What it was like being a Royals fan from 1986-2013

If there’s one thing I’ve heard this week, it’s that people can’t imagine what it’s like being a Royals fan through their 29-year drought without playing in a postseason. I can tell you what it’s like. We’ve had some highlights, but mostly we’ve put up with endless parades of really bad players and really bad managers.

Those of you who enjoy looking at gruesome things, keep reading. These are the players we’ve spent 2.9 decades trying to forget. But keep this in mind: My hair started going prematurely gray in 1986, the same year Dick Howser died and the Royals started fading.

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Robinson Cano: “The fans don’t understand.”

When Robinson Cano infamously left Billy Butler, the Kansas City Royals representative off the Home Run Derby team at the All-Star Game last summer in Kansas City, (who Butler is and who he plays for is important here), Royals fans booed him mercilessly.

And all he’s been saying since is that Kansas City doesn’t understand.

Fine. Let’s talk about what Kansas City does understand. Because Kansas City understands a lot.

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It’s time for some electricity in St. Louis

So, the Cardinals just played the Mets in a series that, frankly, I think is one for the ages. Lots of drama, lots of very good pitching, lots of great defensive plays–the obvious best was ex-Royal Endy Chavez jumping about 14 feet in the air to snowcone a would-be Scott Rolen homer, but there were others–and just a lot of other good things. The Cardinals supposedly had no business winning, but the patchwork team did.

Now they’re in the World Series. And I’m not sure if anyone knows, frankly.Two years ago, when the Cardinals were in the playoffs, to hear any St. Louisan tell it, the series was all but won. And this year, the electricity just doesn’t seem to be in the air. It’s almost like nobody can believe it.

I was in Kansas City in 1985 during the World Series. It was… different. Nobody outside Kansas City thought they belonged in the series either, but the city was electric. Everywhere you went, people were wearing Royals hats and shirts. Many–maybe even a majority–didn’t expect them to win, but hey, their team was playing in October and they were going to enjoy it.

St. Louis is usually like that too. But not this year.

As far as the Tigers, I do have to say I’m happy for them and for Detroit. The Tigers haven’t been to a series since 1984 and they haven’t been to the postseason at all in more than 15 years. But now the Tigers have a young team that’s a good foundation for years to come.

But is Detroit beatable? Sure. My 100-loss Royals swept them to end the season. Detroit has a good team, but it has weaknesses. They’re free-swingers. They don’t swing at pickoff throws to first like my Royals’ Angel Berroa, but they haven’t learned the Yankees’ secret of running every count to 3-2 and then fouling off seven pitches before putting the ball in play either. Don’t expect Detroit to wear down Cardinal pitching.

The Cardinals’ main weakness is that the team is beat up. Pujols, Edmonds, Eckstein, and Rolen are all battling one thing or another, and that’s pretty much the heart and soul of the team. But I remember telling one of my coworkers, every time he complained about the Cardinals, that things could be worse. The Cardinals never lost their biggest bat for the season like the Royals did (the not-quite immortal Mark Teahen). And then I said things could be worse, the Cardinals’ biggest bat could be Mark Teahan.

If the Royals without Mark Teahen can sweep Detroit, I think the Cardinals can make this series interesting.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m going to enjoy watching them try.

Well, at least this year the Royals showed up to play

I enjoy reading Rob & Rany on the Royals, but I just can’t feel as negative as they do about the team. I know signing 5-6 free agents who are basically average players isn’t going to make them win the World Series, and I know the Royals lost 3-1 to the Tigers yesterday. But I’m encouraged.

They did the little things.First of all, Scott Elarton, the ace pitcher who would be a #4 starter on a contending team, kept the Royals in the game. He gave up two home runs, yes, but they were banjo shots, and one traveled an underwhelming 333 feet (the wall is 330 feet away). In other words, that one doesn’t go out of every park.

