Will Buddy Bell turn it around in Kansas City?

Well, the Royals hired their new manager today. I didn’t feel like they got the best guy available last time around when they hired Tony Pena, and I really don’t feel like they got the best guy available now with Buddy Bell.

So let’s look at the situation.Buddy Bell has a losing record as a manager. That’s bad. Of course he managed some bad teams. He did coax winning (or near-winning) seasons out of Detroit and Colorado, which is encouraging. But I would have rather seen them get someone who’s actually taken a team to the postseason.

The bright side?

I believe a manager’s record as a player is relevant. Tony Muser was a good-field, no-hit first baseman and he liked players like him. Had he not been forced by injuries, he never would have noticed Mike Sweeney, who is arguable the only player on the team now who would be a starter on any other team in the majors. The teams Muser fielded were reflections of him.

Tony Pena was a catcher with a legendary arm but a free-swinger at the plate. Pena’s teams were reflections of him too: Lots of strikeouts, no walks, and later, not much else either.

The best players don’t necessarily make the best managers, because guys with lots of raw talent often don’t know how to relate to players with less. Bell was an All-Star but not a Hall of Famer. So presumably Bell is one of those guys who was able to do more with less and hopefully can teach young players how to do the same.

And let’s look at how Bell played baseball. His career batting average was .279 with a .341 on-base percentage. Not bad. He could draw a walk. That’s good. Most years he was one of the toughest guys in the majors to strike out. That’s really good.

He hit 201 home runs. So he was more like Joe Randa than like Mike Schmidt or even George Brett. That’s fine. If Kansas City had George Brett now, they wouldn’t be able to afford to keep him.

And Bell, like his son David who is currently playing with the Phillies, had a good glove. His career fielding percentage of .964 at third base is exemplary.

So Bell will presumably gravitate towards players who can swing the bat a little but exhibit patience at the plate and who save runs with the glove, rather than giving runs away. That’s good. The Royals have a lot of players who give runs away, and that’s not good when they don’t score a lot.

I guess it comes down to this. A team with 8 Tony Musers in the field would lose a lot of 1-0 games. We’ve seen what a team with 8 Tony Penas on the field can do. A team with 8 Buddy Bells on the field isn’t going to be terribly inspiring, but it would be a good way for a small-market team to win some games.

And when he can’t find players who remind him of himself, hopefully he’ll look for players who remind him of players he played with. Bell played on teams that emphasized speed and defense over home runs. The Royals can’t afford lots of big boppers; they do have some guys who can field. If Bell looks for some guys with some speed, the team has some hope.

At least there’s reason to believe Bell will put together a team with better balance than his two most recent predecessors.

Time will tell.

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…

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.

Life has returned to Royals Stadium

The last time I went to a Royals game at Royals Kauffman Stadium (it’ll always be Royals Stadium to lifelong fans like me), it was 1996. Mike Sweeney was riding the bench. Johnny Damon was lifted for a pinch-hitter when the opposing team brought in a left-handed pitcher. And the place was as quiet as a library.
On Saturday night, I finally returned. The Royals were in first place, powered by a young and hungry starting pitching staff, the bats of a bunch of people who never got a chance elsewhere like Desi Relaford and Raul Ibañez (superstars Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran have been hurt much of the year). But the weather looked threatening and they’d just lost 4 straight, two to the traitor Johnny Damon’s Boston Red Sox and a doubleheader to the Baltimore Orioles. You can explain away the losses to the Red Sox. You’re happy to take one of three from them. Baltimore’s a different story. Maybe the Royals were fading.

Yet, 25,930 still turned up for the game. A year ago, the attendance would have been half that. There have always been much better things to do in Kansas City on a Saturday night than to go watch the Royals lose.

I knew things were different when earlier that day, I’d gone to the grocery store and I saw people wearing Royals hats and t-shirts. Those had become nearly as common in St. Louis as in Kansas City. Royals hats had become something worn by the fashion-conscious because their royal blue color looked good with the rest of their outfit. Most of them probably didn’t even know that hat had anything to do with a pro sports franchise. Then, on the way to the game, I saw ticket scalpers stationed along the exit ramp off I-70 near the stadium. I haven’t seen people scalp Royals tickets in, well, forever.

