Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Most Disappointing Royals Season? Part IV: 2004

The 1990s, particularly after the 1994 players' strike, saw the Royals slowly descend from a model organization to mediocrity to a laughingstock. This culminated in the 2002 season, when the Royals lost 100 games for the first time in the franchise's 34 seasons. The Royals then saw their best pitcher, Paul Byrd, go to Atlanta as a free agent after winning 17 games.

This made the 2003 season so amazing. I assume most of you are familiar with the details, but to briefly recap: the Royals began 2003 with nine straight wins on their way to a 16-3 record. After falling all the way back down to a 28-29 mark in early June, they rebounded to have a 7-game lead at the All-Star Break. They held on to first place into late August, then ran out of gas and finished seven games back, with an 83-79 record. It was their first winning season since 1994. Tony Pena won AL Manager of the Year, Angel Berroa won AL Rookie of the Year, and for the first time in years, the Royals--not the Chiefs--were the talk of the town.

To his credit, then-GM Allard Baird seemed to understand that the 2003 season really had been magical; the Royals had actually been outscored for the season, had benefited from playing a historically bad Tigers team 18 times, and somehow had only one pitcher (Darrell May) reach 10 wins. So Baird went to work, although as always with the Royals, he had a limited budget. Still, Baird signed free agents Matt Stairs, Tony Graffanino, Benito Santiago and, in an apparent coup, Juan Gonzalez.

Yep, 2004 looked promising. Sure, it would be tough--the Twins and White Sox both looked solid, and none of the pitchers who had contributed in 2003 had much of a track record. But Royals fans had been hearing about this kid named Greinke who was expected to make his debut that season, and become a star shortly after. Despite the loss of outfielder Raul Ibanez, the offense looked good with the offseason additions.

It didn't all fall apart right away. The most eagerly-awaited Opening Day in years saw the Royals win a thrilling, come-from-behind 9-7 game against the White Sox. KC scored 6 runs in the 9th inning, tying the game on a 3-run homer by Mendy Lopez, then winning on a walk-off 2-run shot by Carlos Beltran. It certainly looked like the magic of 2003 was carrying over into 2004.

After getting out to a 4-2 start to the season, things fell apart quickly. The Royals lost 12 of 15 games, ending April with a 7-14 record. Very few teams survive a month like that and go on to win a division title, but there was still a feeling of hope that they could climb back in the race; after all, it was only May 1.

Unfortunately, that was the day the Royals summoned a virtual unknown, Eduardo Villacis, to make a spot start at Yankee Stadium. Even for the most serious Royals fan, Villacis was a mystery. Heck, many of his new teammates were unfamiliar with him. And they barely had time to get acquainted. The Venezuelan righty gave up 2 runs in the 1st inning and 3 more in the 3rd before being pulled in the 4th. Those 3 1/3 innings would be his only appearance as a major leaguer. They would also be a neat metaphor for the Royals' 2004 season.

The losses continued to pile up and the odd things continued to happen. Pena had already tried to loosen up the troops by jumping into the shower, still in uniform, after a loss to the Twins. Now, after Villacis' Bronx bombing, Pena told the assembled media, "We are going to win the Central." This motivational ploy didn't work either; the Royals would lose 13 of the next 19 games. On May 21, Gonzalez was removed from a game against the A's and would be placed on the DL with a lower back injury, where he would stay for the rest of the season. First, the injury was said to be day-to-day, then a two-week deal, and then a season-ender.

One positive of the 2004 season was Greinke's debut, a solid start against the A's in Oakland. Zack was properly initiated into Royals baseball by his new teammates, as Jeremy Affeldt blew the save in the 9th, and then the Royals lost the game in the 11th. Hey, at least they scored 4 runs for him!

Another oddity...on June 6th, pitcher Jason Grimsley and first baseman Ken Harvey collided while trying to field a grounder. Actually, Harvey fielded the ball and prepared to throw home, but instead ended up socking Grimsley in the jaw as the pitcher raced to cover first. Although neither player was seriously hurt, they both laid on the Kauffman Stadium grass for several minutes and ended up going to the hospital for X-rays. Needless to say, the non-play ended up costing the Royals the game.

As the losses mounted, it became clear that Baird was going to have to trade Beltran, who would be a free agent at the end of the season. With the Royals' promising success in 2003, Baird had decided to hold on to the star center fielder to see if KC could make a run at the division title in 2004. And so, on June 24, the Royals traded Beltran to the Astros, part of a three-team deal that netted the Royals Mark Teahen, John Buck, and pitcher Mike Wood.

With the towel officially thrown in now, the losing continued, as the Royals closed July with 11 losses in 12 games. KC only won 7 games in July, ending the month at 21.5 games behind the Twins. August and September weren't much better, and the Royals broke the 100-loss barrier for the second time in three years in the final week of the season. The Royals ended up with a 58-104 record, an amazing and embarrassing departure from where the record was expected to be.

So what happened? Well, injuries were definitely a problem. KC used 58 players in 2004, which is still a club record (by comparison, in 2009, when the front office loved to use injuries as an excuse for the disappointing season, the team used 34 players). But the players who played the most games just weren't that good. Only six Royals played more than 100 games, and Mike Sweeney and Matt Stairs were the only ones of that group to post OPS+ numbers over 100. Gonzalez, the Royals' biggest offseason signing and a guy who was supposed to be an offensive cornerstone, only played 33 games and was held to a .767 OPS.

Still, the most disappointing position player of 2004 had to be Angel Berroa. Looking back, we know how badly his lack of plate discipline hurt his career. But in 2004, it seemed like he was undergoing a sophomore slump like none other, as his average dropped 25 points, his OBP fell 30 points, and his slugging percentage tumbled 66 points. And of course, this was the player who had the most plate appearances for the 2004 Royals. That explains a lot.

Also, the pitching was horrible, finishing with a league-worst 5.16 ERA, a league-low 25 saves, and a league-low 887 strikeouts, among other lowlights. The only starting pitcher to post and ERA+ over 100? Greinke, of course. Darrell May went 9-19 and complained he couldn't even get no-decisions as the bullpen repeatedly let inherited runners score.

After the dream season of 2003, 2004 was a nightmare. And even worse, it would set the stage for an even longer nightmare. From 2004-2006, the Royals would lose 310 games. Tony Pena quit in disgrace after a game in Toronto, fleeing to his native Dominican Republic to avoid testifying in the divorce hearing of a woman he was having an affair with (to this day, I think the real reason he quit was Berroa's inexplicable baserunning error that cost the Royals that game--I think poor Tony just couldn't stand it anymore). He would be replaced by Buddy Bell, who would famously say, "I never say it can't get worse," a perfect summation of the Kansas City Royals from about 1995 to today.

Baird would be fired in 2006, after being allowed to twist in the wind for a while by David Glass, who essentially said publicly he was pulling the trigger, then took almost a month to do so. Although Baird was pretty much a failure as GM, he seemed to be a decent man who deserved better. And he did draft Greinke, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, among others, along with rescuing Raul Ibanez off the scrap heap.

In retrospect, 2004 probably shouldn't have been such a surprise. Well, maybe the amount of losing would be considered surprising, but it seems obvious now that the 2004 Royals were really not that good. I would say they proved that by hitting 100 losses in the next two seasons. But after the magical summer of 2003, 2004 was supposed to be the continuation of a Royal renaissance. Instead, it turned out to be a six-month-long train wreck.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

We Longed For Nothin'

...and were quite satisifed.
(From "Bob Dylan's Dream," The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)

Jason Kendall, eh?

Pardon my lack of enthusiasm. Also, pardon my lack of outrage. I will get enthusiastic if and whem the Royals make a move that significantly upgrades the roster. I will be outraged when they trade a pitching prospect for possibly the worst everyday player in baseball, not that they would ever do such a thing.

But this move...I think it makes the Royals slightly worse, but really, what's the point in getting upset about that? The Royals have made plenty of moves over the years to make themselves worse, many of them much more damaging than this. Instead, this feels like a rather pointless endeavor, much like the act of being a Royals fan is becoming.

I understand the Royals don't feel like they can increase payroll. That's their call, and I won't question it. But in that case, why not look for ways to save some money and perhaps find a piece for the future? Based on moves the Royals made earlier this offseason, they seemed to understand that they are not contending in 2010. So why not wait until tonight's deadline to see which players became free agents after their teams didn't offer them a contract? Obviously, no big names would be available, but the opportunity could be there to find a young, undervalued piece of the puzzle.

Instead, the Royals spent almost as much on a 35-year-old catcher coming off perhaps his worst offensive season as they would have on a 28-year-old catcher coming off his best offensive season. True, catchers are usually not valued for their offensive skills, and no one is arguing Buck would turn into Johnny Bench. But Kendall only has one offensive advantage over Buck: on-base percentage. I guess we could be optimists and say the Royals have finally figured out OBP is important, but that would be ignoring Buck's vast advantage in power hitting. In 2009, Kendall had 526 plate appearances; Buck had 202. If you extrapolate Buck's numbers to the same number of plate appearances, you get a catcher who hits .247 with 21 homers, 31 doubles, 94 RBI and 42 runs. Not bad. Instead, now the Royals have a catcher who hit .241 with 2 homers, 19 doubles, 43 RBI and 48 runs.

Perhaps Kendall's defense makes up the difference, you say? Based on quotes in the article I linked above, the Royals seem to think it does. While catcher defense is hard to quantify statistically, based on watching Buck last year, it seems the only area he struggles in is throwing out runners. Yet Buck and Kendall had almost the same success rate throwing out baserunners last year. It is possible Kendall is better at other aspects of catching--calling a game, blocking balls in the dirt, etc. Certainly those are important, although the old "veteran presence" canard is overused.

The Royals are still looking for a centerfielder and some left-handed pitching. I'm just going to hope those searches have a more promising result than this one did.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Most Disappointing Royals Season? Part III: 1990

It's common to hear that the Royals have "stunk," or "been mired in futility," or however you want to say it, since 1985. Of course, that's not really true. The Royals teams of the late 1980s were still solid ballclubs who just couldn't get over the hump.