And those two home runs were the only runs he gave up. If any other pitcher pitching for any other team goes 5.2 innings and gives up two runs, he’s done his job. Seven hits and three walks against three strikeouts in 5.2 innings isn’t Walter Johnson, but it’s a big improvement over Jose Lima.

Encouraging sign #2: They caught the ball. Mark Grudzielanek and Doug Mientkiewicz, signed primarily to steady the Royals’ league-worst defense, both made plays that nobody since Frank White and Wally Joyner make. When those guys catch the ball, and teach young and impressionable Angel Berroa and Mark Teahan how to catch the ball, it helps the pitchers when singles that would have turned into rallies become outs.

Encouraging sign #3: The Royals scored one run because three guys did their job. David DeJesus led off the 4th inning and legged out a single into a double. Mark Grudzielanek, who keeps getting criticized for going 0-for-4, grounded out to first base, moving DeJesus over. When the leadoff man gets on, moving the runner over is your job. I don’t care if Grudzielanek doesn’t get a hit all year, if he moves DeJesus over every time, he’s the best #2 hitter the Royals have had in several years. Then Mike Sweeney hit a weak grounder to the pitcher. Sweeney’s job was to hit a single to drive him home and keep the inning going, or at the very least, hit a fly ball deep enough that DeJesus could tag up; he did neither. Then Reggie Sanders, signed almost exclusively to protect Sweeney in the lineup, came up and singled, reminding the world that the Royals don’t have someone with the offensive prowess of Garth Brooks (the country singer) hitting behind Sweeney anymore.

Encouraging sign #4: Nobody in the Royals lineup yesterday makes Royals fans wish Garth Brooks would have made the team when he was in spring training a couple of years back. Yes, the lineup is full of average players, but the biggest problem with the Royals the last few years is that average would have been a big improvement. When you have trouble finding someone who can hit .200 to play left field, which is supposed to be an offensive position, you have big problems. They’ve solved that.

Encouraging sign #5: The league is under pressure to actually make sure baseball players aren’t injesting substances that would be illegal for you and I to take. No more steroids and no more speed. Fifteen years ago, guys like the Royals signed aren’t average players. They’re slightly above average. This lineup isn’t much worse than the lineup the Royals trotted out in 1985. Mike Sweeney isn’t as good as George Brett, but Reggie Sanders and Angel Berroa are a lot better than Steve Balboni and Buddy Biancalana.

I’m not under any grand delusion that the Royals are going to win it all this year. I’m also not under any grand delusion that Sanders and Grudzielanek and Mientkiewicz and Elarton and Mark Redman are going to be productive players for years to come. What they are is short-term solutions. Last year, the Royals fielded their Triple-A team, and they led the league in losses. This year, their Double-A and Triple-A teams are stocked with players who belong there.

In the meantime, the young guys are learning from Mientkiewicz, Sanders, and Grudzielanek how guys who’ve played on championship teams play ball. Grudzielanek is already showing Berroa and Teahan how to shift for opposing batters. In the ’70s, the Royals didn’t just throw George Brett, Frank White, and U.L. Washington out there and tell them to learn how to field. They kept the veteran presence of Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek out there until Brett was reasonably steady at third and then they brought up White and Washington one at a time.

The Royals aren’t doing exactly what they did in the ’70s, but this year, finally, there’s a method to their madness.

Rebuilding in Kansas City

Well, the Royals finally did something today.

They traded aging catcher Benito Santiago to the Pittsburgh Pirates for a pitching prospect, and they traded a pitching prospect to the Atlanta Braves for Eli Marrero.

It’s a start.A year ago, Santiago made sense. The Royals were looking for an upgrade over Brent Mayne, and Santiago was arguably the best catcher on the market. He hit .274 and popped a few home runs, but didn’t endear himself to the fans or the press behind the plate, and he only played in 49 games before he broke his hand.

