isn't seen as the only added boost to the defense. Scott Podsednik moves into left field, Chris Getz takes over second base and Jason Kendall is the new catcher.

Manager Trey Hillman this year is trying to temper his optimism because admittedly last year, after acquiring Coco Crisp to roam center field, the skipper got overly excited.

"I knew, I knew how impactful Coco was going to be for us in center," Hillman said. "And he was. Unfortunately, we didn't see it very much."

No, because by June 14, his aching shoulders told Crisp his season was over.

"And with Mike [Aviles] going down and Alex [Gordon] going down -- well, you know the deal," Hillman continued. "I'm cautiously very optimistic that we can be a greatly improved team -- especially defensively, which is going to make our pitchers better."

So the Royals have remade the outfield by adding Ankiel and Podsednik and by moving David DeJesus from left to right, bumping Jose Guillen to designated hitter.

"It's not a difficult equation to understand -- we've got better foot speed out there," Hillman said.

Ankiel especially gets a high mark for a cannon arm, and his ability in center nudged Podsednik -- who was signed previously -- over to left field. Actually, that's where Podsednik has played most often in the Majors.

"His passion is center, but he's happy to move to left for the good of the team," Hillman said. "He does not have a strong throwing arm but he has a quick release and he's accurate. And David does have plenty of arm to play right."

DeJesus played so well in left field last year that he got serious Gold Glove consideration. Guillen, who battled cranky legs last season, likely will play some right field, but only in parks with a smaller outfield than Kauffman Stadium.

The Royals also added Brian Anderson, another center fielder who has a fine defensive reputation. And Mitch Maier was quite good as Kansas City's most frequent center fielder last season.

Kendall was signed to replace the catching duo of Miguel Olivo and John Buck.

With a league-high of 89 wild pitches plus 14 passed balls last year, too many balls were skipping toward the screen. Opponents swiped 114 bases, sixth most given up in the AL, and were thrown out 39 times for a 25 percent success ratio, which ranked Kansas City eighth among the 14 teams.

"We liked what the catchers gave us offensively, but we just didn't have enough consistency blocking the ball and monitoring that running game. Miggy did a good job of throwing people out, but at the same time, sometimes we didn't get the ball blocked," Hillman said.

"With Jason's history of being mobile and fundamentally sound in blocking the baseball, I think that's going to be a bonus for us."

According to baseball-reference.com, Olivo threw out 22 of 78 (28 percent) basestealers last year compared to Kendall's 16-of-80 (20 percent) for the Brewers. In 2008, though, Kendall was much better, nailing 41-of-96 (43 percent).

In Hillman's view, the right side of the infield should improve two ways -- by using Getz at second base instead of Alberto Callaspo and because Billy Butler is adjusting rapidly to first base, a new position for him last year.

"Chris Getz is rangier than Alberto is, and hopefully that'll give us more lateral range and [Getz] can step up to the degree that we think he can in playing most of the time at second base," Hillman said. "[We're] not trying to cut Alberto out of the mix, because we'd like to find a way to get that .300 hitter in the lineup."

On the left side of the infield are holdovers Gordon and Yuniesky Betancourt, although neither put in a full year in KC. Gordon had a major hip surgery in April and played just 48 games at third base; Betancourt logged 70 games at shortstop after being acquired from the Mariners.

"On the left side, a repaired-hip Alex Gordon should be better than a hurting Alex Gordon," Hillman noted.

Betancourt was put to work with strength and conditioning coordinator Ty Hill this winter in Kansas City, and they both headed to Arizona last week to continue their work.

"[I like] the commitment that [Betancourt's] shown in wanting to improve his lateral range and get it back to where it was a few years ago. Because it's a little bit off, reportedly, from what it was when he first came up with Seattle," Hillman said.

Aviles is returning after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his right elbow last summer. While not a classic shortstop, he was solid defensively in his big rookie season of 2008. Behind Gordon at third are Callaspo and Josh Fields, who came with Getz from the White Sox in the deal for Mark Teahen.

Looming in the background, of course, is Willie Bloomquist, who played seven different positions and made just 10 errors despite all the switching around.

"He's unbelievable. Willie can do all," Hillman said. "Willie's our ace in the hole. He's one of those guys who'll never get the credit he's due."

When Moore went into this offseason, defense was a priority, and that's something of a tricky business because fielding prowess isn't easily measured by numbers.

"Defense, to me, is a product of athleticism, fundamentals and concentration," Moore said.

"Certainly there are statistics that play a part of that, but defensive statistics are very misleading and unreliable ... every statistician that I speak to will tell you that, including our own. Statistics are something to look at, but they are not the most important part of evaluating a player. You want defensive players that are very sure-handed, players that are instinctive to position themselves appropriately, players that are two or three steps ahead of a certain situation -- that's all part of the defensive player."

In adding Ankiel, Podsednik, Kendall and Getz to the regular lineup, the general manager believes he's fulfilled those qualifications.

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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