The stadium itself is electric. I remember the Royals’ division championship season of 1984. George Brett was still in his prime, and Bud Black was electrifying hitters and the rotation was rounded out with rookies like Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson, and Mark Gubicza, none of whom is a hall of famer, but all of whom showed signs of brilliant careers to come. It wasn’t a great team, but it was a fun team to watch.

There was more fire in that stadium on Saturday than I remember seeing in 1984. Well, at the start of the game, that is. The word “Believe” floated across the scoreboard, fading out to highlights of the still-young season like Ken Harvey muscling out home runs and Michael Tucker and Desi Relaford making diving catches in the outfield. A left-handed pitcher wearing number 32 took the mound. Twenty years ago, the Royals had a left-handed pitcher who wore number 32. His name was Larry Gura. He was good for 15-18 wins and made the All-Star team a couple of times.

This guy’s name was Chris George. If he can pitch like Larry Gura, I thought, this is gonna be a good year.

George retired the first batter on two pitches. The crowd was electric.

By the end of the inning, it was like a library again.

Chris George had a no-hitter through four innings. A walk here and there and a balk here and there had gotten him into trouble, but an umpire can call a balk if there’s a guy on first base and he doesn’t like the way you scratched yourself. Just ask my cousin. He was the perennial league leader in balks throughout the 1980s, pitching for Cleveland and Chicago. I think Chris George must have known that, because he pitched out of those situations. George impressed me. He’s definitely a finesse pitcher–he didn’t register higher than 88 MPH once that night–but he mixed up his stuff enough to keep Baltimore guessing and he racked up plenty of strikeouts.

But then Baltimore scraped together a couple of runs. The Royals came back in the bottom of the inning, with a couple of speed demons on first and second and the smooth-hitting Joe Randa at the plate. Randa stroked a double to center field. One run scored. Desi Relaford rounded third and was halfway home when he noticed his third base coach screaming for him to hold. He tripped, tried to make his way back, and was tagged out to end the inning.

That got the crowd’s attention.

The next inning, Baltimore’s slugging young right fielder, Jay Gibbons, hit a two-run bomb to right field. Well, the way the wind was blowing that night, I probably could have hit something that would clear the right field. fence. But it counts. Baltimore was up 4-1. But there’s some life in the Royals’ bleachers. Before Gibbons had rounded the bases, his homerun ball was back on the field.

By then, the temperature had dropped more than 30 degrees since the start of the game. The fans were shivering. Many had left. I stayed, only hoping there was as much life left in the Royals’ lineup as there was in that fan who’d thrown the ball back on the field.

The Royals rallied for three runs in the seventh off a Baltimore left-hander named Ryan and the immortal Kerry “Freak Boy” Ligtenberg, acquired from Atlanta in the offseason. Ligtenberg puts up good numbers, but every time I’ve seen him pitch in person, he’s given up a busload of runs. He didn’t disappoint. By the time Freak Boy managed to put out the fire, the game was tied, 4-4.

D.J. Carrasco, one of the best of the Royals’ young flamethrowing relievers, held Baltimore hitless in the top of the 8th.

With flamethrowing Mike MacDougal warming up in the bullpen, Raul Ibañez led off the bottom of the 8th with a double, which brought up Royals bruiser Ken Harvey. Harvey overswung at a couple of pitches, then cranked an up-and-in fastball 378 feet against the wind over the left field fence, giving the Royals a two-run lead. “It’s Mike MacDougal time,” I muttered. Fans jumped up and started chanting, “Har-vey! Har-vey!”

But this was to become the neverending inning. Between Baltimore meetings on the mound and Kansas City hits, the bottom of the 8th drug on for what seemed like 30 minutes. I swear that by the time the inning ended, MacDougal looked like Tom Hanks in Castaway. And the Royals had a 4-run lead. There’s no reason to bring in your closer to protect a four-run lead.

Except so much time had passed since the last time Mike MacDougal pitched, the rookie probably had two kids in college. And, well, when you’re Kansas City, you have to give the fans something exciting to watch. Royals fans used to pay to see George Brett, no matter how the rest of the team was playing. And Mike MacDougal is the kind of guy fans want to see.