Change of plans: The Royals trade Carlos (there’s only one Carlos) for prospects, including a catcher. That catcher, John Buck, popped twice as many homers in just 25% more at-bats, and after a slow start, showed he’s probably capable of hitting .274 and he’ll make about 10% of what Santiago was supposed to make this year.

Fine, so Santiago’s expendable. Dump as much of his salary as you can, get whatever someone’s willing to give you for him, and spend the savings on something else.

Which brings us to that someone else: Eli Marrero. No longer a youngster at 30, he nevertheless has 4, 5, maybe even 6 good years left in him, and he’s versatile. He’s mostly an outfielder these days, and the Royals probably would have been better off last year letting their pitchers hit and letting the DH hit for their left fielders, if you know what I mean.

Marrero has always been more of a super-sub type player–the most he’s ever played is 131 games–but Kansas City is a good place for a player who’s never really had a chance to come and break out of his shell. Examples in recent years are Joe Randa, Jermaine Dye, and, well, Mike Sweeney. The Royals didn’t trade for Sweeney, but they tried to pawn him off on anyone who would offer a bag of baseballs in return in 1999. Finding no takers, they stuck him on the end of the bench until injuries forced them to use him as a DH. Further injuries and Jeremy Giambi’s–yes, he of the BALCO scandal–unwillingness to learn how to play first base made Sweeney the odd man in, and he responded by hitting .322 in a year when none of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball wanted him.

Eli Marrero has to compete with a guy who hit .156 last year for the starting left field job.

And Marrero gives versatility. The Royals have two guys who can play first base, but last year both of them decided to get hurt. Marrero can move there if need be. And if something were to happen to John Buck, Marrero can catch to give Alberto Castillo a day off, or he can give them a better bat than Castillo on an everyday basis behind the plate while Abraham Nunez, Terrence Long and Aaron Guiel fight for the two available spots in the outfield.

Marrero even gives the Royals someone who can play center field occasionally, even though the Royals suddenly have three other guys who can do that.

I’ve also heard a rumor that Marrero can play third base, in addition to the three outfield spots, first, and catcher, but as far as I can tell he’s never played third in a major-league game. But if the Royals suddenly have three outfielders who can hit, Marrero at third would be an interesting experiment until Mark Teahan–another key to the trade that sent Carlos packing–is ready.

Marrero’s an upgrade. I’m not positive he’s worth $3 million a year, seeing as he’s always been a part-time player, but by parting ways with Joe Randa, trading Carlos Beltran, trading Benito Santiago, and running Juan Gonzalez out of town on a rail, they can afford a few $3 million players.

Ideally, Marrero is the 9th or 10th best position player on your team. Chances are he’s more like the fourth or fifth, playing for the Royals. But when you can get a guy who’d be your fourth or fifth best player in exchange for someone who had a pretty good chance of pitching in AAA all next season, you do it.

So here’s the starting lineup I’d be tentatively planning to use, if I were Tony Pena:

David DeJesus cf
Angel Berroa ss
Mike Sweeney dh
Eli Marrero 3b
Ken Harvey 1b
John Buck c
Abraham Nunez rf
Terrence Long lf
Andres Blanco 2b

Blanco? Yeah. Tony Graffanino is a utility player, not an everyday second baseman. Blanco is a light hitter, but he has a dazzling glove, so I’d play him on the theory that his glove will save more runs than Graffanino’s bat would produce. The Royals have lots of young pitchers, and the best thing you can do for young pitchers is catch the ball. So Blanco brings one of those mystical intangibles with him.

Matt Stairs can come off the bench and pinch hit for him if he ever comes up with a runner in scoring position, and then Graffanino can take over at second.

Even if he only hits .156, having a .156 hitter at second instead of in left field is a significant upgrade.

Here’s a more likely lineup:

David DeJesus cf
Tony Graffanino 2b
Mike Sweeney dh
Ken Harvey 1b
Eli Marrero lf
John Buck c
Abraham Nunez/Terrence Long rf
Angel Berroa ss
Chris Truby 3b

Truby is a journeyman with a little bit of pop that the Royals got as a stopgap until Teahan is ready.

