This one hurts.

I tried to write the day it happened. I couldn’t write anything that made any sense. Mostly I sat and stared. I told myself when the Royals made the Wild Card, I’d be happy with whatever happened, because it was postseason baseball for the first time in 29 years.

But as they kept hanging on and steamrolling opponents, I got greedy. And it’s hard to feel guilty for getting greedy. Because I don’t know when this will happen again. Read more

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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My reaction to the Royals’ trade for James Shields

I don’t write about baseball all that often anymore, because to do a good job of it day to day you have to immerse yourself in it more than I’m willing or able to do, but I enjoy baseball. And I’m a long-suffering Kansas City Royals fan. One of my earliest memories is going to a Royals game with my dad and cheering for George Brett. I had a framed–framed!–George Brett poster hanging in my bedroom for 25 years, and though that poster is exiled to the basement now, it’s still hanging on a wall.

I gave up on the Royals in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, then watched in disbelief as Dane Iorg delivered a clutch pinch-hit RBI single as part of an improbable comeback. I happened to be in Kansas City that weekend, and the city was positively electric the next day. I watched Bret Saberhagen toss an 11-0 masterpiece in Game 7. And then?

Well, Bo Jackson came and went. That was fun, but way too short. I watched George Brett win another batting title, get his 3,000th hit, retire in a Royals uniform, and go into the Hall of Fame. And I watched the Royals trade away a lot of talent and get little, if any, value in return.

Most Royals bloggers on the Internet today followed the same trajectory that I did, though some missed the 1970s. That explains some of the reaction to this trade. Read more

Albert Pujols, mercenary

I’m a Royals fan living in St. Louis, so my perspective on Albert Pujols has always been that he’s the one who got away. He went to high school and college in Kansas City, but somehow Royals scouts overlooked him. The Cardinals signed him, and he became a once-in-a-generation player. Even if he never plays another game in the majors, he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame.

Fans loved him, because, well, who doesn’t like a guy who hits .299 with 37 home runs and 99 RBIs in the worst year of his career? He’s always been detached and distant, but St. Louisans will forgive that for wins and numbers. He talked about being a Cardinal for life, but then St. Louis woke up on Thursday morning, drove to work, and found out on the rush-hour radio that he was gone, signed to the Los Angeles California Angels of Anaheim, the Tikki Tikki Tembo Nosa Rembo Chari Bari Ruchi Pip Pen Pembo of baseball.

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Bye bye, Zack Greinke

My favorite Kansas City Royal is still George Brett.

It should be Zack Greinke, but it can’t be anymore. He’ll be pitching Opening Day for the Milwaukee Brewers. Part of me knew this was inevitable. Mostly I’m glad he won’t be pitching for the Yankees.
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Since nobody’s talking yet about the Coco Crisp trade, I will

Today the Royals traded a relief pitcher to the Boston Red Sox for center fielder Coco Crisp.

Crisp is a bit overrated, as most Boston players are, but I have to say I like this trade on several levels.For one, Crisp may or may not be a gold glove-caliber outfielder, but the Royals of recent years have had poor defense. The great Royals teams were built on George Brett’s bat, good defense, good pitching, and speed.

Crisp and David DeJesus give the Royals the best outfield defense they’ve had since the days when Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran patrolled the outfield. (Yes, the Royals had those two at the same time. Yes, they were good then. No, the Royals weren’t, because they didn’t have any pitching.)

But beyond that, Crisp can hit around .270 and steal 20 bases. It’s been years since they’ve had anyone who could do that. Crisp may even pop 15 home runs, which would be welcome, but not necessary. Maybe outside the limelight of Boston, he’s the guy who hit .300 with 15 home runs in Cleveland. But even the guy who hit .264 in 2006 to Boston’s disappointment is much better than their other options.

The knock on Crisp is that he doesn’t draw a lot of walks, but his on base percentage is close to league average. League-average is a huge improvement for the Royals, so there’s no reason not to take that.