The AL West was up for grabs until the Oakland A's dynasty rose up in 1988, but the Royals still had hope. After all, they still had plenty of star power: George Brett was winding down his Hall of Fame career, but would still have enough left to win a batting title in 1990. Bret Saberhagen was dominant enough to win a second Cy Young Award in 1989. Veteran links to the "glory days" like Willie Wilson and Frank White shared the field with up-and-coming stars like Mike Macfarlane, Kevin Seitzer, Kurt Stilwell, Tom Gordon, and Jeff Montgomery. And the Royals also had possibly the most famous athlete in the country, Bo Jackson.

It must be hard for kids today to comprehend a Royals player appearing in national TV commercials, writing an autobiography with a distinguished journalist like Dick Schaap, having his own video game, or any of the other things Bo accomplished off the field. For a time, the Royals had the coolest baseball player on the planet.

Meanwhile, the Oakland A's were assembling a dynasty of sorts, running away with the AL West in 1988, then outlasting the Royals by 7 games in 1989. People who think the Royals have been horrible for 24 straight years now should check out the '89 edition, which had the second-best record in the league. Unfortunately, they were stuck in a division with the league's best team.

Two things were in play here. First, the A's and Royals had a bit of a rivalry going on. There was the minor detail that the A's had jerked Kansas City baseball fans around for 15 years, then bolted town right before the team finally began winning. Then, the Royals ended up chasing those good A's teams in the division standings every year before breaking through with a division title in 1976. Several mediocre years by the A's in the late '70s and early '80s had dimmed the rivalry somewhat, but it had a bit of a resurgence once the A's got good again.

The other factor was the health of Royals founder and owner Ewing Kauffman. Beloved by his employees and by the fans of Kansas City, Mr. K turned 73 before the end of the 1989 season. Who knew how many more years he might have to win a second World Series.

So, after the 1989 season, the Royals went shopping in the free-agent supermarket. For younger Royals fans, it may be tough to imagine a Royals free-agent signing that is not a lower-light like, say, Kyle Farnsworth. No, the Royals were going after big names.

On December 7, 1989, the Royals signed starting pitcher Storm Davis, taking him away from their rivals in Oakland. On December 11, the Royals pulled off an even bigger coup, signing relief pitcher Mark Davis, the NL Cy Young Award winner (this meant the 1990 Royals would make baseball history by having both reigning Cy Young winners). And on December 15, the Royals traded starting pitcher Charlie Leibrandt to the Braves for Gerald Perry, intending to install him at first base and move Brett to DH (he had moved from third to first a few years earlier to make room for Seitzer).

In those simpler days, most baseball fans (myself included) didn't understand or even know about the many advanced stats we take for granted now. So we Royals fans were excited that Storm Davis had won 19 games in 1989. We were excited that Mark Davis had had 44 saves in 1989. And we were excited that Perry had hit .300 in 1988, even though he'd fallen off in 1989. We didn't realize that Storm's 19 wins came despite a 4.36 ERA and a 1.506 WHIP, or that the A's averaged almost 6 runs a game when he pitched. We didn't realize that saves were an overrated stat, and that the Royals probably already had two better relief pitchers in Montgomery and Steve Farr. We didn't realize that Perry's offense was almost devoid of power, a serious shortcoming for a 1B/DH type.

So we all went into the 1990 season expecting a summer-long battle with the A's and the also-formidable-looking Angels for first place. It would begin with an Opening Day battle against Baltimore on ESPN.

I remember racing into the house after school to catch the end of the game. It had been a seesaw affair, and the game was tied at 6 in the 11th. Montgomery was starting his third inning of work. Even at age 14, I thought this was odd. The Royals had spent all that money on Mark Davis, and they wouldn't use him? Monty walked the leadoff hitter, then gave up two singles and the lead run. Then, and only then, did Mark Davis enter the game. When the Royals went quietly in the bottom of the inning, the season was off to a bad start.

It got worse; the Royals had a six-game losing streak in late April, then won a game, then lost four in a row. At 6-16, they were already 10.5 games out. They would not get within 10 games of the division lead for the rest of the season. In one month, the promise of a pennant race had gone up in smoke. KC would end up with a 75-86 record, a mere 27.5 games out of first.

Those offseason acquisitions sure worked out well, didn't they? Storm Davis went 7-10 with a 4.74 ERA and only gave the Royals 112 innings. Mark Davis was a total disaster, going 2-7 with a 5.11 ERA and only 6 saves. Things got so bad that, in desperation, the Royals let him start a couple of game in late July (he got bombed in those games, too). Perry hit .254/.313/.361 for an OPS+ of 90. Of course, there was plenty of blame to go around besides those three. Bret Saberhagen continued his career pattern of good year, bad year, as injuries limited him to only 20 starts. God bless Frank White for all he did for the Royals, but in his last season, he put up a 58 OPS+ in 82 games. The 1990 Royals weren't a bad team, just mediocre. But after the hype of the preceding winter, it was a very disappointing season.

The disappointment would continue into the offseason. Frank White would retire after the season. Willie Wilson would sign a free-agent deal with the A's. And in January of 1991, Bo Jackson would injure his hip while engaged in his "hobby," playing running back for the Los Angeles Raiders. With his athletic ability in doubt, the Royals would release Bo in March of 1991. His hip would eventually require replacement, and while he was able to come back and play baseball, he was never the same combination of power and speed.

The Royals would scrape along near the bottom of the AL West for a couple more seasons. It would not be until 1993 that they would be contenders again. Even then, they were only fringe contenders. Then the 1994 strike hit, and the franchise began its decline. So 1989 still stands as the last time KC reached 90 wins in a season. And 1990 stands as the beginning of what is now a two-decade struggle.

A Few Thoughts On The Mark Teahen Trade

I can't bring myself to have a strong opinion either way on the Mark Teahen trade. Teahen was a decent player who was probably more popular with the fans than his numbers deserved, thanks to his media-friendly personality and willingness to be shuffled from third base to right field to left field back to third base, with a little first base thrown in there too (and I'm not qualified to judge this, but The Amazing Michelle assures me his looks did not hurt his popularity, either). Unfortunately, the way baseball salaries work, if a player can stick around long enough, his salary will keep going up, no matter what his production is. And Teahen was likely to get an arbitration-induced raise to around $5 million for 2010.

I like Teahen, but his OPS+ numbers the last three seasons are 98, 91, 94. The average major leaguer's salary is around $3 million. The Royals can't afford (and shouldn't want) to pay almost twice the average salary for slightly below-average production.

As for the players the Royals got back, third baseman Josh Fields and second baseman Chris Getz, I can't decide if these guys are useful or not. Fields will turn 27 in December; Getz turned 26 in August. Theoretically, their careers should be peaking now, so that's good. Fields had a decent rookie season in 2007, but has struggled since. From the stats, Getz appears to be a good-field, no-hit guy with good baserunning skills. Let's face it, the Royals could use some good fielders and some good baserunners, so he may be useful if he can get on base.

Of course, the unanswered questions after this trade involve Alex Gordon and Alberto Callaspo, who appeared to be set at third and second, respectively, in 2010. Perhaps the Royals intend to move one or both players, either to another position or another team entirely.

Until we see what other moves the Royals have in store this winter, it's hard to decide how to feel about this move. If the Royals have traded Teahen for two role players or organizational depth (admittedly, something the Royals need), it's probably not a major move. If one or both players end up starting next April, then the Royals may have pulled off a steal. If they have moved one slightly below-average player for two well below-average players, well...that's not really progress, is it? In fact, it's the kind of deal that has helped put the Royals in their current predicament.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Most Disappointing Royals Season? Part II: 1986

If you're interested enough in the Royals to be reading this, I imagine you know all the details about 1985. Of course, the Royals won their one (and only?) World Series title that year. It was the culmination of 17 years of Royals baseball, and the end of a decade's worth of postseason frustration. So perhaps a hangover of sorts was inevitable. But I'm sure no Royals fan imagined the season going awry in the way that it did.

The Royals followed up their 91-71 championship season* with a 76-86 record in 1986. That put them in third place, 16 games behind California. Heck, the usually (in the 1980s, anyway) mediocre Texas Rangers were able to finish second that year.

*History seems to have determined the Royals really weren't that good in 1985, just lucky. Well, they did win 91 games, although they outperformed their Pythagorean record by five games. So I suppose they were a bit lucky, but I would say a low-scoring team with a very good pitching staff would be a good candidate to seem lucky--they are likely to win more close, low-scoring games. Were they as good as the Blue Jays and Cardinals, the teams they beat in the postseason? Probably not, but they managed to get hot at the right time. And they did come back twice from 3-1 deficits. Don't let anyone kid you--the 1985 Royals were a good team.

The Royals brought back essentially the entire 1985 team for an encore. The pitching staff that had been so good in 1984 and 1985 was not filled with old-timers, although some of the core position players were entering the final phase of their careers. So what happened?

The Royals played basically .500 ball for the first three months of the season. That was nothing new for the mid-'80s Royals, though. In fact, through 72 games, the 1985 and 1986 teams had identical 37-35 records. The difference, of course, is that in 1985 the team got hot and stayed that way. In 1986, the Royals got to 37-35, then suffered through an 11-game losing streak in late June and early July. Then came the All-Star Break.

The 1986 All-Star Game should have been a celebration for the Royals and their fans. George Brett and Frank White were both selected as reserves, and of course Dick Howser was the AL manager, since his team had won the league the previous year. White ended up hitting a home run in the game--the eventual winning run for the AL--off Mike Scott of the Houston Astros, who was having a season for the ages and pitching in front of his home fans in the Astrodome.

But something was wrong. Howser seemed distracted and forgetful. Players thought he looked tired. Royals GM John Schuerholz insisted Howser go see a doctor. Soon after the All-Star Game, the diagnosis was in: Howser had a brain tumor. Howser's right-hand man, Mike Ferraro, took over managerial duties for the final 74 games.

Under these circumstances, a disappointing season was all but certain. The long losing streak had pretty much knocked them out of contention (8.5 games back and in fourth place when it ended, with 79 games left) and now their manager, the man who had inspired them and led them to two division titles and a World Series win in the previous two seasons, was fighting for his life in a hospital. Actually, the Royals played roughly .5oo baseball after the losing streak ended, but they could never really get in gear or put together a hot streak.

Hoswer would attempt a brief comeback in spring training in 1987, but had to give it up after only one day. Three months later, less than a year after his diagnosis, he passed on. He was only 51.

