1985. Michael Jordan was just becoming a household name, and the Chicago Bears were the national icons from the Windy City. They dominated our televisions, and the likes of George Michael and Madonna ruled our radios. And in a thrilling October, the Kansas City Royals won the World Series.
The team ruled by George Brett, Charlie Liebrandt, Bret Saberhagen and Dan Quisenberry would narrowly eclipse the St. Louis Cardinals, winning the last three games to take the crown in seven. What we could not have predicted then was this team would not win a division in the next 20 years, while passing the 85 win barrier just once. This organization, one that dominated it's division from 1976-1985, would become one of the laughingstocks of baseball.
In the 20 years since the great Royal team of October, the Royals have had nine different managers. This ranged from the young John Wathan, to the old Bob Boone; from the fiery Hal McRae to the player's favorite Tony Pena. They have had eleven different ERA leaders, from Saberhagen to Kevin Appier to Mac Suzuki. And finally, twelve different players have led the team in OPS, including Gary Gaetti, Danny Tartabull and good ol' Chili Davis.
If I have not proved it yet, the Royal organization is a poor one. But I have praised Allard Baird in the past months, and admittedly (and embarassingly) predicted KC to take the AL Central this past season. Why I feel some connection to this franchise, despite needing a team to root for against the White Sox, is beyond me. But I do, and the desire to start from the basement has intrigued me. So, I ask, when will Kansas City become the organization it was 20 years ago?
Despite all the bad teams, a number of good players have come through Kansas City. The latest - Carlos Beltran - is currently the hottest name on the free agent market. The problems Baird has is that he's not giving his player development staff enough good players, and once he has them, he can't keep them long. Sure, he can have the occasional Mike Sweeney, but even that can turn into a disaster.
I don't mean to keep bashing the Royals, but when I research the team, there is little to praise. Sweeney was the wrong player to lock up, and Baird's hauls from both Beltran and Jermaine Dye are not anything to be proud of. But I don't mean to keep raining on Kauffman Stadium - a ballpark I really liked - so I'll get to the good things.
Even if you don't consider Buck, Wood and Teahen enough for Beltran, you have to recognize that Beltran did have some steals on the trade market this season. Jason Grimsley, an aging reliever with little importance to the team, was traded for Denny Bautista, arguably their top prospect. And Justin Huber, once one of the game's best catching prospects, was acquired for little more than a waiver acquisition. Jamie Cerda was stolen from the Mets a little ways into the season, for some flame-throwing arm no different than Nate Field. So all six players, for Beltran, is definitely something to be proud of.
And even though the team finished with the second-worst record in baseball, they had some young players provide some real bright spots. The most obvious was Zack Greinke, my vote for American League Rookie of the Year. A favorite of mine, Greinke was at times dominating, while impressing his front office, players and opponents alike. The home run rates need to decline, but his improvement in striking out batters towards the end of the season was intriguing. David DeJesus produced an impressive .360 on-base percentage, though his .401 SLG must improve, as well as his 8/19 record on the basepaths. Calvin Pickering quickly proved that there is solid available talent constantly on the minor league free agent market.
By the same token, a lot of youngsters took a step back in 2004. Jimmy Gobble's ri-gosh-damn-diculous 2.98 K/9 is way, way too low, and will never allow his ERA to dip below 4.00. Mike MacDougal and Jeremy Affeldt failed to step forward and become dominant forces in the late innings. Angel Berroa took a huge step backwards, even earning a demotion during an ugly August. Mike Wood and John Buck were both a bit disappointing in September call-ups, making me think even worse of the Beltran trade. And if any of you readers like Ken Harvey...ahh...ahh...calm down, Bryan.