Regardless, it looks like the Royals have a better team this year than they did last year. Unfortunately, so does everyone else in their division…

Is there hope in Kansas City for baseball?

I spent some time in Kansas City this weekend. If I had any doubts this season, where the Royals went from favorites to win the division to worst team in the league in a matter of about a week, had eroded fan support, that doubt is gone now.

So now what?First, there’s the question of what went wrong. To me, the biggest thing that went wrong was Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez proved a lethal replacement for Manny Ramirez in Cleveland not so long ago, so there was reason to believe he could be the big booming bat in the cleanup spot the Royals have never had.

The question was whether you got the healthy Gonzalez or the Gonzalez who’s more injury prone than George Brett and Fred Lynn combined.

They got the latter, and thus a waste of almost enough money to keep Carlos Beltran.

Ah, Beltran. The guy who someday would have broken the Royals’ record for number of home runs hit and bases stolen in the same season. The most underrated defensive center fielder in the game. The Scott Boras client.

Trading Beltran was the only thing the Royals could do. Scott Boras is going to ship Beltran to the team willing to pay the most money for him. Can the Royals afford to give $18 million to one player? Doesn’t matter. George Steinbrenner will top the Royals’ best offer, because he’s got Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton in center field.

I find it very encouraging that none of the Royals’ high draft picks this year was a Scott Boras client.

The fear in KC right now is that the Royals will never keep any good players they develop, because they look back at Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Jermaine Dye. Beltran and Damon were Boras clients. They couldn’t keep them. I won’t try to explain the Jermaine Dye trade, other than to say they didn’t think they’d be able to re-sign Rey Sanchez and they felt like it was easier to find outfielders than shortstops, and they thought Neifi Perez could hit his weight outside of Colorado.

Judging from the production they’ve had out of left field this year, I think they were even wrong about that bit about outfielders being easier to find than shortstops. But at least they’ve learned.

I see upside out of this year. I really do. David DeJesus is turning out to be a fine center fielder. It would be nice if he could steal more bases, but he’s a good defensive center fielder and he can hit, and he has good speed, even if he doesn’t know how to use that speed to steal bases. Ideally he should be a #2 hitter, but even still, he’s the best leadoff hitter the Royals have had since Johnny Damon left.

Abraham Nuñez is turning out to be a steal. He may or may not be a superstar, but he’s a good defensive outfielder with respectable speed, good power, looks like he’ll be able to hit .270 or better, and can play center field when you have the need to rest DeJesus. He’s an affordable Jermaine Dye.

I haven’t seen John Buck play since his first series in the majors, but he has managed to pop some homers even if his batting average is still below .220. Still, he got off to a tremendously slow start, so hitting .220 indicates he’s making progress. But an even-up John Buck for Carlos Beltran would be a better trade than Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez turned out to be. Buck is already a better hitter than Perez, and the Royals didn’t have much in the way of catching prospects before Buck.

Angel Berroa has been a disappointment this season, but he’s in his second year and he watched the team implode around him. Of course he’s going to be jittery.

Zack Greinke looks like the best young pitcher the Royals have developed since its amazing Class of ’84 (Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson and Mark Gubicza). If Runnelvys Hernandez comes back from Tommy John surgery and pitches like he did in 2003, and if Jose Bautista lives up to expectations (he’s Pedro Martinez’s cousin, so hopefully that counts for something), the Royals might have fearsome pitching again for the first time in a decade. Jeremy Affeldt could come back from the bullpen and start if Mike MacDougal is healthy, and suddenly the pitching rotation looks awfully good.

I don’t know what the Royals will do in left field or at second base. But with Gonzalez gone, that leaves them some money to go after a better-than-average player for one or both positions. Or maybe they can swing a trade in the offseason for a prospect.

As hard as it may be to believe, they do seem to be getting smarter. They seem to have learned a lot from this season. Which is really all you can ask.