So 1986 saw two of the biggest reasons the Royals have not made a postseason appearance since that magical October of 1985. First, Howser's untimely death cut short what might have been a very good managerial career. In one full season with the Yankees and four with the Royals, he had won three division titles and a World Series. Yes, managers probably do not make that much difference in a team's record, but after Howser, the Royals began a managerial procession of retreads (Billy Gardner, Buddy Bell), former Royals from the "glory days" (John Wathan, Hal McRae), possibly crazy people (Bob Boone, Tony Pena Sr.), and uninspiring Eeyore types (Tony Muser, Buddy Bell). With Howser still in the dugout, perhaps some of the second- and third-place finishes over the next few years would become division titles. We'll never know, of course.

Also, after the 1986 season, the Royals traded away two young pitchers to try to fortify an offense that had been next to last in the league in runs scored. First, they sent Scott Bankhead to Seattle for outfielder Danny Tartabull. That move worked out well for the Royals. Second, they sent David Cone to the Mets for catcher Ed Hearn. That move would haunt the Royals for years. Had Cone been a part of the Royals in the late '80s and early '90s, perhaps they could have won another division title or two. And they might not have signed Mark Davis and Storm Davis as free agents after the 1989 season. That may or may not be foreshadowing for the next installment of this series...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Most Disappointing Royals Season? Part I: 1983

Before I start, this bit of genius just has to be pointed out: Dayton Moore vs. Insanity Wolf. Go on, read it. I'll wait.

OK. As I said before, I really started following the Royals in 1983. So I suppose that season wasn't that much of a disappointment to me--I didn't know any better. But I imagine to someone who had been a Royals fan prior to that season, 1983 was a real bummer of a summer, as Ned Flanders might say.

The 1982 Royals went 90-72 and were in the division race all the way to the end. In fact, they were tied for the division lead on Sept. 19, then got swept in a three-game series by the Angels, who ended up winning the division by three games. They suffered no major losses in the offseason (except trading a minor leaguer named Cecil Fielder to Toronto for outfielder Leon Roberts--ugh). So although I don't really remember it, I assume the Royals were expected to contend in 1983.

Of course, that didn't happen. Well, it did somewhat. On August 10, the Royals were five games behind Chicago despite being only 54-55 on the year. At a time when the Royals needed to get hot, it was instead the White Sox who caught fire, going 39-12 the rest of the way and starting my lifelong disdain for the Pale Hose. The Royals ended up in second place, but were under .500 at 79-83 and 20 games behind Chicago.

So what happened? Looking at the stats from 1982 to 1983, I think it was a combination of key players getting old in a hurry and injuries taking down the staff ace. Plus, apparently some other important players had a drug problem...more on that shortly.

The '83 season was the last year in a Royals uniform for one of the best players in team history, Amos Otis. After hitting .286 with 11 homers and 88 RBIs in 125 games in 1982, AO could only manage .261, 4 and 41 in 98 games in 1983. One thing I regret as a Royals fan is that I did not get to see Otis play in his prime--I think he would have been fun to watch. But in 1983, he was struggling.

On the pitching side, Larry Gura went from an 18-12 mark in '82 to a league-leading 18 losses in '83. His ERA jumped almost a full run, from 4.03 to 4.90, while his K/BB ratio went from 98:64 to 57:76. Yep, he walked almost 20 more than he struck out. And still the Royals let him start 31 games and pitch 200 innings. Gura would have a slight bounceback in 1984, going 12-9 despite an unsightly 5.18 ERA. But he was essentially done after 1982, and the Royals couldn't make up for it elsewhere--the young pitchers who would be an important part of the 1984 and 1985 titles just weren't quite ready.

The Royals may have been able to absorb Gura's decline had Dennis Leonard pitched all year. Although Gura got the Opening Day start, I think Leonard would have been considered the staff ace after winning 20 games three times in his eight previous full seasons. But on May 28, his career was derailed when he ruptured his patellar tendon while pitching to Cal Ripken. Leonard would make a valiant comeback and pitch again for the Royals in 1985 and 1986, but his injury helped torpedo the Royals' 1983 season.

Finally, the thing I imagine the 1983 season is most remembered for actually happened after the season. In mid-October, outfielders Willie Wilson and Jerry Martin, first baseman Willie Aikens and pitcher Vida Blue were arrested and charged with misdeameanors related to possession of cocaine. Blue had been released by the Royals in August, but the other three were still on the roster at the time. Martin became a free agent after the season and ended up with the Mets; while Aikens would be traded to the Blue Jays for Jorge Orta, who of course was involved in perhaps the most famous play in franchise history. Wilson would be suspended for the 1984 season by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, but on appeal that was reduced to the first month-and-a-half of the '84 campaign. All four players served 81 days in federal prison.

At the time, I'm sure this was a big scandal, at least as big as it could be without the prevalence of ESPN and 24-hour news channels, and without the existence of websites, to let us know how these men had destroyed our innocence. As it turned out, cocaine was a widespread problem in baseball, and let's face it, in the early '80s there were a lot of cocaine problems in all of society. So thankfully, this episode is more or less a footnote in baseball history, although it is a bigger part of Royals history.

Out of the ashes of the 1983 season, though, the Royals would win the division in 1984, and of course win it all in 1985. One thing about the '83 season, it gave the Royals a chance to start clearing out some of the veterans who had starred on the great teams of the late '70s. Youngsters like Saberhagen, Jackson, Gubicza, Motley, Sheridan, Balboni and Leibrandt would move into important roles and the Royals would quickly reap the benefits.

Friday, October 30, 2009

I’ve Just Returned From The Salt, Salt Sea

…and it’s all for the love of thee
(From "House Carpenter," The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3)

I’m still here. Apologies, loyal readers (both of you), I didn’t mean to go so long between posts. I was planning a season wrap-up, but we had a lovely vacation in Florida the week after the season ended. It’s hard to get excited about rehashing a disappointing season when you’re looking at this:

Anyway, after some consideration, I decided against a wrap-up. Personally, this may be the most disappointing season I’ve lived through as a Royals fan, and that’s saying something. Perhaps 2004 is the only one that could rival this one. I suppose 1986 would merit consideration, as would 1990. Of course, back then we expected the Royals to be really good; we weren’t just hoping they could have everything break right and contend in a mediocre division.

Not to appoint myself as Royals historian (Royals Retrospective does a great job of that), but let’s break down the most disappointing seasons in Royals history. Let’s define “disappointing” in regards to preseason expectations—sure, 2005 and 2006 were awful, but I think every Royals fan went into those seasons just hoping not to lose 100 games. And I’ll limit this to seasons since I became a Royals fan—I consider 1983 to be the first year I was really paying attention. But really, the years before that were building a good team, then watching that good team kick AL West butt. Off the top of my head, about the only year in there that would be disappointing would be 1979 (a second-place finish after three straight division titles and Whitey Herzog getting fired).

So here’s the plan: I’ve picked what I consider to be the four other most disappointing seasons in Royals history. I’ll write a separate recap of each season and then put up a poll. I will then petition to remove all vestiges of the most disappointing Royals season ever.

OK, maybe not. But I am interested to find out what you all think. I've also thought up a couple of (I hope) fun features to add for the offseason, and of course if the Royals make any moves this winter, I'll sound off on those, too.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Thought Some Of 'Em Were Friends Of Mine

...I was wrong about 'em all
(From "Cold Irons Bound," Time Out Of Mind)

You can't blame Zack Greinke if he feels that way about his teammates. For me, and I'm sure for most Royals fans, this season can't end fast enough. There is a lot of bitterness out there--just read any game thread on Royals Review, or consider the hiatus a normally mild-mannered sort like Rany has self-imposed. I'm not going to point fingers at anyone who wants to stop paying attention to this team for a while, or question their fandom. That's your choice, and I can't blame you--it is harder every day to care about this franchise and their unique mixture of incompetence and arrogance.

But there is one remaining reason to pay at least a little attention to the rest of this season, and that is Greinke's quest for a Cy Young award. Of course, winning the award isn't going to make this disappointing season any easier to take, but I think every Royals fan is hoping that Zack will win a nice shiny trophy for his trophy case and be recognized for what he is: the best pitcher in the American League in 2009. It would be the capper on a great story, and I think we all believe Zack deserves something special for pitching so well for the worst team in the AL.

However, there is concern that the media types who vote for these awards will look at Zack's rather paltry win total (13) and decide somehow that CC Sabathia or Justin Verlander or Roy Halladay must be better, simply by having more wins.

You and I know (probably) that wins are a terrible way to measure a pitcher. If the Royals have done nothing else this year, they have certainly provided Exhibit A in the case against the Pitcher Wins stat. How can a pitcher lead the league in ERA, WHIP and shutouts and be near the lead in strikeouts, innings pitched and complete games and not even get close to 20 wins? When he playes for a low-scoring team that can't catch the ball. And of course, neither of those factors are things Zack can control.

Zack has made 29 starts this year, and the Royals have put together a total of 101 runs in those games, an average of 3.48 runs per game. Even for the Royals' pathetic offense, this is below average; KC is scoring 4.08 runs per game overall this year. I went through Zack's game logs for this season and tried to figure out what his record would be if the Royals could have just scored 4 runs per game for him (mind you, league average is 4.83 R/G, so this isn't even giving him averag support). For this exercise, I supposed the Royals had a "4" on the scoreboard when Zack left and the bullpen work stayed the same, no matter how crappy it was.

Unsurprisingly, the Cy Young race would be over. Zack would be 18-3. The Royals would be 18-8 when he pitches (with three times where the opponent ended up with 4 runs), instead of their pathetic 14-15 record in his starts, so they'd have at least 4 more wins this year.

Under these same conditions, Halladay would be 15-5 (he's currently 14-9), Sabathia would be 16-6 (he's currently 16-7), and Verlander would be 17-4 (currently 16-8). So none of these guys have suffered as much from a crappy offense as Zack has. For further evidence, look at their run support: Sabathia has received 5.73 R/G, Halladay 4.86 R/G, and Verlander 4.63 R/G. They're all getting at least 1 more run per start than Greinke.

