Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Royals Gone Rong

Before he does anything else, The Common Man wants to congratulate the Dutch WBC team for its remarkable upset wins over the vaunted Dominican team. True, the Dominicans were not at full strength, but the Dutch pitched lights out, dodged bullet after bullet, and made big plays when they had to. He can't wait to see what this George Mason of the WBC does next (and if you think about it, with real underdogs like the Netherlands, South Africa, Korea, Australia, and Italy playing tough, perhaps the WBC should be viewed in the same light as the NCAA Basketball tournament. Perhaps that can attract some of the negative nellies. How can you watch a celebration like the Dutch piling on Eugene Kingsale and not love this tourney).

Anyway, earlier today, lar at wezen-ball celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1969 expansion by profiling each of the four franchises spawned that year, the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Pilots (now the Brewers), San Diego Padres, and Montreal Expos. Lar concluded that the Royals are the most successful, largely on the success of their World Series win in '85 and their appearance in '80.

But, as lar notes, the last decade and a half have been fraught with disappointment, "Their recent failures have helped to erase the memories of a winning franchise from many people's minds. In fact, the Royals only have five seasons in the last forty where they had a .400 winning percentage or worst, and all five of those have come in the last 10 years." Lar goes on to point out that "That stretch coincided entirely with the peak of George Brett's career, and the Royals haven't been able to do too much since then." While technically true, lar's statement unintentionally (The Common Man assumes) pins the Royals' decline on the decline and absence of their signature player. But even without Brett, the Royals (like Terry Malloy), could have been a contender. But they have squandered every chance to get back there. The Common Man thought it would be instructive, since no one really pays attention to the Royals (except Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli), to point out the main junctions where the Royals went wrong, and how they became a laughingstock.

The Royals recent problems putting a decent product on the field stem from:

1) Buying into the small-market mindset that said that they couldn't compete. As Oakland, Minnesota, Colorado, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Milwaukee have demonstrated, it's entirely possible to build a relatively sustainable success through a commited investment in a farm system and scouting department and a willingness to exploit the inefficiencies in the market. Kansas City, for years, settled for developing players and dumping them for more prospects(which they never seemed to properly gauge).

2) Incompetent ownership and management (related to #1). Following the death of Ewing Kauffman, the Kauffman family and David Glass eras have been horribly managed. And the hiring (and extended employment) of utterly lost GMs Herk Robinson and Allard Baird allowed the talent at all levels of the Royals' system to atrophy. An owner who recognizes competent leadership and management and stays out of their baseball peoples' way (someone like Lew Wolff or John Henry or John Moores or even the late Carl Pohlad) goes a long way to ensuring success.

3) Actual disadvantages of playing in a small market. There are real disadvantages to playing in Kansas City, which Nate Silver rated as the second-smallest market in the league in 2007. Fewer fans means a smaller pool to attract to the ballpark (the Royals haven't finished above 10th in the AL in attendance since 1992 (and then they were 9th). And it means fewer fans to watch their television and listen to their radio broadcasts, which means less ad revenue. Fewer people buying jerseys. While it's possible to compete on a shoestring budget, it's undoubtedly more difficult, as there is less margin for error (as the A's have discovered from the crippling Chavez and Crosby contracts). And with less money available, the Royals are unable to fill the holes created by their deficient farm system with adequate free-agents.

4) Astro-turf at Kauffman Stadium (now gone, thank God). The stuff is just bad. And in Kansas City it always looked flourescent for some reason.

5) and 6) Trading David Cone in '87 for Ed Hearn and trading Danny Jackson for Ted Power and Kurt Stillwell in '87. It's true that the Royals' strength in 1987 was its pitching staff. The Royals had a phenom in Bret Saberhagen, an effective Charlie Liebrandt, a good young Mark Gubicza, a competent Bud Black, and a talented Jackson (who was the 1st overall pick in 1982. So trading Cone at the start of the year might have been acceptable in spite of his age and excellent skills, especially with the widely lauded Melido Perez coming up behind him. But Ed Hearn, who had a .265/.337/.349 performance as a 25 year old at AAA the year before wasn't enough for the young gun, especially since the Royals were breaking in Mike Macfarlane in 1987 (a 4th rounder in '85 who had flown threw the minors and was being groomed for the job), who would prove to be an entirely serviceable backstop. After the season, the Royals moved to address their glaring hole at shortstop, sending Jackson (who, at 25, had lost 16 games with a 4.02 ERA) and incumbant SS Angel Salazar (.205/.219/.246, 23 OPS+) to the Reds for 23 year old, former 2nd overall choice, Kurt Stillwell (who was superfluous with Barry Larkin around) and swingman Ted Powers. Stillwell, who was rushed to AAA at the age of 20, would solidify the SS spot of the Royals for four years, never a star but consistantly acceptable. Meanwhile, Cone and Jackson would combine to go 43-8 in '88 for their NL clubs. And Cone would, of course, win 194 games in his illustrious career. With those two guys in '88, and a replacement level SS, the Royals may well have challenged the A's for the AL West title and ushered in a renewed era of Royals glory. (By the way, look at that '88 Reds lineup. That's the definition of good young talent.)