So in the top of the 9th inning, the bullpen door opened, and MacDougal ran onto the field. The scoreboard went black. “Mike” appeared on the screen in white letters as “Rock You Like a Hurricane” blared on the stadium’s speakers. The word faded to show MacDougal striking out a couple of batters. “MacDougal” appeard in white letters on a black screen, followed by still more strikeouts. An animated baseball trailed by flames lit up the scoreboard. A few more highlights from MacDougal’s spectacular 10 prior saves showed up.

By now the crowd was pumped. And so was the team.

MacDougal’s a bit wild, but that’s a big part of his mystique. The guy can throw 103 miles per hour. He generally tones it down into the mid-90s because his pitches have more movement at lower speeds. When someone can throw 100 miles per hour, he tends to be effective. But he’s more effective when nobody–not the batter, not the catcher, not even the pitcher himself–knows where the ball’s going to end up. It’s harder to hit when you’re afraid for your life.

MacDougal gave up two hits, but his control was on. He threw 21 pitches, and 13 of them were actually strikes. Despite the two hits, he managed two outs without giving up any runs. The final Baltimore batter fouled off a pitch that registered 46 miles per hour on the gun.

“Bull,” I muttered. “When MacDougal throws a paper wad in the trash, it clocks higher than 46 miles per hour.”

He struck him out on the last pitch.

And the stadium sounded like anything but a library.

Phillies’ signing of Thome is about confidence, not wins

The Phillies just signed the most popular slugger in Cleveland Indians’ history, inking a 6-year, $87 million deal.
Analysts note that with Thome in the lineup instead of Travis Lee, the Phillies would have scored about 70 more runs last season. They still would have been fourth in the league, even with those extra 70 runs. That’s not enough to guarantee you’ll be the fourth team in the playoffs.

Analysts also noted that for the past few years, Thome has spent a good deal of time as the DH rather than playing in the field, and they doubt Thome will be capable of playing first base for the last year or even two years of his contract.

Also, last week, Philadelphia signed David Bell to play third base, replacing Placido Polanco. Bell’s a better hitter than Polanco, but not by much. Bell’s a better fielder than Polanco (at least at third), but not by very much.

But this trend isn’t about fielding. It’s not so much even about scoring runs. I’m not even convinced it’s about winning ball games. This is about confidence.

You see, a year ago, the Phillies had the best third baseman in baseball and the second-best third baseman in their team’s history (second only to Mike Schmidt, who is one of the three best third basemen who ever lived). The Phillies offered Scott Rolen a pile of money to sign a long-term contract. But Scott Rolen wasn’t convinced the Phillies wanted to win badly enough. He refused a couple of offers, slumped, got into some arguments with manager Larry Bowa, and eventually was traded to the Cardinals for whatever they could manage to get for him, preferring that to losing him to free agency.

It wasn’t that long ago that Philadelphia lost Curt Schilling, one of the best pitchers in the game today, pretty much the same way.

Rolen rediscovered his swing, and helped the Cardinals get to the postseason. Schilling dueled Randy Johnson for the Cy Young Award two years straight, and along with Johnson was the hero of the 2001 World Series, and was practically unbeatable up until the 2002 postseason.

Meanwhile, the Phillies looked like they’d given up and entered a rebuilding phase as they got ready to open an expensive new ballpark. And Philadelphia fans are notoriously unforgiving. We’re talking fans who’ll boo Santa Claus.

And the Phillies have lots of young, exciting players whose contracts are running out.

Signing David Bell and Jim Thome proves the Phillies are willing to spend some money. This will make unhappy players play better (witness Scott Rolen’s performance after coming to St. Louis versus his so-so performance in Philadelphia last year). Bell has become one of those players who always seems to find himself playing for a winner. Young players need that influence. Bell, at least theoretically, brings value beyond the numbers he puts up. If it were about numbers, the Phillies would have acquired Joe Randa, who makes much less money, and the Phillies could have had Joe Randa for a bag of baseballs and a vial of dirt scraped off one of Mike Schmidt’s spikes. But Joe Randa’s never played for a winner.

And Jim Thome’s a big, burly, buff guy who hits monsterous home runs by the truckload and excites fans. The Phillies haven’t had a truly great power hitter since Mike Schmidt. In his best year, Schmidt hit 48 home runs and batted .286. Jim Thome hit 52 home runs and batted .304 last year.