And of course, Zack has put together this amazing season with one more disadvantage: unlike those other three, Greinke has not had one start against the league's second-most feeble offense, measured in runs. That would be the guys dressing in the same locker room as he is. When he faced the only AL offense to score fewer runs than the Royals, he tossed perhaps his most dominant game, a 1-hit shutout of Seattle. Coincidentally, that was the last time Zack got a win. Since then, in two starts, he's given up 2 runs (1 earned) in 15 innings. His mates have backed him up with a total of 3 runs, and it took 23 innings to manage that.

I am about 75% certain the voters will do the right thing and give Zack his Cy Young award. But that's only because no pitcher in the AL this year is piling up wins. With a win today, Sabathia took the league lead over Verlander (and Scott Feldman of Texas) at 17. It looks like Greinke will get 4 more starts this year. If the Royals can just squeeze out a few runs for him and he gets to 15 or 16 wins, that ought to be enough. I hope. It would help if no one makes it to 20, since I'm afraid the old-fashioned types voting for the award couldn't resist the pull of a nice round number.

Monday, August 17, 2009

There's No Success Like Failure

...and that failure's no success at all.
(From "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," Bringing It All Back Home)

Interesting and revealing quote from the Star this morning about Brayan Pena:

"...manager Trey Hillman continues to insist:

'By the end of this season, I want to be able to accurately answer the question of whether we think he can be a front-line guy or is he what he is right now — a backup, a bat off the bench and an occasional DH. He gives you a great (at-bat).'

That prompts the question: Why not play Peña at least four or five times a week over the final seven weeks to provide an answer?

'The argument against that,' Hillman said, 'is (the desire) to continue utilizing a guy who has a lot of power production and helps generate runs and throws out base stealers better when you’re playing teams that do run in a Miguel Olivo.

'That’s the argument. And trying to go with the difficult balance of, yeah, you’d like to find that out (about Peña) but, at the same time, you’d like to win ballgames.' "

This is exactly the problem the Royals have now and have been re-enacting for 15 years (at least). They never fully commit to finding out what their young players can do, preferring instead to sign veterans and hope those players can have some sort of career year. If not, at least they're theoretically solid players.

The problem with this process is that the Royals are never going to be able to afford difference-making veterans, so the guys they end up getting are usually on the decline. Even worse, they block the Royals from finding out if they have any worthwhile prospects. And they seem to fill the front office with false hope, the odd idea that the team is a few players away and a .500 record is the goal.

Frankly, I'm tired of the Royals shooting for a .500 record. That doesn't get you anything. Even in the AL Central. Yes, the Royals need to get to .500 before they can be a winning team, but the goal is and always should be a World Series title. Quit building teams that might be .500 if things go well and start trying to win. Let's not forget, this year's team was supposed to be one that would be around .500 and "maybe contend if things go well." Instead, things have gone straight to hell, and the Royals are likely not going to be much better record-wise than their 2005-2006 predecessors.

If the Royals are going to stink, I'd rather they do it with young players. I don't mean I want them to call up Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, but could we at least see Kila Ka'aihue instead of Mike Jacobs or Jose Guillen? Last year, when the Royals made Ka'aihue a September callup, they still managed to ignore him, only letting him play in 12 games and get 24 plate appearances. They did this so Ross Gload could keep playing, apparently.

Now the Royals are giving Brayan Pena the same treatment. Right now, there are 3 Royal hitters on the roster with an OPS+ better than 100. Billy Butler and Alberto Callaspo get to play all the time and hit in the middle of the order. The other guy? He has fewer plate appearances this season than Tony Pena Jr. and Luis Hernandez combined (those would be OPS+ numbers of 19 and -33, respectively). He has roughly half the plate appearances of Mitch Maier (75 OPS+). Even worse, he has a fourth of the combined plate appearances of Olivo and John Buck (93 and 77 OPS+, respectively). Ladies and gentlemen, Brayan Pena. A

Can Brayan sustain that offense if he plays every day? I don't know (although his minor league numbers look consistently good). But shouldn't the Royals try to find out? This team needs to find undervalued talent wherever they can, so they can save what money they do have to see if they can sign an actual difference-maker or two. Buck is making $2.9 million this year, and Olivo is making $2.7 million. Pena is making $405,000 and outhitting them both.

One other thing about Hillman's quote above: yes, Olivo does have a decent power output this year--if you look at home runs. Olivo leads the team in homers with 16. Yet he only has 12 doubles (and 4 triples). Even though is slugging percentage is a respectable .473, his on-base percentage is low (.272). The man has walked 9 times in 86 games. And yes, Olivo has been good against base-stealers this year, nailing 30% of them (the league average is 24%). But Olivo also has made 6 errors, allowed 10 passed balls, and is the main catcher for a team with 67 wild pitches this year, which leads the AL by almost 20. Pena's defense is supposed to be suspect, but once again, this is something the Royals need to find out before the end of the season.

Win ballgames? Sure, the Royals should try to do that the rest of the year. Put forth a professional effort and all that. But who's to say they wouldn't have a better chance with Pena playing more often?

Monday, August 3, 2009

When You Gonna Wake Up

...and strengthen the things that remain?
(From "When You Gonna Wake Up," Slow Train Coming)

I was off work last Friday, the non-waiver trade deadline for major league baseball. I was pretty excited to be able to follow along as all the big trades were made, and I was anxious to see what the Royals would do to improve the organization. Obviously, with the major league team in freefall, I did not expect them to add pieces at the major league level, but I was hoping that the Royals could improve the upper levels of the minor league system, which is not exactly teeming with prospects. Baseball America's ranking of the Royals' top 10 prospects last fall included only two players who are at Omaha this season, Kila Ka'aihue and Carlos Rosa.

Instead, the Royals chose to stand pat. Well, that's not entirely true, since they did pick up Josh Anderson, an outfielder whom Detroit had waived. However, Anderson's .282 on-base percentage and .315 slugging percentage do not have me expecting great things. Anyway, the Royals had some trading chips, but did not cash them in.

Obviously, we out here in bloggerland don't know what offers the Royals entertained, or what trades they proposed. Perhaps they were aggressively shopping players but were not offered enough in return. The bottom line is, they didn't get anything done, and the roster remains essentially unchanged from the group that has gone 23-53 since May 7 (that's the worst record in baseball in that timeframe, by the way).

Even worse, the Royals didn't even provide themselves with any payroll flexibility for the coming offseason. According to the awesome Cot's MLB contracts website, the Royals have $51.6 million in payroll obligations for next season, with 10 players eligible for arbitration (meaning their salaries will almost certainly be going up). Since the team's payroll is supposedly maxed out at this year's $70 million, it looks like the Royals will be bringing pretty much the same team back next year. So, if you believe the 29 games at the start of the season were the "real" Royals and the 76 games since have been a fluke, you should be thrilled. On the other hand, if you have a basic grasp of logic and statistics, you are wondering what the 2011 Royals will look like.

This is yet another reason I wish the Royals had really tried to get younger (and a little cheaper for some flexibility in the next couple of offseasons). Take a look at the team's active roster. Go on, I'll wait. OK, note that there are 10 players born in the 1970s. That's not a knock on the 70s--I was born during that decade. But I'm not a major league player, and therefore exiting my prime years as an athlete like those guys are. It's a sad fact of baseball life: you peak around age 27, have a few years just under that level, then start the decline. Obviously, there are exceptions, but that's the general rule.

Compare the Royals to a team with a similar record this year, a similar market size, and a similar recent history: the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates were very active before the trade deadline, making 4 trades in the days leading up to July 31, plus a couple more earlier this season. As a result of those trades, Pittsburgh now has an active roster with ONE player who was born in the 1970s. Most of the Pirates are 24-25 years old now, meaning their best years are at least theoretically ahead of them. If I were a Pirate fan, I would be excited about the next few years.

The Royals have a decent core of players who are approaching age 27, but not nearly enough. Here's who I would consider that core: Brian Bannister, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Zack Greinke, Luke Hochevar, Joakim Soria. And you could throw Alberto Callaspo in there, too. The sad thing is, Bannister is 27 now and Greinke and Hochevar turn 26 this year. The Royals need to find ways to build around this core, and they need to do it soon. Or we'll be looking forward to 2015.

Friday, July 17, 2009

First Half Report Cards: The Position Players

Since the second half of the season is already underway, let's get to the grades post-haste. The rules are the same as they were for the pitchers--the number after a player's name was my preseason rank of their importance to the Royals and each player is graded on my expectations for him coming into the season.

Willie Bloomquist (12): A-
Has been surprisingly productive and useful. I have no complaints and really wouldn't have minded if the Royals just used him at shortstop the rest of the year.

Billy Butler (2): A-
One of three regulars with an OPS+ over 100. The homer total (8) might not be as high as you'd like, but 27 doubles is really good (tied for fourth in the AL). And he's only 23, so there is a good chance those numbers will go up. Plus, he's proven to be a decent defensive first baseman.

Alberto Callaspo (11): A-
The silver lining in the black cloud of Alex Gordon's injury, which moved Teahen to third and opened a spot for Callaspo. The Royals' OPS+ leader at 113, Callaspo has displayed surprising power. Still doesn't walk much, but at least he doesn't strike out much, either. His defense hasn't been good, though.

Brayan Pena (13): A-
Should play more. Let's find out if he really can hit.

Mark Teahen (7): A-
Filled in well at third base after Alex Gordon went down. Quietly having a very solid season (111 OPS+). I like Teahen a lot, but it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if he were traded in the next couple of weeks; he should bring some sorely needed AAA or MLB-ready talent in return.

Miguel Olivo (9): C+
Why you would ever throw him anything but a slider in the dirt is beyond me, but somehow he leads the team in homers with 13. It's not his fault no one else here can hit homers. Still has an amazingly low three walks this year, which knocks his grade down some. Also, may be the only catcher in the majors who can't, you know, catch (8 passed balls this year, plus the Royals have 47 wild pitches this year).

Coco Crisp (3): C-
Started the season well, and then tailed off, although he was probably playing through the injuries that eventually ended his season. I still feel like trading for him was a good move, but since it's unlikely Crisp will be a Royal next year, I have to say Boston won that deal.

Jose Guillen (5): C-
I waffled between a C- and a D+ here. On the bright side, Guillen is walking more this season and has yet to have a public blowup, so I gave him a break on his grade. Besides, what if he somehow sees this?

