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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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.

So my Royals got some pitching…

Up until this past week, whenever anyone asked what my Royals have done this winter, all I could say was they got a new backup catcher. Hardly exciting.

Now it’s not like they’ve replaced Angel "Swings at pickoff throws to first" Berroa with Alex Rodriguez, but now they’ve gotten themselves some pitching.They weren’t exciting moves. They traded the talented but wild Ambiorix Burgos to the Mets for Brian Bannister, the son of former big-league pitcher Floyd Bannister, who was one of the better strikeout pitchers of the 1980s. They signed ex-Mariner Gil Meche, the biggest objection being his contract, since he’s an average pitcher at best but once Mike Sweeney’s contract expires, he’ll be the highest-paid player on the team. And they pulled reliever Octavio Dotel off the scrap heap to be the closer.

Far be it from me to criticize any of these moves. This is a team that had a team ERA of almost 6 last year. When you can count on the pitching staff giving up six runs and your best hitter is a second-year guy named Mark Teahen who was playing hurt all year, you’re not going to win very many games.

The front office hopes Meche is about to break out and become a superstar. More likely, he’ll remain average. But average means he’ll give up 4-5 runs each start, which is a substantial improvement over what else they’ve got.

Dotel is damaged goods, but at least he’s closed out games before. If he comes in and he’s awful, then the Royals just have to explore other options, such as making Zack "Future Greg Maddux" Greinke the closer until they come up with another plan that allows them to put Greinke in the rotation. The Cardinals did that with Adam Wainright last year and that didn’t turn out so bad at all.

Bannister projects to be, well, the next Gil Meche. He won’t be great but the Royals need a starter, and they haven’t been able to get through to Burgos. Now Burgos might thrive with the Mets, or he might implode, but he’s someone else’s problem now.

Last year I got burned thinking the Royals would improve; instead they lost 100 games for the third year in a row. So I won’t count on miracles, but like John Lennon cynically sang in the background of "Getting So Much Better all the Time," things can’t get much worse.

Meanwhile, we can dream of the day when superprospects Alex Gordon and Billy Butler suit up in Kansas City and walk onto the field together for the first time. It might or might not happen in 2007, but once those two are ready, pitching really won’t matter as much because the Royals will stand a chance of scoring seven or eight runs a game a couple of times a week.

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…

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…

I miss my rivalry

So, the St. Louis Cardinals are traveling across the state for a much-anticipated series with the Kansas City Royals. Even when the series was meaningless, it could always be counted on for at least a few potshots, or something.

Not this year. I was born a Royals fan and I’ll die a Royals fan, but this year, I find myself agreeing with the St. Louis columnist.The Kansas City press has barely even noticed the Cardinals are coming to town. I can’t link directly to the stories because the Kansas City Star requires registration, but they’re all talking about Carlos Beltran.

Carlos Beltran is arguably the most talented human being to ever wear a Royals uniform. George Brett, as great as he was, didn’t have Beltran’s abilities. Bo Jackson did, but he spent less time in a Royals uniform than Beltran, thanks to an injury suffered in his unusual hobby. Maybe Amos Otis had them, but few people outside of Kansas City know much about A. O., and he didn’t have Beltran’s durability. Beltran got better as the season progressed, while A. O. generally got worse.

Now, the Royals deserve credit for getting something for Beltran, which is more than I can say for what they got for Kevin Appier or Jermaine Dye when they sold them off. The Royals pried a starting pitching prospect out of Oakland, who seems to have a knack for developing pitchers without destroying their arms. They also got a line-drive-hitting third baseman who bats left-handed. If he’s half as good as the last one of those the Royals had, they’ll be happy. They also got a catcher who can hit. The last one of those they had was Don Slaught, but Slaught made his name in Pittsburgh. The last one of those they had before Slaught was Darrell Porter.

Getting the first-round draft pick from whoever signed Beltran would have been nice, but this deal gives the Royals the catcher they need now, as well as a starting pitcher they need now, and the third baseman they’re going to need next year.

Only time will tell whether that first-round draft pick would have been another Carlos Beltran or another Jeff Austin, and only time will tell if one of these guys is going to be another Jermaine Dye or if all of them are going to be A. J. Hinch.

I have a hard time not blaming the Royals for not wanting to pay Carlos Beltran $18 million. The Royals would be much better served by six slightly above-average players, each making an average of $3 million. Besides, injuries are a funny thing. The Royals are still stinging from giving Mike Sweeney a lucrative long-term contract, only to see him struggle with injuries the past two years. When you’re the Yankees, you can afford to take that risk. When you’re the Royals, you can’t. Right now, Carlos Beltran looks like Willie Mays. But he’s only an injury or two away from being Andre Dawson. A major injury could turn him into Mark Quinn.

So what’s Jeff Gordon saying here in St. Louis?

He’s lamenting that back in the 1970s, the Royals were baseball’s model franchise while the Cardinals languished. And today, the Royals are able to develop star players but unable to keep them, while the Cardinals field a team of perennial All-Stars. Both teams have their problems, but the Cardinals’ problems don’t push them into last place, and while they disappoint fans, they don’t alienate them.

The sad thing is, the worst thing the Royals could do to the Cardinals this year is trade their best player to one of the Cardinals’ Central Division rivals.

Wait. That’s exactly what they just did.

And maybe, just maybe, after age and media pressure catches up with Carlos Beltran and he turns into more of an Andre Dawson than a Willie Mays, maybe once again, the Royals will be able to afford him, and maybe a little bit of sentiment and nostalgia will kick in, and maybe the more enduring half of dos Carlos who captured the imagination of Royals fans in the late 1990s will decide it would be nice to end his career where he started.

Thanks for the memories, Carlos. I know this doesn’t have to be goodbye.

And I hope you don’t take this personally, but in the meantime, I hope we don’t miss you too much.

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