In 1997, the St. Louis Cardinals were missing something. They had the opportunity to trade for Mark McGwire. McGwire hit a bunch of towering home runs and captured the fans’ imagination and helped the Cardinals lure some other great players, most notably center fielder Jim Edmonds, to St. Louis.

The Phillies want Jim Thome to come in and be Mark McGwire.

The Phillies covet former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. Glavine’s been one of the best left-handed pitchers in the National League for the past decade. The Braves and Mets are also interested in Glavine. But the Braves made him a half-hearted offer and seem to be more interested in unloading salary than in making another playoff run. The Mets are coming off a last-place finish and they’re trying to find someone willing to take Jeromy Burnitz and Mo Vaughn’s contracts. Meanwhile, the Phillies have just signed two of the most coveted players in the free agent market. The Phillies’ offer is comparable to the Mets’ offer. Glavine wants money, of course, but he also wants to win another World Series before he retires. Who do you think he’s most interested in pitching for now?

David Bell alone doesn’t make the Phillies a better team. Jim Thome alone makes the Phillies a marginally better team. David Bell plus Jim Thome plus Tom Glavine signal a commitment to win, at least for the next few years, which will draw out the best in the players they have and make other players interested, as well as draw fans, which creates revenue, which can be used to pursue other quality players.

Those are the ingredients of a dynasty.

Now the Phillies just have to figure out how to mix them properly.

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.

It’s time for Tony Muser to hit the road

You lost me, Tony Muser.
I used to think you were an OK guy. I have a quote from you hanging on my cubicle wall at work. Last summer, you said something about how energetic, outspoken people who smile a lot bring everybody up and energize the people around them. I copied and pasted it into my word processor, put it in a big, obnoxious font, and hung it where I’d see it a lot. I figured those would be good words to live by.

You’re a hard-nosed, old-school baseball guy. I like old-school baseball. A lot of the players today are more concerned about looking like supermodels than they are about playing baseball. You’re gruff, but my best baseball coaches were gruff.

But you couldn’t manage your way out of a paper bag. You inherited a terrible Royals team, I’ll admit that. Your biggest offensive weapons were Jeff King and Jay Bell. You only had two starting pitchers, Kevin Appier and Jose Rosado, who would have been starting pitchers for another team. The team was going nowhere.

Under your leadership, that’s changed. Jay Bell signed with Arizona. So much for loyalty. Jeff King retired suddenly. Dean Palmer, a hard-hitting third baseman, came and went under your tenure. But you showed confidence in Jermaine Dye and he became an All-Star. Joe Randa came home to play third base, and while Palmer put up better power numbers, Randa’s proven to be the better all-around player. Johnny Damon blossomed into the best leadoff hitter in the game under your watch, and it wasn’t your fault that he left for money. And Mike Sweeney, the backup catcher you said would never catch for you again, got a second chance as a DH under your watch because you were out of options, and he started hitting like George Brett. Then he got a third chance as a first baseman because you were out of options, and he became an All-Star. You pulled Rey Sanchez off the scrap heap and turned him into a respectable everyday shortstop. And three young hitters, Carlos Beltran, Mark Quinn, and Dee Brown, are now making names for themselves.

Yes, you’ve turned this team around. On paper, this is a much-improved team.

But that much-improved team isn’t winning games. Your career winning percentage is .430. Your predecessor, Bob Boone, was a terrible manager. But during his worst season with the Royals, he had a .444 winning percentage. I’d love to know what he’d do with what you have to work with.

After a series in Cleveland where the Royals were outscored 30-10, you lost your cool, and you took a rip at Mike Sweeney, your best player. “Chewing on cookies and drinking milk and praying is not going to get it done,” you said.

Yeah, Mike Sweeney only batted .182 during the series and only drove in one run. But it’s not like anyone else was getting on base ahead of him. Even if Mike Sweeney had driven home those four runners he left on base, the Royals still would have been outscored 30-14 and would have lost all three games. And Sweeney’s hitting .280 for the season. Just two years ago, Mike Sweeney hitting .280 was a miracle. Now it’s a slump. What’s going on? Mike Sweeney hitting .280 isn’t the reason the Royals are 10-18.