Mike Jacobs (8): D+
I liked the trade that brought him here. I was wrong. Please forgive me, dear reader. Almost half the outs he's made this year have been by strikeout (82 0f 200). Seeing the 13 homers he's hit this year (counting tonight's) hasn't been worth all the terrible at-bats and crappy defense.

David DeJesus (4): D
What the heck happened here? His offensive numbers are down, and his defense seems to have fallen off some too. He's only 29, so he shouldn't be falling off this fast. I think DDJ will have a good second half and this season won't look so bad as a whole.

Mitch Maier (N/A): D
OK, I'm convinced. He can't hit.

Tony Pena (14): F-----
I had no expectations for TPJ, and he has met them. Sure, he was designated for assignment, but no one is going to pick him up. So he'll go to Omaha and bide his time, and soon enough Bloomquist or Betancourt will get hurt, and Pena will be back. Maybe we should call him Freddy or Jason.

Mike Aviles (6): Incomplete
Maybe I'm too nice here, but now that we know he was injured pretty much from the get-go, his miserable season makes more sense. This injury just killed the Royals, since it opened the door for a roster featuring Tony Pena Jr., Luis Hernandez AND Tug Hulett, and then led to one of the worst trades in Royals' history. Nobody expected Aviles to duplicate his 2008 numbers, but at the start of the season it looked like the Royals would at least be above-average at shortstop. Now, Royals shortstops have an OPS of .503 this season. Not slugging, OPS. Ugh.

John Buck: (10): Incomplete
90 at-bats just isn't enough to make a judgement, but I think we all know what to expect from Buck by now. I like Buck, but frankly I'd rather see Brayan Pena as the backup catcher. Or even the starter.

Alex Gordon (1): Incomplete
Alex's hip was probably the most damaging injury in the Royals' season, which has seen its share. At the beginning of the season, I felt any Royals offensive improvement depended on Gordon and Butler becoming major league-level three and four hitters. Butler has progressed pretty well, but this looks like a lost season for Gordon, who will not be able to play every day for a while even though he is off the DL to start the second half. On the other hand, maybe his injury rehab will prove beneficial, giving him a chance to remember he's got a lot of talent.

Ryan Freel (N/A): Incomplete
Hasn't done anything to make me dislike him yet.

Luis Hernandez (N/A): Incomplete
Eh. I guess he and TPJ were on the roster at the same time to prove they weren't the same person.

Tug Hulett (N/A): Incomplete
Who knows? We never saw enough of him to say. It was very important Hernandez and TPJ get to play more.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

First Half Report Cards: The Pitchers

The first half of the season is in the books. Thank God. Let's see where we stand as the second half of the season starts. These grades are based on my expectation for each player at the start of the season. The number in parentheses after the player name is where I ranked their importance to the Royals at the start of the season (pitchers and position players were ranked separately). If a player was not on the Opening Day roster, they were not ranked.
Today, the pitchers; tomorrow, position players.

Zack Greinke (1): A
The Royals' star pupil tailed off slightly in May and June, but by then he had set the bar almost impossibly high. Zack is easily the ace of the staff and might be the most exciting Royal since, I don't know, Bo Jackson? The difference is that Zack is harnessing his incredible talent, while Bo only showed us some flashes of his. Zack has to be the favorite for the AL Cy Young award, an amazing feat on a team that still has a chance to lose 100 games.

Brian Bannister (N/A): A-
Perhaps he was due for a bounceback after a tough year last year. The Royals must hope that Banny has figured out how to pitch effectively despite not having outstanding stuff. Still, a rotation that has Bannister at the back end is a pretty good rotation.

Luke Hochevar (N/A): B
His first two outings were horrible, but since then he's been pretty good (52 IP, 4.15 ERA, 24 K, 15 BB). Needs to cut down on the homers he allows (9 so far this season). Will probably never be the star you'd hope to get with an #1 overall draft pick, but he has shown the ability to be a decent major league starter, which is still valuable.

Jamey Wright (10): C
Had some good outings, especially early in the year. After that, Hillman decided perhaps Wright was a setup guy. That didn't work, so it was back to middle relief. Hasn't done much to get on my bad side, but I wouldn't be signing him to a long-term contract, either. Like most middle relievers, he's just a guy.

John Bale (N/A): C-
Nothing much to report here.

Roman Colon (N/A): C-
Hasn't done much to impress me either way.

Kyle Farnsworth (9): C-
See Sidney Ponson's entry. Sure, the Opening Day homer to Jim Thome was horrible, but he never should have been placed in that situation by Hillman to begin with. Professor Farnsworth compiled some decent numbers, but they were mainly in mop-up situations. If I were to grade the fact the Royals signed him to begin with, I would be giving an "F." But he hasn't been horrible, just not worth the $4.25 million he's getting this year. It would have been nice to spend that money somewhere else.

Gil Meche (2): C-
An odd season for the Royals' highest-paid pitcher. He started out well, then had some rough starts, possibly because of a bad back. Then he had another stretch of solid starts and is now scuffling a little bit again. It doesn't help that his manager seems willing to pitch him until his arm falls off.

Sidney Ponson (N/A): C-
As the great Al Bundy once said, "I haven't expected much, and Lord knows I've gotten it." When you sign a mediocre major leaguer at the end of spring training because he had a good showing in the World Baseball Classic, you don't expect Cy Young. He had a couple of decent starts early before being moved to the bullpen. Ponson has allowed at least one run in each of his 11 appearances this year.

Joakim Soria (3): C-
Remember, these grades aren't based on just performance, but performance measured against expectations. Now, it's not Soria's fault he got hurt, just as it's not his fault Trey Hillman seemingly picked the worst times to use him before he got hurt. But Soria just hasn't had much impact on this season, which speaks to the Royals' inability to score runs and get leads as well as to the stupidity of using your best pitcher to protect 3-run leads in the 9th (or, more often in Soria's case, to "get some work" in a 12-3 game). On the bright side, Soria did look much better in his last few outings before the break.

Bruce Chen (N/A): D+
Meh. Two OK starts, two bad ones. Organizational depth at its finest!

Ron Mahay (7): D+
Inexplicably was not traded last year when his value was highest. Now he's a moderately effective reliever who could be dealt at the trade deadline, but probably won't bring much in trade since he's a free agent after the season.

Kyle Davies (4): D
Coming off that great September last season, Davies has made a case as Most Disappointing Royal (non-injured division). A 5.76 ERA, 14 homers allowed in 14 games, and 41 walks against 54 strikeouts all make me wonder if Davies will ever amount to anything at the major league level. To be fair, he has done well at Omaha since being demoted in June. And he is still only 25, so there is still a little hope.

Robinson Tejeda (6): D
Showed some potential last year, but has regressed this year, especially in the control department. Already has more walks than he did all last season.

Juan Cruz (5): D-
Another entry in the Most Disappointing Royal contest. This is the one move Dayton Moore made in the offseason that was widely viewed as a positive, which just goes to show that Joaquin Andujar was right ("youneverknow"). I don't know if he's lost velocity, control or just had a long slump, but his strikeout rate is way down from where it has been in his career.

Horacio Ramirez (11): F
An "F" signing, and an "F" performance. At least it only took the Royals 19 appearances to figure it out (/eyeroll).

Doug Waechter (8): Incomplete
Only pitched in 3 games before getting hurt.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Little More Ranting

A few more thoughts on the Betancourt trade...

1. I failed to mention that Betancourt's defense doesn't make up for his offensive liabilities. Defensive stats in baseball are still kind of rough, and I have a hard time wrapping my head around the really advanced ones. That doesn't mean they are not accurate or valuable, just that they're complex. But every defensive stat I've seen in reference to this trade makes Betancourt look like a below-average shortstop. I would feel better about acquiring a below-average hitter at a prime defensive position if he were actually an above-average fielder. But he's not.

2. Perhaps Dayton Moore thinks OBP stands for "Outs Batting Percentage" and therefore thinks a lower number is better. I hate to harp on this, but it's very frustrating for me because it is such a basic concept. You cannot score runs without players who get on base. And the Royals seemingly seek out players who cannot get on base. With Betancourt on board, the Royals could conceivably run out a lineup most days with three players who do not get on base even 30% of the time: Betancourt, Miguel Olivo, and Mike Jacobs. Of course, Moore got all three of these guys. Trey Hillman could also let Mitch Maier start in the outfield; that would give the Royals four guys who get on base less than 30% of the time. At least Moore didn't acquire him.

3. I always thought teams that were out of it by the All-Star Break were supposed to acquire prospects, not trade away a couple of them to fill a position that could have been filled for the remainder of the season by someone already on the roster. And what does it say about Betancourt that the Mariners, only 4.5 games out in their division this morning, traded away their starting shortstop for two minor leaguers who won't help them win this year? It tells me they were sick of him.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Wisdom Is Thrown Into Jail rots in a cell, is misguided as hell, leaving no one to pick up a trail
(From "Political World," Oh Mercy)

The Royals have traded for shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, and frankly, I don't understand why. We know Dayton Moore has had a mancrush on Betancourt for a while, since he supposedly once wanted to trade Billy Butler to Seattle for him, a deal every Royal fan should be thankful never happened.

In my opinion, the Royals' biggest problem this year is offense; specifically, an inability to get on base. The Royals could survive their lack of power if they were getting on base more regularly, but of course they have the worst on-base percentage in the American League (in fact, they are tied with San Francisco for the worst in baseball). Betancourt is unlikely to do anything to help that. He currently has an OBP of .278. That's horrible. In fact, the only Royal regular with a lower OBP is catcher Miguel Olivo, who is at .272 and can claim he has reached base on strikeouts as often as he has on walks this season (3 of each). But at least Olivo is leading the team in homers with 13. Betancourt has never even reached double digits in a season in that category.

Betancourt is currently on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, but that is no excuse for such a horrendous OBP. And this is who Betancourt is. He's never had an OBP over .310 in a season. Even for someone who's played in a pitcher's park, he has little power; his highest slugging percentage was .418 in 2007. And he doesn't even steal bases well, with only 24 in his five seasons, against 20 times caught stealing.

Essentially, the Royals have added another player with no special offensive skill, a player who in fact is below league average offensively. Betancourt's OPS+ is 63 this season (100 is league average). That's a couple of points better than Mitch Maier. That's not good enough. Although he has averaged an 88 OPS+ in his three full MLB seasons, that's still below average.