So, if I act as armchair General Manager, where do I go from here? First, let me compliment Baird on the quiet signing of Chris Truby, formerly known as the next Astro third basemen. Truby hit .300/.367/.558 in AAA with the Pirates last season, even while playing every single infield position. Truby could prove to being a better signing than Tony Graffanino, one of my favorite players, and someone I wanted to platoon with Todd Walker rather than Grudzi in Chicago last season. Truby will allow the Royals to slow down Mark Teahen, who keeps pressing that he is ready for Major League play. Sooner or later, they have to give in, but not quite.
Teahen was a huge favorite of Baird, and I always wonder when talented scouts rave about certain players. His defense at third base is fantastic, and I believe he can hit for league average in the AVE category for the length of his career. My concerns lie more in the OBP, SLG and K categories. During his tear of the Texas League, Teahen struck out in more than 22% of his at-bats, and in 28.9% of his AAA at-bats. This is simply too much for someone who could only muster a 156 ISO in the Pacific Coast League. And I could go for a few more walks, and what worries me is that he started drawing less when moving to Omaha, an organization that preached discipline far less.
Joining Truby/Teahen on the left side next April will be Angel Berroa, who should not draw a lot of competition. Berroa was fantastic in September, hitting .321/.379/.453 and showing what made him the Rookie of the Year. After showing a knack for leading off, Berroa was abysmal in the one-spot in 2004, preferring to hit eighth in the lineup. This will be OK with the emergence of DeJesus, the Beltran/Damon successor. Expect a bit more out of Berroa next year, though I think he will gradually build towards those rookie numbers, not immediately return to them.
Who should turn the double play with Berroa, is the larger question. Ruben Gotay showed some good things and some bad things during his stint, and thus should be sent to AAA to refine his skills. Tony Graffanino will be healthy in April, and I would go with my former favorite White Sox with the position. If Teahen proves to be ready, than maybe Truby could play the Michael Cuddyer role and occasionally spell TGraff. But since they have the stopgap already under contract, they might as well let the position battle between Gotay and Donnie Murphy be decided in the minor leagues.
One position battle that cannot be ignored, is that between Ken Harvey and Calvin Pickering. If you have gotten this far in the article, you likely realize my choice would be Pickering. If I were Baird, I would desperately try to work a three-way trade in which he trades either Harvey or Mike Sweeney, and can somehow land Ryan Howard. Having the Pickering-Howard power in the middle would be a nice start in reworking this team. But something tells me that KC fans will be left waiting for Sweeney's contract to end and Harvey's power to come. One will come sooner than the other, but both are just too far away to wait for.
The outfield is another big question mark, with only DeJesus really a lock to claim a spot. I assume that Matt Stairs will get a full-time position, though I would prefer it was Stairs vs. RH, and Ruben Mateo (another nifty waiver claim) facing the southpaws. As for right field, it looks like Terence Long. Just close your eyes Royals fans, maybe Chris Lubanski will break out, jump three levels and be there...by 2006.
So, what about the rotation. If I close my eyes and wonder what Kansas City will have there in five years, I see this: Greinke, Bautista, Mike Pelfrey, J.P. Howell. The fifth I don't know, but I can tell you that I fully expect the Royals to take Pelfrey - a Royal fan and Wichita State University superstar - with the second choice in next June's draft. And yes, I do realize the insanity in predicting a college player to be in a certain team's rotation come 2009. But hey, that's what I do.
But for now, the team might as well try out the Jimmy Gobbles, Mike Woods, Runlevys Hernandezs and Miguel Asencios. They might as well keep trying to pluck the next Johan Santana from the Rule V draft, possibly selecting Andy Sisco from my Cubbies this December. They should keep checking the waiver wire and minor league free agency market for someone they can land on the cheap, while keeping around at least one Brian Anderson-type. Because of the liberty Baird has here, I really like the Dennis Tankersly acquisition.
Kansas City is going to be bad, for awhile. But taking care of the Angel Berroas, Mark Teahens, Zack Greinkes and Denny Bautistas, while looking for more in the Dennys Reyes-mold, is the right idea. Don't fight Daniel Glass for dollars now, that time will come...though I do worry that will be closer to 2085.