KANSAS CITY -- Manager Buddy Bell repeated one word several times during his 81-game assessment of the revamped and rebuilt Royals on Sunday morning.

Encouraged.

In every statistical aspect, Kansas City is much improved from past seasons. Regularly starting two rookies and putting several other young players into significant roles, the Royals hold a 34-47 record at the midpoint this season. Since 2001, that ranks as the Royals' second-best record after 81 games, trailing only the 2003's 43-38 mark.

"We have some young guys that are getting better," Bell said. I think that is the key to this whole thing. In terms of experience, we don't have to a lot of it. I am encouraged by the way we have played baseball lately and the way that our younger guys have been playing."

While the team is still in last place in the American League Central, it is not the worst team in baseball. Entering Sunday, five teams have a worse winning percentage than KC.

"I am very encouraged, but I have said this before, the barometer in the big leagues is how many wins you have, and we don't have as many as we would like to, but I think that will change," Bell said. "I am encouraged. We play real young some times. I think we got a little younger quicker than we thought. ... We do make some young mistakes, but we don't seem to make them over and over again."

This season, the Royals have seen a vast improvement from its pitching staff. The hurlers have compiled a 4.55 ERA, nearly a run and a half better than the 5.88 mark after 81 games last year. The starters, buoyed from strong seasons by Gil Meche and Brian Bannister, are 23-34 with a 4.84 ERA. In 2006, those marks were far worse: 13-38 with a 6.32 ERA.

"I think pitching overall has been the strong suit," Bell said.

After starting 10-23, the Royals have played .500 ball since May 6. Offensively, KC got off to a rough start, batting just .242 and .254 in April and May. In June, they batted .272 with a .728 on-base-plus-slugging percentage -- their best monthly OPS this season by nearly 30 points.

Bell, though, would like to see continued progress from his offense. They still rank 12th in American League in runs scored entering Sunday.

"I think overall, offensively we still have some real inexperience approaches and guys that aren't really sure of their swings or know what kind of plan they have from one at-bat to the next, but that will change," the manager said.

Alex Gordon has made the most significant progress, batting .327 with a .500 slugging percentage in June. Gordon has raised his batting average 70 points since May 20.

"Alex is starting to come around," Bell said.

Rookies Tony Pena, Brian Bannister and Joakim Soria have all played well in significant roles, too.

"With [Pena] being a rookie, I think that he has played a lot better than your normal rookie shortstop," Bell said. "I don't think Tony gets enough credit for that. People tend to look at his errors, but the fact is that Tony gets to a lot of balls that a lot of other guys don't get, too. ... Banny has it turns out was a great move for us... Soria has been solid all season."

Helped by a season-high five-game winning streak, the team finished 15-12 in June, a far better mark than its 8-18 record in April and 11-17 mark in May.

"There are a lot of really good, encouraging things happening here," Bell said. "But, unfortunately, we are just so young, you never know what is going to be happen from one night to the next."

Injury updates: Bell said Mike Sweeney (knee) will probably not return until after the All-Star Break. Sweeney is eligible to come off the DL on July 3. Mark Grudzielanek (knee) could be activated by Friday.

[Grudzielanek] hasn't really done anything really baseball-wise to speak of. He has thrown a little bit and swung the bat a little bit," Bell said. "He thought he might be able to come back Tuesday, but I don't think that is a good idea."

Royals Rundown: Top prospect Billy Buckner allowed five runs, four earned, in six innings for Triple-A Omaha on Saturday. ... Luke Hochevar, the No. 1 overall pick in 2006 Draft, allowed one run on six hits over 6 1/3 innings for Double-A Wichita. He struck out five and walked five. ... Tyler Chambliss earned the win in his Class-A Wilmington debut, tossing five innings.

Coming up: Meche faces his former team Monday night at Kauffman Stadium. Meche will pitch against the Mariners and Felix Hernandez. First pitch is set for 7:10 CT.