Baseball cards for the lulz

After the Royals won the Wild Card game and officially ended their postseason drought, I thought of a novel way to celebrate it: Celebrate their badness.

After all, there are people who celebrate the 1962 Mets, and between 1986 and 2013 the Royals had quite a few players who wouldn’t have been good enough for the 1962 Mets, so why not?

So I dredged up the memories of those players I’ve tried to forget, so I could buy baseball cards of them. Read more

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.

Maybe there’s a method to the Royals’ madness

The Royals signed four free agents. All four of them potentially have something to offer, and one of them is a virtual guarantee to contribute something.

The four? First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, starting pitcher Scott Elarton, and catcher Paul Bako.Mark Grudzielanek is the best of the bunch. He’s a smooth-fielding second baseman who hits line drives, gets on base, runs the bases smart, and has good enough speed to lead the team in stolen bases. Grudzielanek could step right in to the #2 spot. In short, he does three things the Royals didn’t do last year. And he just so happens to play the position where the Royals are the weakest.

Doug Mientkiewicz is a puzzler. The Royals already have way too many 1B/DH types, and he’s pretty much the opposite. Mike Sweeney and Matt Stairs have difficulty fielding the position. Mientkiewicz is arguably the smoothest fielding first baseman in the game, but he hits for low average and doesn’t have a lot of power. Although, come to think of it, by Royals standards, Mientkiewicz’s numbers at the plate look pretty good. The Royals didn’t know how to hit, run the bases, or field last year, so having someone who does one of the three very well is an improvement. Besides, if Mientkiewicz comes to bat in a crucial game situation, Stairs can always hit for him. And if Mientkiewicz doesn’t hit, he can come in for defense and save the game with his glove.

I think the Royals are paying way too much for Elarton, but at least the guy had a winning record and an ERA under 5 last season. The only Royals starter with a winning record last year was Ryan Jenson, who went 2-3 with a 7.11 ERA, and the only Royals starters with ERAs under 5 were D.J. Carrasco, who isn’t returning, and Mike Wood, who spent most of the year as a relief pitcher.

In Elarton and Mark Redmond, the Royals at least now have two pitchers who can keep the team in the game while throwing a lot of innings, so they won’t wear down the bullpen as badly as they did last year. If Greinke, Runelvys Hernandez, and Jeremy Affeldt all stay healthy and pitch the way they’re capable of pitching, the Royals will have a good rotation with these two additions. And all of them will be better than Jose Lima.

Paul Bako is a journeyman backup catcher. No reason to get excited there, except he used to be Greg Madux’s personal catcher when both played in Atlanta. As such, Bako will be able to teach the Royals’ young pitchers a few things. There are much worse questions to ask yourself in a game situation than "What would Greg Maddux do?" and Bako will know the answer. Bako may be able to help straighten Zack Greinke out.

But the best thing is that these signings may allow the Royals to sign a corner outfielder who can hit. Right now the Royals don’t have very many better options than George Brett (53 years old) or manager Buddy Bell (54). Maybe now they’ll be able to convince someone that they’re serious about getting out of last place. I think the Royals should have chased Nomar Garciaparra hard and told him he can play shortstop if he wants, but it’s probably too late for that. Jacque Jones and Rondell White are still available though.

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…