How to reinvigorate the Royals

Please indulge me one last time this season to write about my beloved, who have currently lost 99 games and are going to make one last valiant attempt to avoid losing 100 this year.
The Royals are a small market. Small-market teams have a rough go of it, yes. But the Minnesota Twins have been doing OK. The Twins have some vision and a plan and they stick with their plan, and that’s part of it. So here’s what we need to do to duplicate that success.

1. Build a superstar. Back in George Brett’s heyday, the Royals had no payroll problems. The fans came out to see Brett, the Royals spent that money to get more players, and since the Royals had winning records, the fans kept coming. In the late 1980s, a bad season meant the Royals didn’t win any championships. But they had winning records. The Royals nearly have that superstar. His name is Mike Sweeney. He’s got a sweet swing like Brett. He’s got plate discipline like Brett. And he’s even more likeable than Brett. When Brett was Sween’s age, he partied as hard as he played. Sween takes care of himself and he takes care of his fiancee and he takes care of his community. The only people who don’t like Mike Sweeney are opposing pitchers.

But Mike Sweeney’s protection in the order is The Mighty Raul Ibanez. Now, The Mighty Ibanez has turned into a good hitter, but he’s not an All-Star. He’s a better hitter than a 50-year-old George Brett. That’s saying something. But to build a superstar, what the Royals really need to do it

And Mike Sweeney needs to get together with Dave Dravecky to put together a project talking about the Christian symbolism in baseball. (Pitchers can’t hit but it’s part of their job. Designated hitters come in and do that part of their job for them. Sound kinda like Christianity? I think so. I think God’s in favor of the DH.)

2. Sign Jim Thome. Jim Thome doesn’t fit into Cleveland’s plans anymore. Blame it on mass insanity. Blame it on tightfistedness. Blame it on whatever. But the Indians don’t want Jim Thome. And guess what? Jim Thome likes Kansas City. I don’t blame him. In Kansas City, if you’re on the highway and you want to change lanes, you use your turn signal and someone lets you. In Kansas City, strangers smile at you for no reason. When the now-departed Miguel Batista arrived in Kansas City at the airport after a trade, some little old lady walked up to him and said, “You’re our new pitcher. Let me get one of your bags.” People are just nice.

Yes, Jim Thome’s going to cost buckets of money. But guess what? He won’t cost more than Roberto Hernandez and Neifi Perez cost combined. So here’s what you do. Rotate Jim Thome and Mike Sweeney between first base and designated hitter. Then try out this lineup:

Michael Tucker, 2b
Carlos Beltran, cf
Mike Sweeney, 1b
Jim Thome, dh
Raul Ibanez, rf
Joe Randa, 3b
Mark Quinn/Dee Brown lf
Angel Berroa, ss
Brent Mayne, c

We’ll talk about the Michael Tucker insanity in a second. Jim Thome’s .300 average and 52 home runs will make Mike Sweeney look a whole lot better to pitch to. It virtually guarantees he’ll hit .340 again, because pitchers will look forward to the half of the time he makes an out. Jim Thome will see good pitches because Mike Sweeney’s on base. Or someone else is. The Royals will score lots more runs. Meanwhile, Mark Quinn and Dee Brown have Jim Thome to learn from. The Royals’ lineup suddenly starts to look like the great Cardinals teams of the 1980s that had lots of jackrabbits who could hit doubles and one really big bat in the middle. Except Mike Sweeney and Raul Ibanez offer better protection than Jack Clark ever had in a Cardinal uniform.

3. Try Michael Tucker at second base. The Royals need a second baseman who can hit. Tucker’s not a great hitter for an outfielder, but he’s a really good hitter for a second baseman. He won’t be a great fielder. But the 1984 Padres solved two problems by moving Alan Wiggins from left field to second base. They got a good hitter at the position, and they freed left field for another bat. The Padres kept Jerry Royster around to play second in the late innings. The Royals can keep Carlos Febles for defense late in the game.

4. If the Tucker experiment fails, move Carlos Beltran to leadoff and Joe Randa to the #2 spot in the batting order. The Royals don’t score any runs because Mike Sweeney doesn’t have enough people on base in front of him. The Royals often give away their first out by having people like Chuck Knoblauch and Neifi Perez and Carlos Febles hitting leadoff. Joe Randa’s no speed demon anymore, but he gets on base. And he’s got enough power that a lot of times, when he gets on base, he gets on second base. Carlos Beltran gets on base. Mike Sweeney needs to hit with people on base. If the Royals were to sign Jim Thome, he’d be worthless without people on base. So disregard the traditional idea that your first two hitters should be your fastest runners, and just get some people on base. Carlos Beltran is your leadoff hitter anyway with him hitting second. Might as well accept reality and work with it.

5. Develop young pitchers. In 1985, the Royals brought in Jim Sundberg, a veteran catcher who couldn’t hit to handle their young pitchers. The formula of young pitchers with lots of good stuff and a catcher who knew how to guide them brought them to the World Series, and, ultimately, to a World Championship. Time will tell if any of today’s young pitchers will turn into Bret Saberhagen or even Mark Gubicza. Since the Royals can’t afford to go sign Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux (and since they wouldn’t score any runs for them anyway), they don’t have much choice but to take the chance. But since the Royals have been throwing their young pitchers’ arms out (witness Jose Rosado, Chad Durbin, and Dan Reichert) they need to re-think the way they develop their young pitchers. Throw fewer innings and watch more videotape.

And be patient. Greg Maddux spent two years as a so-so relief pitcher and sometime starter before he blossomed into the greatest pitcher of his generation.

Hmm. I’m already looking forward to April 2003.

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