The Royals traded a quality relief pitcher to get him, but relief pitchers are fickle. Some have long careers, some have one good year and then turn into batting practice pitchers. Ramon Ramirez looks like he should be a good one, but he’s only had one good year, so he’s not a known quantity.

But Ramirez is replaceable. The Royals have a pretty good track record of scouting and developing relief pitchers. They also have a pretty good track record of trading them at the right time. Meanwhile, they’re terrible at developing outfielders. Chances are the Royals can find a suitable replacement for Ramon Ramirez; there’s nobody in the pipeline who could outplay Crisp. So from that perspective, it makes sense.

Crisp isn’t Carlos Beltran, but arguably he’s a more valuable player than Johnny Damon would be at this stage in his career. His presence in the lineup means the Royals score more runs, and maybe with him stirring stuff up on the bases, he makes some of his teammates better hitters, which leads to even more runs.

Honestly, when I heard about this trade I was surprised. I didn’t think the Royals could get someone like Crisp this cheaply.

The Royals have traded two of their best middle relievers for bats now, but I’m more confident in their ability to locate replacements for those two pitchers than I am in their ability to locate an everyday second baseman somewhere in the system. Quality relief pitchers are a lot more useful when they have leads to protect.

And now, a few words about the first-place Kansas City Royals

I don’t think I’ve been able to write those words since 2003, so I’d better use them when I can.

This team has been making me eat my words almost non-stop since 1986. Aside from briefly recapturing the magic in the summer of ’03, the only highlights I can think of revolve around the twilight of George Brett’s career. Kids born the year Brett retired are eligible to get their learner’s permits this year.No, I don’t expect the Royals to win it all this year. But this year is encouraging on a lot of levels.

One, they’re stealing bases successfully. They’ve run into a lot of outs in recent years, and the way you win when you don’t have a lineup full of big boppers like New York or Detroit is to run a lot, whether it’s taking the extra base on hits, or outright stealing the base. And when you draw a lot of throws, you encourage errors. Today’s game was an example: They stole five bases off weak-armed Jorge Posada, all but forcing the Yankees to replace him with Jose Molina. Molina takes the running game away, but can the Yankees afford to go without Posada’s bat? The Yankees didn’t have to worry about that last year.

Two, the pitching is holding up. Last year, pitching was the Royals’ bright spot. The bullpen was lights-out and Gil Meche and Brian Bannister emerged as quality starting pitchers. Bullpen standouts Zack Greinke and David Riske are gone (Greinke to the rotation; Riske to the Brewers), but so far the bullpen has been spectacular, and the starting pitching excellent. Perhaps even more importantly, the pitching’s good enough that they don’t have to rush their young arms and they can let them develop as needed. The Royals have a history of destroying young pitchers, and maybe that can change starting this year.

Three, every game has been close. The Royals of Buddy Bell and Tony Pena and Tony Loser, er, Muser didn’t win close games, and they didn’t have a lot of close games either. They’re hanging in there every game, holding tight leads, battling back at times, and generally playing sound baseball. At times in recent years I haven’t been able to watch, because it didn’t look like the teams had any heart. This year I haven’t been able to watch any games yet, but they make me want to.

Four, this team’s best is yet to come. Nobody knows yet exactly what kind of player Mark Teahen will be, but he has the potential to be anything from a leadoff hitter to a Ryne Sandberg to a George Brett. The Royals would prefer one of the latter two because they need some power, but even if he turns into a leadoff hitter, that’s OK. Alex Gordon is an exciting young player who can play spectacular third base defense, steal bases, and hit 420-foot home runs. He’s going to be the best all-around player the Royals have developed since Carlos Beltran. Billy Butler doesn’t know what to do with a glove in his hand and he runs like a catcher, but he can hit for average and power. The Royals really need a couple more bats to be competitive, but they have some in the minors (Mike Moustakas is going to be the best of them). The Royals haven’t had a trio like these three since Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney. This trio is younger, will have better bats in front and behind them, and most importantly, now the Royals are in position to be able to afford to keep them.