The Minnesota Twins are in first place. Statistically speaking, their lineup reads like this: .273, .198, .275, .293, .287, .239, .407, .190, .264. Now here’s the Royals’ lineup: .283, .255, .310, .260, .280, .300, .185, .183, .250. Aside from one hot bat, it doesn’t look too different, does it?

The Royals won the World Series in 1985 with a lineup that looked a lot like this year’s. Granted, that team may have had better pitching. But without comparable coaching, it’s impossible to know.

I used to be a believer, but now the only thing I believe is that you’re mostly interested in appearances, and looking right doesn’t necessarily translate into winning.

A number of replacements have been suggested for you. Your predecessors Bob Boone and Hal McRae have jobs elsewhere. McRae used his last-place team to mop up the floor with your next-to-last-place team earlier this week. John Wathan is available, and his career record was better than yours. But my pick would be Cookie Rojas, an old fan favorite with a little managerial experience, tons of coaching experience, and plenty of leadership.

But I’m not sure I care much who replaces you. Just as long as it’s someone. It’s time for you to go.

More like this: Baseball Royals

01/10/2001

Mailbag:

Relocating the My Docs folder

First, some computer news. AMD is building a third fab after all. Location still TBA. Reportedly they’re looking for someone to share this $4 billion facility, but that of course could change by the time it’s ready in 2004. They were looking for someone to share their Dresden fab up until the day it opened, it seemed, but it turns out that capacity kept all to themselves really isn’t enough.

Time to talk baseball. My Royals did it. They made their first blockbuster trade since 1991, when they traded their beloved pitching ace, Bret Saberhagen, for a bag of baseballs. Well, actually they got Gregg Jefferies, who played third base with an oven mitt and hit .270–his biggest contribution was helping George Brett get his 3,000th hit by giving him some protection in the lineup, forcing pitchers to pitch to Brett–before getting traded across the state for Felix Jose, a bust who played right field for a couple of seasons, then played himself out of a job and dropped off the face of the earth. They also got Keith Miller, a scrappy player who was murder in the clutch, but he couldn’t stay healthy. He only lasted two seasons before he was done too. The most noteworthy guy from the trade was Kevin McReynolds, an underachieving power hitter past his prime, who lasted a couple of seasons, then was shipped back to the Mets in exchange for Vince Coleman, who provided some needed speed but his expensive contract and poor defense led them to ship him to Seattle for a prospect. His replacement was a youngster by the name of Johnny Damon.

Well, the Royals have once again traded a franchise player. Johnny Damon, their leadoff hitter, team leader, and sometime center fielder (he also plays left) is gone. Traded to Oakland, home to many an ex-Royal, in a three-team deal that brought a 20-year-old shortstop prospect and a backup catcher to Kansas City. (Ironically, this backup catcher lost his job with the A’s because Sal Fasano was better. Sal Fasano’s old team? The Royals.)

But the key to the deal was Roberto Hernandez, a 36-year-old closer. He throws hard and routinely saves 30 games a season. Lately the Royals have been doing well to get 15 from their closers. The Royals routinely scored 6 runs a game, but their bullpen routinely gave up 7. Hernandez and newly acquired setup man Doug Henry look to end that trend. Without Johnny Damon they won’t score 6 runs a game as much anymore, but the improved bullpen can reduce the number of runs they give up by one or two.

I feel good about this trade. Johnny Damon talked about how much he loved Kansas City, but he acted like a hired gun. And when he wasn’t making threats about leaving, he was trying to run the team. The solution to all the Royals’ problems last year, according to Damon, was Paul Sorrento. Paul Sorrento was a .240-hitting first baseman with some power and an average glove. The Royals already had Mike Sweeney at first base, a converted catcher who thinks he’s the second coming of George Brett. He’s good for .320 or .330, 20+ homers and 100+ RBIs a season. Not a great fielder, but he’s getting better. Paul Sorrento only would have taken playing time from Sweeney and wouldn’t have given them much. I guess 29 other teams agreed, because after the Royals let Sorrento go, no one else snapped him up. Then the Royals went and got Dave McCarty, a career minor leaguer with a fabulous glove who’d always managed to hit .230 or .240 in his brief stints in the bigs. But as a part-time player, McCarty found his groove. He flirted with a .280 average and hit a number of big homers, in addition to playing well, if not spectacularly, at first base and also spending some time in left and right field. Great move. Paul who? Good thing the front office didn’t listen to Johnny Damon.