OK Tony, I still believe

Let’s see if I can get this one straight. My Royals are losing by thee runs in the ninth inning. They get two guys on base, and slap-hitting Tony Graffanino is due up. Matt Stairs, a hulking, clutch-hitting, lefthanded batter is sitting on the bench. The Royals signed him for situations like this.

Tony Pena signals for Stairs to go face fireballing White Sox closer Billy Koch.Jose Guillen, the new White Sox manager, knows what Matt Stairs does to fireballing right-handed pitchers, so he summons the left-handed Damaso Marte from the bullpen, liking those odds better, since Stairs hasn’t batted against a left-handed pitcher since Warren G. Harding was president.

Pena, not wanting to be the first manager in decades to let Stairs hit against a left-hander, especially a left-hander he’s never so much as watched from the bench, looks around for a right handed hitter. There’s backup catcher Kelly Stinnett, who’s two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Stairs. Career batting average: .236. And there’s Mendy Lopez, a utility infielder the Royals keep around solely because he knows how to play 8 different positions. Career batting average: .257. And a few pitchers, but most of them hadn’t batted against a left-handed pitcher since before Harding was president. Or Little League, whichever was earlier.

Pickings were slim.

If I were managing the Royals, I’d take my chances with Stairs.

But I’m not managing the Royals. Tony Pena is. And what did Tony Pena do? He motioned for Lopez, because Lopez had seen Marte so many times playing against each other in winter ball. Pena ordered Lopez to hit a home run.

Now, Lopez has up until this moment hit a grand total of five home runs in his 7-year career. The Royals have guys who can hit that many in a single game. Tell a guy like Lopez to hit a home run, and more than likely he’s going to strike out trying.

So what’s Lopez do?

He plants a 420-foot bomb behind the center field fence. This is the same fence the Royals moved back 10 feet in the offseason because they were tired of musclebound teams like the White Sox coming into town and hitting 47 home runs in a weekend.

Game tied, 7-7. Now it’s a new game, the Royals have home field advantage, and if it goes into extra innings, well, Mendy Lopez knows how to play second base.

Angel Berroa, the incumbent Rookie of the Year (deal with it, Steinbrenner), followed with a single, bringing up Carlos Beltran, the most underrated player in the game. Beltran hit one into the left-field fountains, a mere 408 feet away. Upstaged by Mendy Lopez. How insulting.

But 408-foot homers count just as much as the wimpy 312-foot homers a left-handed hitter can hit at Yankee Stadium. Game over. Royals win, 9-7.

I think this is going to be a good year.

Salary cap? Baseball needs something

Funny how now that the New York Yankees have added the most expensive sports contract in history, Alex Rodriguez, to their already outrageously priced roster, suddenly the freespending Boston Red Sox, owner of the second-most expensive sports contract in history and the second-highest payroll in baseball, are calling for a salary cap.

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Dave’s formula for winning a pennant

I’ll lead off with my best, like the Royals need to be doing, but more on that later. New Wikipedia entries for the day: Rick Sutcliffe (I couldn’t resist) and Chris von der Ahe. I wrote up Rick, well, because he’s family, and von der Ahe, well, let me tell you about him.
Christian Frederick Wilhelm von der Ahe was the George Steinbrenner of the 1880s. Actually, take George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley, and Ted Turner all wrapped up in one, and you’re not far off. The eccentric von der Ahe was the clown plince of baseball, and if you called him that to his face, his English was so bad, he’d probably take it as a compliment.

After winning the World Series in 1885, von der Ha Ha, who liked to run around calling himself “der boss president”, celebrated by erecting a large statue outside of Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. But the statue wasn’t of any of his star players. It was a statue of himself. How totally aristocratic.

By 1898 his micromismanaged team was a consistent cellar dweller and literally was a side attraction to an amusement park and a circus. Late in the season, a fire broke out in the stands causing numerous injuries but, remarkably, only one death. He lost the team in the resulting lawsuit. He ended up tending bar in a grubby little saloon. When he died in 1913, the statue got moved to his grave.