Even worse, Betancourt is 27, so this is theoretically his peak season. He is unlikely to get any better, and in fact will probably decline from his already modest offensive output. And his contract runs through 2011, with a club option for 2012, meaning the Royals are likely stuck with this on-base sinkhole for two seasons.

And I haven't even mentioned the fact the Royals gave up not one, but two minor league pitchers for this. One of those pitchers, Danny Cortes, was considered one of the Royals' best pitching prospects, even though he has struggled at the AA level this year. Look for him to crack the Mariners' rotation about the time the Royals decline that 2012 option on Betancourt.

Finally, I don't understand this move in the big picture of the major league roster. Betancourt's offensive numbers are not even as good as Willie Bloomquist's have been this season. Sure, Bloomquist isn't really a shortstop, but the Royals have already made clear they don't consider defense a priority. Presumably, Betancourt will be the fulltime shortstop and Bloomquist will go back to filling in where needed at multiple positions, thereby weakening an already pitiful offense. And this is also doesn't make sense for next year, when Mike Aviles will at some point return from his Tommy John surgery. Aviles may never be the offensive player he was last year, but he figures to be better than Betancourt. Yet he may now be without a position, since the Royals are unlikely to move him to second and replace Alberto Callaspo.

Then again, Callaspo is one of three full-time players on the Royals roster with an OPS+ over 100. So perhaps he is targeted for replacement too; he obviously does not fit with the Royals' team concept.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How Does It Freel?

The Royals have traded for infielder/outfielder Ryan Freel. In my last post, I almost advocated the Royals pick up Freel, who had been designated for assignment by the Cubs. I figured he'd clear waivers and be a free agent, though. Apparently the Royals weren't sure, so they will be giving up a player to be named later. That's the only part of this deal I don't like. Sure, the Royals won't be giving up a top prospect, but I hate to give up any minor leaguer for a stopgap.

I'm reserving full judgement until I see who the Royals give up and if this leads to any other moves at the major league level. When I was thinking the Royals should add Freel, it was with the assumption they would release Tony Pena Jr. or send Luis Hernandez to the minor leagues, put Willie Bloomquist at shortstop full time, and use Freel as a fourth outfielder. If they do that, I think this is an OK move, although it's not going to vault the Royals into contention.

On the other hand, if this is a precursor to a trade of Mark Teahen or David DeJesus, I am not happy because there is no way Freel can replace their offense. And offense is one area the Royals cannot afford to weaken.

At least the Royals have added another layer of crazy to their team. With Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth and Miguel Olivo already on the roster, I feel sorry for any team that tries to start something with the Royals.

All things considered though, I'd be more impressed if the Royals had added Anna Friel. I'd certainly be going to more games...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

You Could Have Done Better But I Don't Mind just kinda wasted my precious time, but don't think twice, it's all right.
(From "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)

I didn't intend to take a month off, but one thing about buying a house and moving--it has a way of putting the rest of your life on hold. At the same time, the Royals haven't exactly been an inspiration to write about lately. But in the last week or so, as they've found new lows on and off the field, the frustration level has been building. I don't know what we did as Royals fans before the internet came along to let us publicly vent. Let's rant...

It's tough to take this franchise seriously anymore. They say one thing and do another. They don't seem to have a clue on how to construct a decent roster. And then they don't seem to have any idea how to avoid alienating fans.

I liked the trades for Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs when they happened. And since Crisp is out for the year and probably was hurt when he did play this year, it's tough to make a final judgement on that deal (certainly, the Red Sox look like they got the better of it, but I still think it was a good trade since you can't predict season-ending injuries). But the Jacobs trade...I was wrong. He hasn't hit enough homers to make up for his lack of defense or on-base percentage. I'm sick of the Royals talking about the importance of OBP and then acquiring players who never walk. Everyone knew when the trade happened that Jacobs would not have a good OBP or walk total, yet he is second on the team (behind Crisp) with 25 walks. By comparison, Joe Mauer has 32 walks even though he's only played 56 games! With Crisp out, Jacobs is the only Royal on pace for 50 walks. As a team, the Royals are 13th in the AL in walks (shame on you, Seattle, for being behind the Royals in this category). Of course, they're last in on-base percentage. It's no wonder they can't score runs.

For the short term, the Royals are probably stuck in this mess. They could attempt to trade Jacobs and bring Kila Ka'aihue up from Omaha--he already has 60 walks in 78 games for Omaha. It's unlikely they'd get much for Jacobs, but it looks like time to move on from this experiment. Kila probably wouldn't walk as much at the major league level, but he would be an improvement.

Other options might include bringing up outfielder Scott Thorman (.296/.373./577 in 53 games for the O-Royals) or letting utility infielder Tug Hulett play a little more (he had a .388 OBP in 46 games at Omaha but has only 14 major league plate appearances this year). Thorman is 27, so it's not like he's a hot prospect, but he could help.

Hulett is a symptom of another Royals' problem, the inability to construct a roster of 25 useful players. Right now, the Royals are carrying 3 utility infielders, and two of them are sorry excuses for big league hitters: Tony Pena Jr. and Luis Hernandez. This doesn't count Willie Bloomquist, who has played every position except pitcher and catcher in his 8 big-league seasons. TPJ is following up his epic OPS+ of 7 last year with a -32 this year (remember, a 100 OPS+ is league average). Somehow, Hernandez has been slightly better, posting a sterling OPS+ of 19 this year. There is no reason for a major league club to carry both of these guys and a guy like Hulett, who actually has a -62 OPS+ (I'm cutting him a break because he only has 14 plate appearances). Pena in particular has shown he cannot hit at the major league level.

Yet if you look at the roster on the Royals' website, there are only 3 outfielders listed. This is another reason to bring Thorman up or otherwise change the roster. Bloomquist is not a good hitter, but compared to Pena and Hernandez, he's freaking awesome. Put him at shortstop for the rest of this year, cut Pena, and choose between Hulett and Hernandez for your middle infield backup.

I know injuries have really affected this team. I'm sure Dayton Moore did not have this roster in mind at the start of the season. And I know building an entire organization takes time, so the Royals do not have the depth they would like at Omaha or in AA ball at Northwest Arkansas. But there is no reason Trey Hillman should have to pinch-hit for Pena with Hernandez, then hit for Hernandez with Hulett, as he did in a game this week. There is no reason he should have to have a lineup where Hernandez hits 7th, Mitch Maier (75 OPS+) hits 8th, and Pena hits 9th, as he did Saturday night. This isn't a defense of Hillman; I don't believe he's done a good job managing the pieces he's been given. But the pieces he's been given signal an organizational failure, in my opinion.

Finally, the Royals seem to be trying to aggravate the fans they have left. This has been an incredibly frustrating season to be a Royals fan, in part because they were 18-11 at one point (seems like years ago now). But I think it's even worse because many of the Royals' problems are so fundamental. Anybody who has played baseball or softball, or just been a fan for years, probably feels like they can avoid getting doubled off first on a routine fly ball, or catch a grounder hit at them, or not swing at sliders in the dirt over and over. Yet the Royals seem to have trouble with all of these fundamentals and more, like bunting.

It will take an organizational refocus to fix these problems, and it will not be a quick fix most likely. But the Royals can and need to look for defensive players in the coming trade season and beyond. It appears the Royals have good enough pitching to keep them in games; better defensive play will give them a better chance to win more of those games.

I've been a Royals fan for more than 25 years now. I don't know how to stop being one. But this season has been so aggravating that it is tempting to spend more time reading or going to movies or almost anything to avoid sitting through another loss where the starting pitcher does well, the offense stinks, a couple of defensive lapses lead to some cheap runs, and the bullpen gives up a couple of runs on their own, leading to a 5-1 loss. This can't go on like this, and I'll be interested to see how the organization goes about fixing it.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Week 8 In Review

It sucked. The end.

1-5 at home against your division is not the path to October baseball. It looks more and more like April was a fluke, a mirage, an outlier, whatever you want to call it. That team is gone, and apparently is not coming back.

It took the Royals 24 days to go from 7 games over .500 and 3 games in front of the division to 4 under and 5.5 out of first. And now they get to go play three games in Tampa (the Rays have scored the most runs in baseball this year) and three in Toronto (the Blue Jays are only 18-7 at home this season). The Royals are only two games ahead of Cleveland; there is a very good chance they will go from first place on May 7 to last place on June 7.

So I don't think I'll recap each game from the past week; they were all pretty much the same: lousy pitching, worse hitting and even worse defense. Let's hope for a better week this coming week, although I don't expect that to happen.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Party's Over

...and there's less and less to say.
(From "Highlands," Time Out Of Mind)

First off, let me apologize for not having a more regular posting schedule the last few weeks. Buying a house and packing for a move is rather time-consuming, I've found. Also, when you're a neat freak like me, having boxes piled everywhere really takes you out of your comfort zone. Finally, the Royals haven't been really inspiring lately. In fact, they've pretty much resembled our apartment the last three weeks: unorganized, discombobulated, upside-down, a work in progress.

So, allow me to address the last three weeks of Royals baseball thus: What the hell happened? On May 7, the Royals won their sixth game in a row to move to 18-11 on the season. Since then, they've won a total of five games, while losing 14.

Obviously, a collapse like that is a total team effort. No one or two players can make that much difference. As evidence, I present this chart, A Tale of Two Months (Offense Division):

PlayerApril OPSMay OPSDifference

As you can see, several of the Royals' regulars have had a tough month. Some of them should have been expected--Willie Bloomquist, John Buck and Alberto Callaspo were all over 200 points over their career averages. A dropoff was inevitable. Of course, now the pendulum seems to have swung too far the other way for a lot of these guys.

I see three big problems with the Royals' offense in that chart. First, David DeJesus is obviously struggling this year, even though he's been better in May. But DeJesus is only 29, and as far as we know, he's healthy. His career OPS is .775; there is no reason to expect him not to be around that this year. But in the short term, having a left fielder with a .670 OPS is not helpful. In fact, DDJ ranks 15th among AL left fielders in that stat. Since there are only 14 teams in the AL, this is bad news.

