Worst Team Ever?

This off-season a lot of commentators declared the 2011 incarnation of the Royals to be the worst team the club has ever fielded.

Ken Harvey celebrating a rare victory.

I’m not so sure.

Earlier this off-season when it looked like Kevin Millwood and Luke Hochevar would be the most accomplished pitchers on the staff and the outfield seemed like the Island of Misfit Prospects, I had my reservations. It looked like another 100 loss season and I was bracing myself for a long summer of watching former Braves duff around the diamond while waiting for the Futures Game.

But in the past few weeks I’ve been doing my best to look for bright spots on the 2011 roster. Since Zack Greinke left the team, the Royals have actually made a fair amount of smart transactions. Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen were added to shore up the rotation, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain were brought in to tighten up the defense, and our stockpile of top-rated prospects continued to grow.

As Gage wrote earlier this week, the Royals have off-loaded a fair amount of money and are *GASP* finally making legitimate strides toward fruition of The Process.

But the question remains, how bad will this team be in comparison to the other terrible teams Royals fans endured in the past?

The 2000-10 decade was the darkest in Royals history. During the millennium decade the team only put together a measly .414 winning percentage and lost more than 85 games every year except for 2003.

Kansas City bottomed out from 2004 to 2006 when they collected only 176 wins in three seasons.

It was truly amazing how the newly-minted AL manager of the year Tony Peña could lead a group of misfits who lost 100 games the year before to challenge for the AL Central crown one season, lose 104 games the next, and then be run out of town on a rail after losing 25 of the first 33 games of the season in 2005.

Many, many things went wrong during the collapse of the Peña regime. In those two years the Royals were marred by bad pitching, bad hitting, bad trades and lots of bad luck.

Most of the feebleness can be traced back to the 2003 off-season. Baird wheeled and dealed to put the Royals into the top spot, but every single move was terrible. In an effort to save dollars and flip valuable players for prospects (sounds like someone I know) he moved Carlos Beltrán in exchange for Mark Tehen, Mike Wood and John Buck, let José Lima walk, did not pick up future All-Star Raúl Ibáñez’s contract, and tried to compensate by giving Juan Gonzalez four million dollars to play 33 games.

We all know Dayton Moore is a fan of signing players to short contracts for prospects and young guys with “a lot of upside,” but only time will tell if his trading is as boneheaded as Allard Baird‘s. The most direct comparison between Baird and Moore can be seen in their trades of the most valuable player on the team.

In the Beltrán deal, Kansas City lost a 7.8 WAR player who was hitting .307/.389/.522 and gained three players who played below replacement level. In the Greinke deal, which will be debated for years, the Royals lost a Cy Young winner for two highly touted pitching prospects, a promising but inexperienced center fielder and defensively strong shortstop who hasn’t been able to hit in the majors.

Both trades moved the Royals most valuable player for young, unproven players who fit the organization’s positional needs. The major difference between the two trades is major league experience and general promise it represents in Lorenzo Cain, Jeremey Jeffress and Alcides Escobar. Teahen and Buck had never played in the majors before they came to the Royals and Wood only played seven games for Oakland while accumulating a 10.54 ERA. Cain has already shown he can hit and make plays in center and Escobar has a fair share of Web Gems to his name. Jeffress and Odrizzi are bigger question marks. Jeffress has character issues to deal with but he’s already shown some ability in Milwakee and should soon figure into the recharged bullpen. Odrizzi is far from the bigs, but already rates as one of the club’s top pitching prospects.

The possibility always exists that this trade will be yet another example of the Royals trading away their cow for magic beans, but I feel like this time it will be different. The new players are not established stars, but they can play in the major leagues and improve the woeful defense.

Who knows, though, we could all be watching Zack Greinke hoist the World Series trophy while wondering how we ended up with a shortstop who can’t hit his weight and a stoner in the pen.

Jimmy Gobble, we hardly knew ye.

The worst Royals season ever was not only a product of bad trades. The starting pitching, a strength of the team only a year before, completely fell apart as well. In 2004, 12 pitchers, including a 36-year-old Kevin Appier, made starts for the Royals. None of them did very well. Darrel May’s ERA jumped from 3.77 to 5.61. Brian Anderson, who was 5 – 1 after coming to the Royals in 2003, won only 6 games in 2004. The once dominant Jimmy Gobble looked lost on the hill, and the 5th spot became a home for anyone willing to start.