Von der Ahe’s team got sold to two brothers named Robison, the owners of a really bad team called the Cleveland Spiders. The owners pretty quickly figured out that the solution to the problem of owning two really bad teams is to shuffle all the best players to one of the teams and make one good team and one incredibly bad team. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders made the 1962 Mets look like the 1927 Yankees by comparison, and the league voted on contraction the next year, killing off the Spiders and leaving the Robisons with one good team. They changed their name the next year, to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Note to David Glass: Buy the Detroit Tigers! Then, after you win the World Series, build a large statue of yourself… outside Yankee Stadium!

It’s probably a good thing I don’t own a baseball team.

So, what’s new? An awful lot.

The Royals’ problems with young pitchers continue… They’ve burned out Dan Reichert, Chad Durbin, and numerous others in recent years, and now their opening-day starter, Runelvys Hernandez, needs Tommy John surgery. I don’t get it. I think the Royals need a new team doctor. Terry Weiss, D.O., where are you?

But the Royals, to their credit, have made two trades this week. Yesterday they acquired veteran left-handed pitcher Brian Anderson from Cleveland, which gives them two dependable left-handed pitchers. In their glory days, they had two lefties named Gura and Splitorff, who fared well against the Yankees in the playoffs. I sure hope history repeats itself. Then I hope the Yankees end up in the cellar. There’s historical precedent for that–and George Steinbrenner looks a little like Chris von der Ahe.

The Royals didn’t land the best impact bat on the market, but they picked up a decent bat in Rondell White. I sure would have preferred Pittsburgh’s Brian Giles, but it was San Diego’s acquisition of Giles who made White available, and supposedly the Royals have been after White for some time. If they’re smart, White will go into left field and Raul Ibañez will move to first base. I could also see them putting White in right field in place of Aaron Guiel, and Carlos Beltran taking Guiel’s leadoff spot. It would be a bold move, but I kind of like starting things off with a bang. He leads the team in home runs, but Beltran’s the ideal leadoff hitter with his blinding speed and high on-base percentage.

Why not combine the two ideas? How’s this look?

Carlos Beltran, cf
Joe Randa, 3b
Mike Sweeney, dh
Raul Ibañez, 1b
Rondell White, lf
Desi Relaford, 2b
Angel Berroa, ss
Dee Brown, rf
Brent Mayne, c

That looks like a lineup that could score some runs to me. It’s better by a longshot than the lineup the Royals used in 1984 and 1985, and both of those teams won plenty. Ibañez is a little uncomfortable at first base, but Ken Harvey can’t hit right-handed pitching and he’s not exactly agile. Brown’s been disappointing but he’s been more consistent, has some pop, and he has good speed so he won’t clog up the bases. Harvey’s better defensively at first than Ibañez, so in late innings he can come in as a defensive replacement and earn his keep. I think Harvey still can be a good player, but winter ball is the place to learn to hit. We’ve got a pennant to win.

Question of the day: The Yankees released 46-year-old Jesse Orosco today. Does he have anything left? Are the Royals interested in taking a chance on another situational lefty who spent his glory years in New York? I’d be tempted to sign him, if only to mentor the few young pitchers the Royals still have on the roster who aren’t hurt. He certainly knows how to stay healthy; the guy’s been on the DL once in his life.

And I see the Yankees sent disappointing Jeff Weaver to the minors. Steinbrenner’s obviously not happy with him; he didn’t send him to AAA, which would be the most normal thing to do (you generally don’t send pitchers with five years’ experience to the minors), but he sent him to A ball. Three steps down. Weaver can’t be happy. Not that I’ll cry for him–he’s the pitcher who picked a fight with Mike Sweeney two seasons ago. But it’s nice to see Steinbrenner regain his old form. Or something.

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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