The second thing killing KC's offense right now is the possibly injury-related struggles of Coco Crisp. Remember, when the Royals were on fire in late April and early May, it seemed like Crisp was always on base; in fact, his on-base percentage in April was .371, which seemed promising, given his .247 batting average that month. It's true his OPS 125 points higher than his career average, but in May he's almost that many points below it. Crisp has missed the last few games with a sore shoulder; perhaps that has hindered him offensively. His last extra-base hit was a triple back on May 14. The good news is that Crisp's batting average (currently .233) is likely to rebound when he's healthy. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is only .248 this year; his career average is .309. So an important, possibly the most important, cog in the Royals' offense should improve from his performance this month.

The most baffling hitting performance by a Royal this year has to be Mike Aviles' freefall. Last year, when Aviles was called up and finally inserted in the lineup in Tony Pena Jr.'s place, the Royals offense improved greatly. The Royals put up better OPS numbers in the last four months of the season than they did in the first two. But this year, Aviles has done a terrific impersonation of Pena. TPJ posted an OPS+ (that's OPS normalized for league and position; 100 is league average) of 7. Yeah, 7. This year, Aviles so far has put up a 21. He did finally admit a while back that he's had a forearm injury this year; I hope that has been the source of his problem. I didn't expect him to duplicate last year's numbers, but I was hopeful the Royals would have at least a league average hitter at shortstop this season.

With the loss the Royals finished off while I was writing this, KC is now tied for third in the AL Central and three games under .500 for the first time this season. Sure, it's just three games, and the Royals are not as bad a team as they have played the last three weeks, just like they weren't as good as they looked the first five weeks. But I can't see them climbing back into the race. Detroit looks really good now, and I'm just waiting for the Twins to get hot. The Royals still need to improve their offense if they want to contend.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Week 7 In Review

After Week 7, the Royals are 22-22. With the Detroit Tigers on a hot streak lately, KC is now in second place, three games back. The Minnesota Twins are 3.5 games out.

Game 39: Tuesday, May 19
KC 6, Cleveland 5

At the time, this looked like a game that might get the Royals back on track. As they had pretty much every game the last couple of weeks, the offense looked lost for most of the evening. Royal-killer Cliff Lee looked like his Cy Young-winning self from last season, and the Royals trailed 5-2 going into the 9th. Although Lee had only thrown 101 pitches, and lefties Mike Jacobs and Mark Teahen would be up second and third in the inning, the Indians put in closer Kerry Wood. It didn’t take long for the Royals to light him up: Jacobs homered, Teahen homered, Miguel Olivo walked (bringing his 2009 total to 2), David DeJesus tripled, Willie Bloomquist hit a sacrifice fly. Five hitters, four runs, one thrilling win.

Game 40: Wednesday, May 20
Cleveland 6, KC 5

For a little bit, it looked like history would repeat itself. The Royals blew a 4-2 lead and trailed 6-5 going into the 9th. The Indians brought Wood in again, and he struggled again. This time, it was control that hurt him, and he walked the bases loaded. But Teahen and DeJesus both struck out, and the Royals could not capitalize. I’m looking these numbers up on Sunday afternoon, but I don’t think the Royals have had a bases-loaded situation since then, so the numbers still apply. For the year, with the bases loaded, the Royals are hitting .167/.220/.278. That’s terrible, obviously. It could just be a small sample size (that only covers 41 plate appearances), but I can’t think of a reason why the Royals would do so poorly in that particular situation.

Game 41: Thursday, May 21
Cleveland 8, KC 3

A thoroughly forgettable game, even though Zack Greinke started for the Royals. Unfortunately, a weak offense and an ineffective bullpen let Cleveland leave town with two wins in three games. In fact, in a stretch where the Royals played all three last-place teams in the AL, they only managed a 3-6 record. That could sting later in the season.

Game 42: Friday, May 22
St. Louis 5, KC 0

Let’s see, ineffective offense (five hits, three walks)…check. Crappy bullpen work (two innings, three runs)… check. Loss…check.

Game 43: Saturday, May 23
St. Louis 5, KC 0

Essentially the same game as the night before, this loss put the Royals under .500 for the first time since April 11. After the game, the Royals sent starter Luke Hochevar back to Omaha, although he was at least decent in this start. The Royals will go with a four-man rotation for a couple of weeks.

Game 44: Sunday, May 24
KC 3, St. Louis 2

A solid performance all the way around…well, I suppose the offense could have done a little bit better, but at least they scored runs in this one. Brian Bannister was very good, pitching six innings and only allowing two runs. Apparently the Royals’ pitchers decided they needed to provide the offense as well, since Bannister singled to drive in the Royals’ second run. Actually, a couple of defensive lapses (a bobble by Jose Guillen in right field, a poor throw by Coco Crisp in center field) were partially responsible for the Cardinals’ runs. After those two St. Louis runs tied the game, the Royals got the lead right back on a hustle double by Willie Bloomquist and a single by Mike Jacobs. Solid relief pitching by John Bale, fresh off the disabled list, kept the Royals in the lead. Juan Cruz survived some scary moments in the 9th for the save.

The Week Ahead

Let’s be honest here. The Royals have really stunk for two straight weeks. In fact, since May 7, they’ve lost as many games as they did in the first five weeks of the season. It is a testament to the weakness of the division that they are still really in the race. Which means, if they can figure out a way to get back on track this week, the season may not be over yet. They have six home games against division opponents this week; first up, the team the Royals are chasing, the Detroit Tigers. Next, the Chicago White Sox. This is the time for the Royals to put up or shut up, so to speak, because after this, the Royals have a nine-game road trip against some very good teams.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Week 6 In Review

After Week 6, the Royals are 20-18. That puts them one game behind Detroit—actually, the Royals have the same number of wins as the Tigers, but have two more losses. Minnesota is now three games back, Chicago is five back, and Cleveland is 7.5 games back. The Royals, despite their recent struggles, are still on pace to win 85 games this year.

Game 33: Tuesday, May 12
Oakland 12, KC 3

A disappointing 2009 debut for Luke Hochevar, who only lasted two innings before departing on the wrong end of an 8-0 score. The A’s came into this game with the second-fewest runs scored in the AL this season. There wasn’t much to say about this one—blowouts do happen to everyone in baseball. It is a little disconcerting that Hochevar had such a bad outing, since the Royals really need him to develop, even if all he ever becomes is a solid third starter. Starting pitching is so expensive to buy in free agency or acquire in trade, a small-market team like Kansas City must develop as many pitchers as possible. Hochevar has shown flashes of ability; the Royals must hope he can become an asset soon.

Game 34: Wednesday, May 13
Oakland 7, KC 2

The West Coast road trip came to a merciful end with the Royals’ fifth loss in a row. The Royals actually hung around in this one, but Brian Bannister left in the sixth inning with shoulder stiffness and the bullpen could not keep the A’s in check. Oakland scored two runs in the sixth and five more in the seventh to pull away. The Royals’ West Coast offense? Five games, nine runs, 33 hits, three homers (all solo), and only 12 walks. Not good.

Game 35: Thursday, May 14
Baltimore 9, KC 5

Six losses in a row. The Royals can add Gil Meche to their growing list of concerns. Meche only lasted 4 1/3 innings, allowing five runs on six hits and only striking out one hitter. In his last four starts, Meche has pitched a total of 19 2/3 innings, allowing 18 runs (16 earned) on 27 hits, with 13 strikeouts and 12 walks. Meanwhile, the bullpen struggled through this one too. After the Royals scored two runs in the fifth inning to pull within 5-4, Baltimore scored three more runs in the sixth off Robinson Tejeda and Ron Mahay to put the game away.

Game 36: Friday,May 15
KC 8, Baltimore 1

Finally! A win! A pretty easy one, too, behind another strong outing from Zack Greinke and a three-run homer from Miguel Olivo. Greinke pitched seven innings, holding Baltimore to one run on six hits. He did actually struggle a little, allowing seven baserunners in the first three innings. But after that, he was dominant. Mike Jacobs led off the fourth with a homer, then four hitters later, Olivo launched one into the left-field seats to break the game open. Kudos to the fans who stuck around through a rain delay of 2 hours, 30 minutes. With Greinke on the mound, a Buck Night promotion and fireworks scheduled after the game, the Royals had a sellout crowd. About 25,000 were there for the first pitch.

Game 37: Saturday, May 16
Baltimore 3, KC 2

The offense went back into hibernation, and a couple of soft Baltimore runs cost the Royals another game. I’d say starter Kyle Davies deserved better, but since he walked Brian Roberts leading off the game, then allowed him to steal second and third before throwing a wild pitch to let him score, and then put the eventual winning run in scoring position with another wild pitch, perhaps he didn’t deserve better.

Game 38: Sunday, May 17
KC 7, Baltimore 4

A weird game, but the Royals needed a win, so they’ll take it. Down 3-1 in the sixth inning, the Royals looked lethargic. They looked flat. They looked like they were on their way to another loss. They’d already committed three errors, thrown a wild pitch and only collected two hits. Their starting pitcher (Hochevar) had already been pulled from the game.

Then the offense had a mini-explosion, scoring three runs on four straight hits to take the lead. After giving it up in the eighth, the Royals pulled ahead for good, using a suicide squeeze (Coco Crisp bunting, John Buck running) for an insurance run.

I have to give Trey Hillman some credit for this win. First, pulling Hochevar in the fourth inning of a 3-1 game was gutsy. Hochevar had struggled, and there were two runners on, but I think most managers would leave him in. The fact that Hillman managed the game this way shows me he understood how badly the Royals needed a win. Teams that want to win division titles cannot lose three of four games at home to last-place teams. The bullpen rewarded Hillman with 5 2/3 innings of excellent pitching, only allowing one run, one hit, and one walk.

Second, Hillman picked an excellent time for the squeeze play, with Crisp batting. Crisp seems to be one of those players who just does everything well. He actually fouled off the first squeeze attempt, but did a great job on the next pitch to get it down.

Finally, although lineup construction doesn’t matter a lot in the grand scheme, Hillman did move Alberto Callaspo to the second spot and moved David DeJesus down to seventh in the order. Callaspo has been excellent so far this year (.341/.396/.524), while DeJesus has struggled some (.237/.288/.393). The move paid off, as Callaspo ignited the three-run fourth inning with a leadoff single, while DeJesus went 2-4 and scored two runs, including the eventual game-winner.

