On Ned Yost’s first day as Royals manager, Eric Hosmer was a 20-year-old first baseman in Wilmington, N.C. Mike Moustakas was 21 and destroying opposing pitchers in Northwest Arkansas. Lorenzo Cain was 24 and a center fielder in Huntsville, Ala., plying his trade in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
Nearly eight years later, Cain is back with the Brewers and Hosmer and Moustakas are at home, still waiting out a slow free-agent market, but on Wednesday morning Yost was still here, sitting behind his desk in a sparsely decorated office on the first day of spring training.
He is 62 years old now, 20 pounds lighter after a winter of inactivity following a harrowing fall on his farm in Georgia. This is his eighth spring training here on the outskirts of Phoenix. Yet as change takes root here outside Surprise Stadium, as an organization prepares for another arduous rebuild, as young players replace old staples, Yost remains at the center of it all, bracing for another project in his 15th season as a major-league manager.
“It takes a different energy,” he said.
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On Wednesday, Yost declared that he still possessed that energy. Three months ago, he was confined to a recliner in his home in rural Georgia, his shattered pelvis held together by steel rods, his mind altered by pain-killing drugs. On the first day of camp, he walked without a limp, ambling to watch 32 pitchers and seven catchers work out for the first time. In the morning, he said, he had spent 30 minutes on the treadmill, adhering to his normal routine. He planned more exercise later. He dismissed questions about his physical state.
“C’mon, seriously?” Yost said. “I don’t need a cane or a walker.”
The Royals open camp with plenty of questions, of course. Hosmer and Moustakas are still free agents and therefore still available. There are open competitions all around the field, including center field and third base. The bullpen is a blank canvas on which to build. The first full-squad workout is scheduled for Monday.
Yost, however, is seeking to embrace the energy that comes from uncertainty, to harness the focus that stems from competition. In the last five seasons, the Royals averaged 86 victories while appearing in two World Series and claiming the second world championship in franchise history. On Wednesday, Yost said the club would wear its official spring training tops for each workout because he wanted to make sure fans could see the names printed on the back. He’s still putting faces with names, he said.
“There’s probably a higher level of excitement (in camp) because of the new guys,” Yost said. “I’m interested and excited to see what they bring to the table. Because normally, we’d be pretty set this time of year. We’d have a pretty good idea who the bullpen was going to be, who was going to be playing first base, center field, right field, third base.
“It’s a little bit different this year.”
The changes are not limited to the roster. Seeking to revamp its staff for the rebuild, the Royals brought in four new coaches and recast the duties of others. Former hitting coach Dale Sveum has moved into the role of bench coach, while Cal Eldred will guide the pitching staff and long-time minor-league hitting coach Terry Bradshaw will take over with the big-league team. Vance Wilson, a former manager at Class AA Northwest Arkansas, is the new bullpen coach, while former Royal Mitch Maier has replaced first-base coach Rusty Kuntz, who is still here in camp as a roving instructor. All four new coaches were in the organization last season. And this is, in part, by design. All are familiar, in varying degrees, with the club’s young players.
“I was always comfortable with the staff last year,” Yost said. “But every once and a while, change is good in that respect. Get some different ideas.”
For all the changes taking shape, for all the differences in vibe and expectation, old figures remain. Left-hander Danny Duffy worked out Wednesday with a beard covering his face. He will headline the rotation. He has not changed. Same for catcher Salvador Perez, who arrived in camp earlier this month with the same svelte figure he sought to craft and maintain last year.
Alex Gordon will start in left field. Shortstop Alcides Escobar re-signed on a one-year deal. Yost is still hopeful that Hosmer will return. Squint your eyes and you can still see remnants of the 2015 world champions. Still, Yost did not shy away from one theme on Wednesday. For years, the Royals were in development mode, and then the core grew up, and Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain and Perez all played in All-Star games, and the mode turned to “maintenance.” The goal was winning.
“It reverts all the way back — boom — to the development side again,” Yost said. “Now here we go. You need the fresh ideas. You need to address every situation that happens.
“How do you play the game properly? How do you play the game to win?”
For the moment, Yost is back in his element. He is guiding young players again. He is teaching. He has one year remaining on his contract. He has beaten back a shattered pelvis, and really, once you do that and sit in a recliner for 18 hours a day, what’s losing a few baseball games? What’s another rebuild?
“Moving around great,” he said.
The Royals, of course, do not have plans to lose. Not if they can help it. And so sometime after arriving at camp, Perez locked eyes with his manager here in Arizona. Months ago, Perez had learned of Yost’s fall back home, and the news stunned him.
“What are you doing?” Perez remembers thinking.
He called catching coach Pedro Grifol for an update. He saw Yost moving around at FanFest and felt better. But when he showed up to camp, he noticed something. The spark had returned.
“He’s looking different here,” Perez said. “He’s more ready.”