One winter early in his minor-league career, James Shields volunteered as a coach for a travel baseball team near his home in Valencia, Calif. The Southern California Heat sported a bevy of talent, future big-leaguers such as Matt Dominguez, Andrew Lambo and a terror at shortstop named Mike Moustakas.
“He was a beast,” Shields said after Moustakas drove in three runs in the Royals’ 11-1 victory over Texas on Friday in their second Cactus League game of the spring. “It seemed like he was the same size that he is now. He was throwing 90 mph from the bump, at 13 years old, and hitting tanks.”
Moustakas blossomed into the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft, and the Royals tabbed him as a future cornerstone. Here in camp, after three disappointing big-league seasons, Moustakas is looking to reclaim that status.
He has suffered in the majors for so long. But inside this clubhouse and in the front office, reminders of Moustakas’ inherent talent are not hard to find. General manager Dayton Moore might mention Moustakas’ talent on the mound. Manager Ned Yost tells stories about his first glimpses of the player. And Shields, his former coach, expresses admiration for Moustakas’ dedication.
“Moose is working really hard this year,” Shields said. “I’m really proud of him, actually. He’s putting his nose down to the ground and grinding right now.”
Will this translate into big-league success? The organization has yet to waver in their support of Moustakas, even if the offseason acquisition of Danny Valencia raised questions about a potential platoon at third base. Team officials bat those inquiries aside.
On Friday, albeit in the unreliable setting of a spring-training game, Moustakas reminded once more of his potential. After singles by Billy Butler and Salvador Perez, Moustakas squared off with Rangers starter Alexi Ogando.
Ogando left a changeup over the middle, and Moustakas stroked it to right to bring both runners home.
Moustakas’ next at-bat also paid dividends. In the third inning, he cracked an 88-mph fastball from 42-year-old right-hander Jos Contreras for an RBI single. Moustakas walked in the fifth and scored on a two-run single by utility man Christian Colon.
“It’s spring training,” Moustakas said. “It’s always nice to go out there and hit the ball around the park. The results right now, they don’t really matter.”
For the overwhelming majority of players, this is accurate. But for Moustakas, 25, team officials admit there is some incentive for him to experience early success.
After finishing 2013 with a measly .651 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, Moustakas spent his winter in Venezuela, where he played for hitting coach Pedro Grifol’s team. The work was both physical and mental: Moustakas focused on hitting the ball to all fields. Team officials also believe he has learned to better deal with failure.
“He feels really good about all the work that he did this winter,” Yost said. “And to get some early results helps. It just kind of validates the work that he did.”
His teammates desire this, of course. Their affection for him appears deeper than the usual bond created by the clubhouse. For guys such as Shields, the connection goes back more than a decade.
“I’d come back and help them out, just be around the guys,” Shields said. “He happened to be on the team. Now he’s my third baseman. Talk about making you feel a little old, right?”