Young talent has Yost, Royals looking forward
Manager plans to stress fundamentals during camp
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Ned Yost came to Kansas City's training camp with a new spring in his step. In charge of a Royals camp for the first time, he's getting a firm grasp on the team from a fresh perspective.
When Yost took over last May 14 from the dismissed Trey Hillman, he inherited a team that was not only playing badly, but had to adjust to a new manager and vice versa.
At least Yost didn't come in completely cold -- he'd been hired during the winter by general manager Dayton Moore to act as a special advisor. That pulled Yost out of the relative vacuum he'd been in since being ousted as Milwaukee manager in September 2008, just as the Brewers were about to reach the playoffs.
The timing of that dismissal was stunning and strange, depriving Yost of the climax of his six years of pulling the Brewers up from the pits.
"I disappeared," he recalled this winter. "I went home and had three or four opportunities to come back and be a Major League coach after I got fired, and I didn't take it. I wanted to take the year off."
He'd been playing pro baseball, coaching or managing since 1974 and so, after 35 years, he needed a break.
"I don't believe I watched two innings of any baseball game. I didn't read the paper. I had no idea what was going on. I stayed away from it -- I really did -- because I wanted to get my batteries recharged and refreshed," Yost said.
"But then it was difficult finding a job, and it did make me nervous -- out of sight, out of mind. That's a phenomenon that happens a little bit. Thank God Dayton called before Christmas. ... There wasn't a lot of money involved, but I always liked and respected Dayton. I wanted to do that and, luckily for me, it worked out good."
Soon after joining the Royals, Yost was in last year's training camp watching and evaluating players, both Major and Minor Leaguers. When the season began, he was off on a tour of the Minors to get a first-hand look at the top prospects.
So when Moore, after reluctantly deciding that his good friend Hillman had to go, offered the managerial job, Yost already had a good knowledge of the personnel. But there were significant challenges.
"It's hard to make changes in the middle of the year," he said. "First of all, you've got players that are unsettled -- they just lost a manager. They were trying hard not to make that happen. There were issues where guys were pressing. It's hard."
Now, to a certain extent, Yost has the chance to start from scratch at the Surprise complex. The first official workout for pitchers and catchers will be Tuesday, but Yost arrived several days ago to gear up and make plans with his coaches.
What's Yost's biggest challenge this spring? A culture change, perhaps -- transforming a losing atmosphere into a winning attitude?
"No, I don't think so. I don't think there's any mindset issues on our club. Our kids are ready to win, they're dying to win. I don't think that's any huge hurdle that they have to get over," Yost said.
"I don't know if it's romantic, but we've got to figure out the starting rotation, we've got to figure out the outfield, we've got to figure out the bullpen. But the good thing about it is we've got plenty of choices, we've got plenty of options."
There you go -- the guy is getting right down to the nitty-gritty. No brainwashing sessions are deemed necessary by Yost. That's old school, something that's right down Royals owner David Glass' alley.
"I think he's exactly what we need," Glass said. "He's a real solid baseball guy, sort of old school -- kind of like the guys I grew up talking baseball with. He's real solid, he doesn't get too excited, but he's got a good baseball mind. He's a good judge of talent, and the players like him and like playing for him -- and that's important."
So no frills for Yost, just drills. But a somewhat different approach this year for the Royals will be his emphasis on individual instruction, a lot of one-on-ones.
"He's a very intense, enthusiastic person. He's going to have a lot of demands on the players," Moore said.
The players better hit the hay early, because they'll be expected to be sharp while the dew is still on the Arizona cactus.
"We try to use Spring Training not only to develop as a team and to go through all of our fundamentals, but it's a real important time to develop individually," Yost said. "And we continue to really work hard early. Early morning, 8 o'clock to 9:40, is all built around individual work and working on the skills, trying to get individuals better in certain areas of their game. Then, we come together as a team for all the team workouts and fundamental stuff that we do together."
By the time the team gets together for the 10 a.m. workout, many of the players will already have worked up a sweat.
"Instead of just going through it to be going through it, it's one-on-one, it's a more intense focus on the individual -- and I think that's important," Yost said.
The Royals in 2010 ranked last in American League defense with 121 errors, and last in AL pitching with a 4.97 ERA and the most hits given up. Their hitters ranked second with a .274 batting average, but were just 10th in runs scored with 676.
So there's a lot of work to be done.
"I'm obsessed with fundamentals," Glass said. "If you can't do the little things, if you can't play fundamentally sound baseball, then I don't think you're going to win. And I love the fact that Ned is kind of the same way. He's obsessed with fundamentals, and being able to execute and do the little things right."
The accent is on youth in this camp, and many of the kids are pitchers which, for pitching coach Bob McClure, means more one-on-one sessions out on the practice fields or in the clubhouse.
"You have to spend a little more time explaining to them, 'You're not going to make the team throwing a side, you're not going to make the team throwing BP, so you've got to concentrate on commanding the baseball,'" McClure said. "But you don't want to take their aggressiveness away from them, either."
The essence of this youthful atmosphere is that several of the players are from the Texas League championship club at Northwest Arkansas. Others have experienced winning seasons at the Class-A level on their way through the system. The Royals' farm system this year was anointed No. 1 among the 30 clubs by Baseball America.
So, despite the woes at the Major League level the last several years, many of the Minor League kids have a winning attitude that Yost expects they'll carry into his first Royals camp.
"Exactly, they expect to win," Yost said. "That's their mindset going in every year. So, I don't see it as changing the culture or changing the mindset in terms of winning. It's something that you always continue to focus on and always continue to develop, but it's not a major hurdle for us."
Sorting through the young mass of athletes will be easier because many of the managers and coaches from the Minors will be on hand, and Yost's new first-base coach, Doug Sisson, has been the farm system's field coordinator for the last three years.
"We've got a pretty good read on most of them," Yost said. "Of course, Doug Sisson has been in the Minor Leagues and knows 'em better than anybody knows 'em, or as well as anybody in our system. I've watched them play personally, I've had a chance to get to know them off the field a little bit, and those are all important things in terms of their mindset -- their personality and how they go about their business. So it's going to be interesting to see. [Mike] Moustakas was in Major League Spring Training for a little bit last year, but some of these other guys -- [Everett] Teaford and [Danny] Duffy and Tim Collins -- we'll just see how it all works for them."
There are some new players among the veterans, too, including pitcher Jeff Francis, and outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur.
Yost and Francoeur knew each other when both were in the Atlanta organization, but this will be the first time they have a manager-player relationship.
"One thing I like is I've heard he's a little bit fiery, and he likes to get after it -- and that's something I enjoy, I like that," Francoeur said. "I need a manager to jump on me every once in a while and let you know what you need to do, and I think that's a good thing."
Yost is anticipating a load of hard work in this camp, but he also believes it's going to be a lot of fun.
"No doubt. I'm really looking forward to it because we're going to have a ton of talent in that camp, and it's going to be a lot of fun watching them grow and develop," he said.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.