Five, new manager Trey Hillman doesn’t look like a moron. He says the right things. So far his team is doing all of the things he stresses except take a lot of walks (and it’s still early). I tried to be optimistic about Buddy Bell because a team of nine players like Buddy Bell was stands to be a good team, and much better than a team of nine Tony Penas, while either of those is far better than a team of nine Tony Musers–I think a team of nine of me beats nine Tony Musers. But none of these managers had any clue about tactics. I don’t think the Royals have had a good tactical manager since Dick Howser, and he died in 1986. But so far, Hillman seems to have good tactics.

Six, so far the Royals have a winning record against teams everyone expected to be better than them. Minnesota is still a good young team with a lot of talent, Detroit was expected to run away with the division, and the Yankees are the Yankees–their four regular infielders make more than the Royals’ entire payroll.

I’m happy. I’ll be happier if this group gels like the Royals of the late ’70s did. In reality, 1985 was just the swan song of those great ’70s teams that never quite went all the way, and they’ve never had a core like that since. Injuries kept Bo Jackson and Danny Tartabull and Kevin Seitzer from reaching their potential, and the Royals couldn’t afford to keep Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Mike Sweeney together. Imagine if they could have.

But it looks like it’s possible that David DeJesus, Mark Teahen, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and later Mike Moustakas will let us forget about all that. And that will be fun to watch develop.

So I’m willing to be patient. And I’ll enjoy the winning while it lasts.

Taking one for the team

The press is divided: Alfonso Soriano is Terrell Owens. Alfonso Soriano isn’t Terrell Owens. No matter. There is one thing that matters.

Alfonso Soriano is an employee of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club and is under contract until the end of next year. Alfonso Soriano wants to play second base. His employer wants him to play left field.

If you aren’t a professional athlete, the case is clear: You do what your employer tells you. Period. Why is it different if you make $10 million a year?The argument against the move goes like this: Once a player reaches a certain level of accomplishment, there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t ask him to change positions. The argument is that Soriano has reached that level of accomplishment.

It’s true that Soriano is a very accomplished hitter. In five full seasons, he’s hit 30 homers and stolen 30 bases three times. Only Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonds have done it more times. It’s rare for someone to do it once. In his second full season in the majors, he fell one home run short of 40/40, which is something only men have done: Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez. Looking at that list, it’s hard to do without steroids. For that matter, it’s hard to do with steroids.

But those are Soriano’s offensive accomplishments. On the field, he’s anything but an accomplished gloveman. His career fielding percentage at second base is .971. Soriano is no Ryne Sandberg. Since the Nationals have a capable gloveman at second base in Jose Vidro, they want to hide Soriano’s glove in left field to get his bat into the lineup.

Soriano’s objection is that next year is his free agent year, and there’s a better market for second basemen with 30-homer power than there is for left fielders with 30-homer power.

So let’s get this straight: He wants the Nationals to play him at second base this year so another team will potentially pay him more money next year.

I’m not surprised the Nationals aren’t sympathetic.

Besides, there’s a predecent for moving back to second base if another team wants him there. Craig Biggio moved from catcher to second base when the Astros needed a second baseman. A decade later, he moved to center field so the Astros could sign Jeff Kent, a power hitter who can’t play any other position well. A few months later, Biggio moved from center field to left so his team could trade for Carlos Beltran, arguably the best center fielder in the game. The next season, Biggio moved back to second base.

Nomar Garciaparra signed with the Dodgers as a first baseman despite never having played the position in his life. But the Dodgers already had two shortstops so Garciaparra signed as a first baseman. He wanted to be in LA, and the Dodgers wanted his bat. Problem solved. In theory at least.

So if any team is interested in Soriano’s oven mitt-like glovework at second base–and there are a few teams who have the money to pay him, and no better options at the position–nothing stops them from asking Soriano to move back there. And there’s little question that there’ll be teams interested in Soriano as a designated hitter too.