The Week Ahead

After an off-day Monday, the Royals will face the struggling Cleveland Indians for three home games, then start interleague play with a trip to St. Louis. The Royals need to make some hay against the Indians, and they have a chance to really bury Cleveland in the standings.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mea Culpa

OK, I can't take it anymore. Last Wednesday I wrote a glowing piece about the Royals and their chances to contend. Sure, I prefaced it by saying lots of bad things could happen. But, down deep, I didn't believe that they would. Or at least that they would happen so soon.

Nine days and a six-game losing streak later, I'm here to throw myself at the mercy of the baseball gods. Obviously, my optimism was misplaced and an affront to baseball karma.

I can't believe I made this mistake. I've been a Royals fan for 26 years. I should have known better. I lived through 490 losses in the last five seasons; you'd think the optimism would have been beaten out of me by now.

So here we go: I was wrong. This is not a good team. There is no way they win 90 games; they'll probably lose 90. Now they're doing teams bad things do to lose games, like throw double-play balls into center field, miss cutoff men, and walk speedy number 9 hitters to set the table for the top of the lineup. Oh yeah, and scoring 12 runs in six games. This will not be a fun summer for Royals fans; it will be the usual miserable, hot, long summer.

(Now that that's out of the way, let's hope this helps snap this losing streak.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Week 5 In Review

After Week 5, the Royals are 18-14. That’s technically good for second place, as they are percentage points behind Detroit. Both teams are three games ahead of Minnesota and Chicago.

Game 26: Monday, May 4
KC 3, Chicago 0

Simple formula. Zack Greinke + 3 runs = win. Once again, it requires a better writer than me to properly describe Greinke’s work. A complete game shutout, 10 strikeouts, no walks, only four hits. And two of those hits could have been errors. A David DeJesus homer was the Royals’ offensive highlight; they left 10 men on base.

Game 27: Tuesday, May 5
KC 8, Chicago 7 (11 innings)

A wild comeback win, capped by John Buck’s game-winning single in the 11th inning, gave the Royals a sweep of the White Sox. Kyle Davies struggled again, and the Sox got leads of 4-0 and 5-1 before the Royals came back, tied it, dodged a couple of bullets, blew a couple of chances to win the game, and finally emerged with the win.

Game 28: Wednesday, May 6
KC 9 , Seattle 1

The Royals jumped on Mariners starter Carlos Silva early and often, with three runs in the first and two more in the third. Sidney Ponson was solid for 7 1/3 innings, allowing eight hits but only one walk. Billy Butler, Mike Jacobs and Mark Teahen all had three hits. Just a great game all around for the Royals. A sign of a good team is the ability to win the blowout games; this game put KC at 6-3 this season in games decided by five runs or more. One-run games can often be decided by luck or using Kyle Farnsworth in key situations, but the good teams win big more often than they lose big.

Game 29: Thursday, May 7
KC 3, Seattle 1

Another strong pitching performance by a Royals starter; in this case it was Brian Bannister. Actually, Bannister struggled through the first inning, but didn’t allow any runs. The Royals offense scraped some runs together against longtime nemesis Jarrod Washburn, and were able to weather an unusually shaky ninth inning from Joakim Soria for the win. Afterwards, Soria said he was just rusty; the Royals had better hope it’s that and not an injury.

Game 30: Friday, May 8
Los Angeles 4, KC 1

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains, the Royals offense apparently forgot how to work counts, lay off bad pitches, and hit. This was a frustrating showing from the offense, against journeyman starter Matt Palmer. To make matters worse, when KC did score a run in the sixth inning to make the score 2-1, they gave up two in the bottom of the inning when Jose Guillen failed to catch a fly ball near the right field line. Howie Kendrick took advantage, circling the bases for a two-run inside-the-park home run that put the game away. Royals starter Gil Meche deserved better, even though he wasn’t at his best (5 2/3 innings, eight hits, four earned runs—although if Guillen’s misplay had been scored an error, it would have been two earned runs).

Game 31: Saturday, May 9
Los Angeles 1, KC 0

Another frustrating outing for the Royals’ offense, resulting in Greinke’s first loss of the season. Not that he deserved it. Sure, he wasn’t quite at the 1968-Bob Gibson level he was at before, but still. Eight innings, four hits, no walks, five strikeouts, and one earned run ought to be good enough for a win. Royal hitters could only manage five hits and one walk against the Angels’ Joe Saunders.

Game 32: Sunday, May 10
Los Angeles 4, KC 3

The Royals completed their lost weekend with a bumbling, Bad-News-Royals inning worthy of their 2005 predecessors. Ahead 3-1 in the seventh, after Davies’ best outing in a while and an offensive explosion (compared to the first two games of the series, anyway), the Royals imploded defensively. Throwing error by Jamey Wright, a missed tag by Alberto Callaspo on a stolen base, and then somehow Miguel Olivo failed to catch a perfect throw from Guillen which would have nailed the tying run at home. Seriously, “catcher” is Olivo’s position, yet he sometimes seems unable to, you know, catch. Of course, the runner who advanced to second on this misplay ended up scoring the winning run.

The Week Ahead

The Royals get their first off day since April 20 on Monday, then complete their West Coast trip with two games in Oakland. After that, it’s four games at home against Baltimore. Although the Orioles are in last place, they have had the Royals’ number in the past few seasons. The last time KC took the season series between the two was 2003; the Orioles are 27-9 against the Royals since, including a perfect 7-0 in 2007. Even better, the Royals put Soria on the DL after Sunday’s game; Luke Hochevar was called up and will make his 2009 major league debut Tuesday night in Oakland while Ponson will move to the bullpen.

This is a scary time for Royals fans, especially if they’re worriers by nature like I am. We’ve all seen this script before from the Royals; usually it results in a double-digit losing streak. If this team is really different, they will figure out a way to stop this before it gets out of hand.

I’m trying to talk myself—and, by extension, any other Royals fans who need it--off the ledge. Here are a couple of things to consider:

First, the Royals’ offense, even after a pathetic four-game stretch, still has an OPS+ of 101. That means they have a slightly-above-league-average offense. It may not sound like much, but the last time the Royals finished the season with an OPS+ of 100 or better was…well, I’ll let you guess. 2003? Nope. 1999 or 2000, when Damon/Sweeney/Beltran/Dye were here? Nope. 1993 or 1994, the last really good Royals teams? Keep trying. Actually, it was 1991. Yes, there’s a lot of season left, but this may be the Royals’ best offense in nearly 20 years. Assuming the pitching stays close to where it has been, the Royals should still be OK if they can keep the offense at or near the level it’s been so far.

Second, the Royals still have the second-best run differential in the AL at +27—their Pythagorean record is actually 19-13, so you could say they’ve been slightly unlucky. And KC’s actual winning percentage of .563 translates to 91 wins over a full season.

Third, if you’re into signs, as I finished that last paragraph, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” came on my satellite radio. Just take that for what it’s worth.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Feel Like My Soul Is Beginning To Expand

...look into my heart and you will sort of understand.
(From "Thunder On The Mountain," Modern Times)

I know, it's only 27 games in. There are still 135 games left. Lots of things can happen. There could be injuries or prolonged slumps or ineffective pitchers. Or one of the other AL Central teams could catch fire.

I don't care about any of that right now. I'm a believer.

After last night's crazy win, I'm throwing caution to the wind. I'm in. 90 wins? Sure, why not? Division title? You bet.

I'm telling you right now, this is a good Royals team. Not just "good for the Royals" (meaning 75 wins). Good enough to win the division.

I see signs. I see this team doing things good teams do to win. Things like the bullpen pitching seven innings and only allowing one run to pick up a struggling starter. Things like hitters working the count, fouling off pitches to get a hittable pitch or a walk. Seriously, 11 walks last night? Even in 11 innings, that's a staggering number for a Royals team, the first time they've had that many since June 20, 2006 (not that that was a good Royals team, but they were playing the equally woeful Pirates).

The Royals have specialized in losing the last few years, so I feel like an expert on the different ways they've come up with to lose: the Groin Kick, where they coughed up a big lead; the Generic Loss, where they maybe lose 4-3 but didn't really do anything awful; the Embarrassment, where they lose 15-3; and the Roll Over and Die, where the other team scored some early runs and the Royals' offense did little or nothing.

Last night looked like a classic Roll Over and Die. The Sox took a 4-0 lead, and I decided maybe the NHL playoffs would be a little more interesting. When I checked back in, it was 5-1 Sox, but the Royals had two on and Mike Jacobs at the plate. When his home run cleared the fence (not sure it actually ever landed), I thought the game might get interesting. Of course, then the White Sox answered with two more runs, and I mentally put this one in the loss column.

I forgot that the Royals had mounted a furious comeback just two days before in Minnesota. And that they had come back from three runs down to tie the score last Friday. Luckily, the guys in that first-base dugout didn't forget. They kept playing. No Roll Over and Die on this night. Not when they left the bases loaded in the sixth after pulling to within one run. Not when they had the go-ahead run thrown out at home in the seventh. Not when they left two runners on in the eighth, not when A.J. Pierzynski tripled in the ninth to give the White Sox a chance for a lead, not when White Sox thumpers Carlos Quentin and Jim Thome came up in the 10th with the go-ahead run at second base.

The attitude is different. It just feels different. The things I read in the Star (like this story or like Jose Guillen telling Zack Greinke, "Let's show the White Sox that we're for real this year" as related in this story), the body language of the players when I watch on TV or at the ballpark, and just watching this team battle--it just feels differently than any Royals season in a long time.

Let me tell you a story from a different sport. I've been a KU football fan for years. No, really. Like, since I was 8 or 9. Obviously, I saw lots of bad football except for a few years in the 90s and then the middle part of this decade. Until 2007, when KU had a year for the ages, losing one game all year and winning the Orange Bowl. We try to go to one or two games a year; our game that year was a 55-3 dismantling of Florida International. I'd heard all the badmouthing about KU's schedule that year, and there was plenty of it for the rest of the year. But when I saw that team in person, I realized that it didn't matter who they played, that was a damned good team.

I'm starting to get that feeling about this Royals team. They probably won't be as dominant as that KU team was, but I believe now that they can stay in the race all season. Get ready, Royals fans. This should be a fun summer.