This off-season, Johnny Damon was talking about how the Royals needed to go get some pitching, like, say, Darren Dreifort. Darren Dreifort. Who? Exactly. Darren Dreifort is an overpriced career National Leaguer who in a typical season goes 8-8 with an ERA around 4.50. The Royals already have six guys who can do that, given the kind of bullpen support Dreifort always got in LA, and they won’t ask for $7 milion a year to do it either. What’s so special about Darren Dreifort? He and Johnny Damon have the same agent. Can anyone say conflict of interest?

Johnny Damon was fun to watch, believe me. I liked the guy, as long as he kept his mouth shut. He played hard and did everything they ever asked him to do. Move to left field to make room for Carlos Beltran? OK. Hit third? Sure. Uh oh. All of our cleanup-type hitters are dropping like flies. Will you do it for a while until one of them gets healthy? OK. Uh oh. Carlos Beltran’s hurt. Would you move back to center field for a while? Sure, and might as well field spectacularly and hit .387 the second half of the season too.

But Johnny Damon didn’t want to sign a long-term contract. Johnny Damon wanted to make Bernie Williams money. And the Royals don’t have Bernie Williams money to offer. So Johnny Damon was going to move elsewhere the instant he became a free agent. The best thing the Royals could do was trade him for whatever they could get.

What they got was an expensive relief pitcher and a shortstop prospect, but Roberto Hernandez is no more expensive than what the Royals offered Johnny Damon. And now the Royals have cleared the logjam in their outfield. Mark Quinn can keep on playing left field. Carlos Beltran can go back to center. Jermaine Dye’s a lock in right. Dave McCarty and Mike Sweeney can rotate between first base and DH, which had been Quinn’s old role. Or power-hitting prospect Dee Brown can take over at DH if he’s ready, with Sween at first and McCarty back in the old role of supersub. Carlos Beltran or second baseman Carlos Febles can hit leadoff. If they falter, third baseman Joe Randa doesn’t have Johnny Damon’s speed, but he can replace his on-base percentage.

And as for the shortstop prospect, Angel Berroa, the Royals had no successor to smooth-fielding Rey Sanchez. Sanchez is a free swinger, but he’s managed to hit .270 or .280 for the Royals for two seasons so he’s not as bad as some make him out to be, but he’s 33 and has been a bench player most of his career. (Rob & Rany don’t like him much, but I have two words to say to that: Felix Martinez. Martinez was Sanchez’ predecessor, and he had one good hit his whole time in a KC uniform. It was a sucker punch in a brawl with the Anaheim Angels.) But Sanchez probably can’t be an everyday shortstop much longer and the Royals had to think about the future. Berroa looks to be one of those rare shortstops who can hit and field.

And Mike Sweeney is more than ready to take over Johnny Damon’s role as team leader. Sween loves the community, and the community loves him. Sween leads a Bible study in the clubhouse already, and players come. When a player has a problem, Sween’s the guy he’s most likely to seek out. What’s his manager have to say about him? He once told a Kansas City Star reporter that he has a twentysomething daughter. Now don’t get me wrong, he said. I don’t want her to marry Michael Sweeney. But I want her to marry someone like Michael Sweeney.

This from a guy who doesn’t give many compliments.

Sween’s as good a guy as any to build the team’s future around. Johnny Damon’s been around a little bit longer, but Mike Sweeney has qualities Johnny Damon never had and might not ever have.

Yes, Johnny Damon was nice to have, but he wasn’t the team. He looked irreplaceable, but his mouth made management wonder otherwise, and I think management was right.

Now, what do the Royals have to do to get Bret Saberhagen back? He’s been not-a-Royal for longer than he was a Royal, but I’ll always think of him as that 21-year-old who won two World Series games.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. KC Star sportswriters pretty much do. Rany Jazayerli doesn’t. Rob Neyer hasn’t spoken yet.

Mailbag:

Relocating the My Docs folder

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