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Optimism abounds after Royals finish 86-76

By DAVE SKRETTA

AP Sports Writer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Their best record in more than two decades. Several breakout stars. A hungry bunch of young players who have finally played September games that matter.

There's a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to the Kansas City Royals. There are also plenty of questions remaining as they point toward next season.

Will manager Ned Yost be back? Will they find a big bat for right field? Will they retain or replace right-hander Ervin Santana? Will some of the young pitchers develop into starters? Will they take the final step needed to make the postseason?

"We like our bullpen, we like our starting pitching and we think that our offensive unit is going to continue to grow and trend upward," said Yost, whose contract expired after this season but who's also received a vote of confidence from general manager Dayton Moore. "We think we're sitting in a pretty good spot to come in next year and compete."

The Royals finished 86-76 for their best record since 1989, and a 14-win improvement over last season. They were just five games back of the AL's wild card and in contention until the penultimate series of the season.

"Everyone in here realized how much fun winning was in that second half was for us," first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "The fans were great in Kansas City, showing up every day and filling it out for us and really making it a tough place to play for teams coming in."

Indeed, the fervor of late-season baseball was back in the old Midwestern cattle town for the first time since George Brett -- who made a cameo as the Royals' hitting coach midway through the season -- was plying his trade at third base in the 1970s and '80s.

Kauffman Stadium was filled to the brim for the Royals' final home series against Texas, and the team even managed to push the Chiefs off the front page late in the season.

"A lot of us realized how good of a baseball city Kansas City is," Hosmer said, "and especially when you're winning how fun it can be."

The Royals still haven't been to the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series, and never did pull into a postseason slot despite a stellar second half. They still have not risen to the level of the American League's elite franchises, even if they're trending that way.

For the most part, the Royals spent the entire season chasing those teams.

They got off to a miserable start capped by a disastrous May in which they were just 8-20, and they were already being written off again. But they steadied the ship in June and then went on a tear after the All-Star break, putting together a 43-27 finishing kick.

"We just need to keep that kind of mentality where we go out there and play hard and have fun and just let that happen," outfielder Alex Gordon said. "We had a good energy in the clubhouse and a good mentality, kind of feeling. It paid off with the wins we had."

The clubhouse will remain largely intact next season. Hosmer and young starters such as shortstop Alcides Escobar and center Salvador Perez are under club control or already have long-term deals, and even ace James Shields remains signed through next season. Santana is the biggest loss looming -- he may have priced himself out of Kansas City by going 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA.

The Royals will make a qualifying offer to Santana, but they also have a bevy of youngsters led by Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer waiting in the wings if he gets away in free agency. All-Star closer Greg Holland, who saved 47 games with a 1.21 ERA, will be back to anchor one of the major's best bullpens. Holland had just one blown save in his last 41 chances.

The biggest question becomes who will manage them.

Owner David Glass intends to leave that decision up to Moore, who has been in Yost's corner all season. Yost also has said he'd like to be back, especially with the franchise finally contending for the first time in decades.

"When you have something good you need to stick with it," Gordon said, "and I think that's what we have. We have a good manager that gels well with the guys on this team and we all have a good relationship. It's kind of hard to start over again with someone new, so it'd be nice to have him back and we're hoping that he comes back."