Royals' Moustakas aiming for bounce-back yearFILE - In this Sept. 5, 2013 file photo, Kansas City Royals' Mike Moustakas (8) celebrates after hitting a solo home run to win a baseball game during the 13th inning against the Seattle Mariners, in Kansas City, Mo. Moustakas walked through the empty ballroom with such a confident swagger that it was hard to believe the Royals third baseman was coming off one of the toughest seasons of his career _ and heading into one of the most important ones. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Mike Moustakas walked through the empty ballroom with such a confident swagger that it was hard to believe the Royals third baseman was coming off one of the toughest seasons of his career.
Or that he was carrying the weight of a franchise on his shoulders.
Once considered a cornerstone of Kansas City's future, Moustakas struggled so mightily last season that he was nearly sent to the minors. His playing time decreased and he became a liability at the plate, even as the Royals contended in September for the first time in a decade.
Now, with most of their key pieces back and a few significant acquisitions, the Royals are eager to take the next step by making the postseason for the first time since 1985. And if they have any hope of dethroning Detroit in the AL Central, or even challenging for a wild-card berth, Moustakas knows that he's going to have to be more productive than a year ago.
''That's why I worked so hard this offseason,'' he said.
First, Moustakas spent a couple months playing winter ball in Venezuela. Then, he returned to the U.S. and resumed working with Royals hitting coach Pedro Grifol in Arizona. Along the way, he also managed to drop about 10 pounds, becoming faster, stronger and more flexible.
Oh, and he also managed to get married.
Suffice to say, it wasn't a very restful offseason. But Moustakas is confident all the work will pay off with a big bounce-back year, which is why he walked through a ballroom during the club's annual FanFest with a pronounced bounce to his step.
''I worked on all sorts of things, my swing, pitch selection, different situations,'' Moustakas said. ''All sorts of things we could work on out there, as opposed to going into spring training to start from ground zero. I was able to get a jump on everything.''
That's exactly what the Royals were hoping he would do.
''Look, we've got to count on all of our young guys getting better,'' general manager Dayton Moore said. ''We have to count on Moose, and we expect Moose to have a much better year.''
Moustakas made the decision to play winter ball late last season, when the former first-round pick was lugging along a .233 average. He knew that there were things he could do to restore the club's confidence in him - and his faith in himself - and that the best way to do both was to keep playing competitive games for as long as possible.
He wound up joining the Cardenales de Lara, which happened to be managed by Grifol, allowing Moustakas a chance to work closely with his hitting coach even while in Venezuela.
The fields were a little rough. The bounces were often wacky. The crowds were passionate, if a bit small. The food, well, Moustakas jokes that it's one of the reasons he lost all that weight.
But the progress he made was unmistakable.
''I took about 300 swings every day before the game,'' he said. ''We tried to adjust a few things, but nothing too crazy, still the same swing, still try to drive the ball and do some damage. I was able to put solid contact on most every swing I took.''
That was a welcomed improvement over last season, when he got into a nasty habit of trying to pull everything to right field. The result was usually weakly hit balls scooped up by the second baseman that reached first long before Moustakas did.
''The first three or four games in Venezuela, I didn't do so well,'' Moustakas said. ''I didn't trust the process. I didn't trust what we were doing, and I went back to my old ways. But then I was like, 'You know what? I'm here. Let's just do it.' And it almost clicked.''
First baseman Eric Hosmer, one of his closest friends, said the changes have been obvious.
''I saw him about a month ago in California and he's in great shape,'' Hosmer said. ''He's really done everything he could this offseason to put him in a position to succeed.''
The Royals are counting on that to put them in a position to succeed, too.