There would have been, anyway. Certainly there’s still a market for Soriano, since anybody can use someone who can hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. But you want someone who’s interested in winning ballgames, not just in collecting a paycheck.

Some years ago, the New York Yankees were looking for a left fielder with a lot of power. They set their sights on Jim Edmonds, who was the center fielder for the Anaheim Angels at the time. There was some question whether Edmonds would be willing to play left field, since most people considered him a better center fielder than the Yankees’ Bernie Williams.

Edmonds said he’d rather play center. But he said what was most important to him was winning a World Series. "I’ll play third base for them if that’s what it takes to win a Series," he said.

Well, the Yankees and Angels couldn’t work out a deal, and Edmonds ended up playing center field in St. Louis instead. But that’s the attitude you want to see.

Some people argue that the Nationals should have discussed all this with Soriano before they traded for him. The Texas Rangers wouldn’t allow the Nationals to talk to him. For good reason–the Rangers wanted to move him to the outfield, and he wouldn’t move. The Yankees had wanted to move him to the outfield too, and his refusal to move was part of the reason the Yankees traded him to Texas. The only worse-kept secret in baseball was Barry Bonds and his steroids.

So the Nationals made a bad trade. Shame on them.

But shame on Soriano even more.

Can the Royals be saved?

So the Royals managed yesterday to avoid losing their 100th game this season. They have to win 14 games in a row to avoid their third 100-loss season in four years. While a 14-game winning streak to stave off that 100th loss isn’t impossible, it’s unlikely. This is a team that dropped 19 straight last month, after all.

Keep in mind that the cross-state Cardinals, the winningest team in baseball, haven’t won their 99th game yet.

So what do you do with a team that’s had a worse run than the 1962-1966 Mets, who at least had the excuse of being an expansion team?Get some average players. The problem with the Royals since, well, about 1990, is that they don’t have enough average players. Let’s face it, the addition of Barry Bonds to this team wouldn’t result in very many more wins because big hitters need people to get on base ahead of them if they’re going to produce runs, and they need some protection behind him. The Royals’ two best hitters are David DeJesus and Mike Sweeney. DeJesus isn’t a power threat. The Royals’ biggest power threats behind Mike Sweeney are Matt Stairs and Emil Brown, neither of whom have ever been able to hold down a regular job anywhere else, primarily because they’re average hitters and below-average fielders.

Get two hitters and one pitcher. Whenever I’ve run computer simulations, I’ve been able to turn the Royals into a .500 team with the addition of one good pitcher and one good hitter. Of course, the last time I ran that simulation, the Royals had Carlos Beltran, so now they’d need two hitters to accomplish the same thing. Since David Glass has expressed a willingness to raise the payroll to about $50 million and they’re about to shed more than $10 million in dead-weight salaries, it’s possible for the Royals to pay three $8 million salaries. The question is whether the Royals can manage to attract three $8 million players.

Even though San Diego has been trying for years to unload Phil Nevin, the Royals have never bitten. Nevin wouldn’t be happy in Kansas City, primarily because Nevin wouldn’t be happy anywhere. He’d be bad in the clubhouse, but the Royals only have a few guys who are good in the clubhouse. At least the guy can hit.

Maybe the Royals should take a chance on Rafael Palmeiro. Clearly nobody else wants him, and the steroids are a big question mark. Maybe he’ll never hit more than 14 homers again. Maybe he’ll never play baseball again once Congress gets hold of him. The Royals already have too many 1B/DH types but if Palmeiro can deliver a cheap 25 home runs from the left-hand side of the plate, he’s an upgrade. A slimmed-down Palmeiro would still be the second-best hitter on this team.

Do one thing well. The Royals are at or near the bottom of both leagues in fielding, hitting, pitching, and stolen bases. Doing just one of those things well would make a big difference. Defense is the cheapest of those problems to address. The Royals have been criticized for moving slick-fielding shortstop Andres Blanco to second base and handing him the job. But he’s hitting above .200, which Royals second basemen have struggled to do this year, and he’s making the plays at second, which Royals second basemen haven’t done at all this year. His bat won’t win any games, but arguably his glove won at least one game this past week against the White Sox. Yes, the White Sox made two bad baserunning mistakes and Blanco gunned them down, but with Donnie Murphy or Ruben Gotay playing second, you get away with those mistakes.

