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.