Earlier this month, the starting rotation looked like it would make a serious push to snatch the bottom spot away from the 2004 staff, but the addition of proven starters Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen on cheap, short-term deals should keep us from seeing Kyle Davies do his best Brian Anderson impression. The rest of the rotation won’t turn heads around the league, but at the very least it should be consistently mediocre to poor. Vin Mazzaro showed some promise in Oakland, Luke Hochevar could blossom as a number one starter or continue to play poorly, and Kyle Davies will give up five and a half runs per nine innings.

The bullpen, which has been awful for years and years, is finally looking stronger. Joakim Soria is as close to a guaranteed save as you can get. Robinson Tejeda reached a new level of play late last year and his progress will be critical to the bullpen. The Royals also have a collection of young capable arms to chose from in the minors. The performance of those players will be closely monitored in spring training and could, could be the first tangible evidence of The Process working on the major league level.

Speaking of The Process, 2004 and the following seasons were pockmarked by the same Royals hallmarks of young, unproven players and seasoned veterans coming together to play terrible baseball. During all of those seasons in the waning years of Baird’s influence there was no kind of consistency in the line-up and heaps of old, stopgap players flailing around and players called up from the minors too soon. In three seasons, only Mike Sweeney and John Buck made consistent appearances in the batting order while players like Tony Graffanino, Emil Brown, Matt Stairs and Reggie Sanders came and went.

The organization generally did a horrible job of managing or capitalizing on homegrown talent. Between 2004 and 2006 the following Royals prospects came up and proceeded to flame out:  Dee Brown, Ken Harvey, Angel Berroa, Mike MacDougal, Jimmy Gobble, and almost Zack Greinke. There was much talk of a youth movement, but no sustained production from the newly promoted farmhands, full commitment to The Process or enough life left in the veteran major leaguers to make any kind of difference.

This leaves us with our current Royals. Lots of young, exciting faces, but plenty of worn ones, too. They’ve tried the “protect your best prospects and only bring ‘em up when they are ready” model but only Zack Greinke, Mike Avilés, David DeJesus and Billy Butler broke out as quality players. When the Royals do produce a quality player or make a signing of worth, that player is usually as good as gone.

Dayton Moore’s guys are doing a superb job of stock-piling and protecting their talent, but they must keep the best players in Kansas City. The Royals are stuck in a perpetual “youth movement” that hasn’t panned out because the good young players keep leaving.

So where does that leave the 2011 Royals? It seems like much of the organization is healthier than 2003. Dayton Moore is no guru, but the Royals haven’t gone out and spent big money on someone like Juan Gonzalez or José Guillen. The club still does many inexplicable things, but the moves are smarter. Single year signings are an investment in the future and possibly a heavy bargaining chip. The signing of Jeff Francis and extension of Bruce Chen, not the sexiest deal of the winter, was a canny, affordable move for a club known to habitually overpay.

Zack Greinke, as happy as he's ever been apparently.

However there are many things that haven’t changed since 2004. The Royals can’t keep a true All-Star player on the team. Zack Greinke was disgusted with years and years of mismanagement from the club and demanded a trade, David DeJesus was dealt for a number four starter, and even Joakim Soria has mulled leaving. As new players come up, the team must be successful or at the very least competitive or else this cycle will not be broken.

Our starting pitching is still very questionable and won’t be doing the club many favors. The team is still riddled with stopgap players earning more than they are worth and below replacement level players. But worst of all, the entirety of the Royals plan rests on the success of handful of kids that weren’t alive the last time the team won a title. Granted these kids are highly regarded by most baseball minds, but prospects are never a sure thing and everyone has good prospects in their system. For every Buster Posey there are a dozen Alex Gordons and Angel Berroas and Jeff Francoeurs.

So this is a watershed season. If the Royals go out and lose 100 while playing comically bad baseballl and our prospects look totally helpless in their first months in the majors, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth come November. But if the team is surprisingly good and our young players show promise, 2012 could be the year everyone’s asking how the hell the Royals got all these studs.

All optimism aside, these guys will be bad. Our best players will get traded and things will often seem hopeless. But there will be flashes of greatness and tangible evidence of organizational health. The organization, for all of its failings on the major league level, is healthier and making progress.

2004 was an abject failure because it showed how the entire model for running the franchise was essentially broken, and every move did nothing to improve the situation. The club couldn’t field good players from the minors, make use of its trades, or asses the quality of the players it already had.

Now, we aren’t the Yankees, but Dayton Moore and David Glass are at least learning.

Baby steps, guys.

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Tags: AL Central Allard Baird Angel Berroa Baseball Carlos Beltran Dayton Moore Juan Gonzalez Kansas City Royals KC Ken Harvey MLB Royals Zack Greinke

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