7) Signing the Davis brothers in '90. Mark Davis' ERAs before being traded for the bloated corpse of Juan Berenguer: 5.11, 4.45, 7.13, 7.18. And 7 total saves in 3+ seasons. Storm Davis' ERAs before being shipped off for 70 at bats from Bob Melvin: 4.74, 4.96. While the Davis signings didn't exactly make the Royals shy (they would sign Kirk Gibson, Mike Boddicker, Wally Joyner, Greg Gagne, and David Cone to big contracts in subsequent years), but they did demonstrate the kind of short-sighted, ill-considered deals that became part and parcel of the Herk Robinson era.

8) Choosing high school power arms who went bust from '97-'01, and whiffing with their first picks from '87-01(though they got Damon as a supplemental 1st pick in '92. Despite high draft positions, neither Herk Robinson nor Allard Baird showed any real ability to find help through the draft. After Kevin Appier was chosen in 1987, the Royals picked Hugh Walker, Brent Mayne, Joe Vitiello, Michael Pittsley, Michael Tucker, Jeff Granger, Matt Smith, Juan Lebron, Dee Brown, Dan Reichart, Chris George, Matt Burch, Jeff Austin, Mike MacDougal, Kyle Snyder, Mike Stodolka, and Colt Griffin. And their supplemental picks were largely wasted on Jay Gehrke, Jimmy Gobble, Matt Burch, Chris George, Sherard Clinkscales, and Jason Pruitt. That's a lot of terribleness. Random throws at a dartboard probably could have done better. As the major league squad suffered defection after defection, these consistent misses meant that no one was there to fill the void.

9) Trading Gregg Jeffries for Felix Jose. People tended to focus on what Jeffries couldn't do (field) far more than what he could do (absolutely rake). And by trying to force him into a position he couldn't handle, the Mets and Royals got diminished results at the plate. After trading an increasingly fragile Bret Saberhagen (thank you heavy workloads at a young age) for the moping and disinterested Kevin McReynolds and the promising Jeffries in 1992, the Royals were showing good sense. But by losing their patience with Jeffries quickly, the Royals significantly weakened their squad. Jeffries went to St. Louis in '93 and immediately became and MVP candidate and .300 hitter. Jose went to the Royals and put up a 71 OPS+. The Royals had a solid 1B already in Wally Joyner, and Gary Gaetti would do admirably at 3B once Phil Hiatt washed out. But at DH was 40-year old George Brett (.266/.312/.434). Brett had gotten to 3000 hits the year before and was just playing out the string. But letting George go, adding a guy who goes .342/.408/.485, and finding a passable RF would have significantly cut into the White Sox division lead.

10) Not protecting Jeff Conine in the expansion draft. Never really a star outside of South Florida, Jeff Conine was just a solid outfielder for seventeen seasons. David Howard, who was protected by the Royals in place of Conine had a .229/.291/.303 for a 53 OPS+.

11) No Balboni. One of the greatest names in baseball history to say is Steve Balboni. Balboni was a great hulk of a man with thick glasses and a thick mustache who played 1B well enough to be a good DH. His 1990 Strat-o-matic card was a joy to behold (The Common Man should really find it and post it here one of these days). Balboni was a main cog in the Royals last great team in '85, hitting 36 homers. And in his post Royals career, he bounced from the Mariners to the Yankees to the Rangers. In 1994, Balboni was resigned by the Royals. Though he never played a game for them that year, his presence rallied them to their last season above .500. The Curse of Balboni lingers in Kauffman Stadium to this day. [note: The Common Man, for whatever reason, was blocking out 2003, when he was absolutely sure they were 79-83, rather than 83-79. So, um, the curse is lifted! Hurrah!]


Ron Rollins said...

Nice post on the Royals. That's a saver.

But lets get back to the WBC. As someone who was rooting for the Dutch (my grandmother was born there) and picked them to advance (I'm not as stupid as people thought), let's stop the bashing and the excuse-making by the DR.

The Dutch were missing the top 2 pitcher from the country, as well as not having the greateest player of all time (Andruw Jones) on the roster.

And before we talk about the missing players for the DR, who? Alex Rodriguez? Who played for the US the last time around?

The DR needs to get over it. They lost. Twice. To a team that beat them fairly.

lar said...

Great piece, TCM. Good points and good research. Glad my post inspired you to write this.

As someone grew up about as far from Royals baseball as you can get, it's interesting to see what happened. All I remember, as a kid, was that they had a bunch of good, young players (Seitzer, Saberhagen, Cone, Bo) at different times, but that it never seemed to matter.

It's itneresting to see what really happened. It sounds to me that, besides a couple of bad trades (the Cone one being the worst) and a couple of injuries (like with Bo), what really hurt them was bad contracts and signing people after they were good. The Mark Davis signing is the "best" example of that, but I'm also thinking of Wally Joyner here too. When a team tries to go out of their comfort zone and spend some money and ends up spending it on crap players, that goes a long way to dooming them for years to come, since they'll never want to take that risk again.

Thanks for the lesson, though, TCM.