A team of seven Andres Blancos plus Mike Sweeney (whose glove can’t hurt you when he’s DHing) and David DeJesus (who wields a good glove in center field) would get about seven fewer hits a week than what it gets now, but it wouldn’t give away runs. The Royals would win a lot more 1-0 games.

Stolen bases are the second-cheapest problem to address. You can draft guys with good speed and/or trade for them, and then coach them. The Royals won a lot of games in the 1970s and early 1980s by relying on guys who could beat out an infield single and steal second or stretch singles to the outfield into doubles, then get driven in by a 3-4-5 combination of George Brett, Hal McRae, and John Mayberry/Willie Aikens/Steve Balboni (in other words, any affordable first baseman who could hit .250 with 25-30 home runs). And for that matter, Brett could steal bases and stretch singles into doubles, and until about 1982 when age caught up with him, so could McRae.

Since the Royals don’t seem to have anyone in the organization who is succeeding in teaching guys how to steal bases, why not find out what Davey Lopes is doing? Lopes has always been one of the best teachers around at the art of the stolen base, even going back to his days as a player.

Scout better. One reason last-place teams usually don’t stay there long is because they get the best draft picks. But from 1997 to 2002, the Royals have managed to draft exactly one #1 who is still in the big leagues. The one they drafted in 2002, Zack Greinke, is 4-16 with a 5.95 ERA. The kid clearly should have been in Omaha this year. A lot of people are giving up on him–he’s been touted as the next Greg Maddux–but critics forget that Maddux went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA when he was 21.

Part of the difference is that Maddux had veteran pitchers to learn from at 21. I’m not sure that Jose Lima is the best example for young Greinke.

But I digress. The Royals need to start scouting better and drafting better. In 1999 the Royals drafted Kyle Snyder. The Cardinals drafted some kid who was attending college in Kansas City named Albert Pujols. Which one have you heard of?

And yes, I’ve run the numbers. Albert Pujols doesn’t drive in quite as many runs in a Royals lineup and he doesn’t hit for quite as much average with only Mike Sweeney to protect him, but he turns the Royals into a winning team. And for some reason Sweeney hits better with Pujols in the lineup. Imagine that.

The way you get good players when you can’t trade for them and you can’t sign them is to draft and develop them. The way you do that is to scout well. If the Royals aren’t willing to pay their draft picks (Alex Gordon is still holding out for more money), they need to use that money to lure the best scouts in the game. Find the scouts with the best track records and pay them double what anyone else is willing to pay. The result will be a team that drafts smarter and trades smarter.

Is there a bright side? In Mike MacDougal, Ambiorix Burgos, Andy Sisco and Jeremy Affeldt, the Royals have four lights-out relievers. If the Royals can get a lead after the sixth inning, their chances of nailing down the win are pretty good with those four pitchers, assuming good defense behind them. I happen to believe that either Sisco or Affeldt should go back into the starting rotation, but strong bullpens make good starters out of mediocre ones so I can see keeping them where they are. Affeldt’s been roughed up of late, but that’s more of a reflection on his fielding ability than on his ability to pitch.

Greinke has demonstrated that he has the ability to pitch, but he needs to turn that promise into results. Runelvys Hernandez and Denny Bautista have demonstrated an ability to pitch, but both have been injury-prone. A seasoned Greinke along with a healthy Hernandez and Bautista give a solid basis to build from. Given a couple of veterans to anchor the staff and teach them, it could go somewhere. I was too young to know at the time, but I wonder now if the reason the Royals kept Paul Splitorff and Larry Gura around in 1984 when both had ceased to be useful pitchers was to teach their young pitchers how to survive in the majors.

So I think the Royals’ poor pitching is temporary. Now if only I could say the same thing for the management…

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…

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