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A Faceless Franchise

I was recently visiting with some Chicago friends (forgive me), and we were discussing the prospects of the upcoming season.  When talk turned to the Royals, they came to a pause.

They could not name one Royals player.

Take a look at this year’s roster.  This past off-season was a killer for name recognition.  Two of the franchise’s most known players over the past several seasons now have new homes – Zach Greinke – now pitching in Milwaukee, and David DeJesus – now playing right field in Oakland.  This team also lost Gil Meche to retirement and traded Jose Guillen to the Giants late last season.  Even recent favorites such as Alberto Callaspo, Willie Bloomquist, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Brian Bannister are gone.

So who’s left?

Now, as a die-hard Royals fan, I don’t really expect my friends to throw out the names of guys like Mike Aviles & Mitch Maier.  But even I had to think a bit to be able to name guys who were on this year’s active roster.  Even then, they weren’t that impressed when I named Bruce Chen, Wilson Betemit, and Kila Ka’aihue.  It led me to think, “Geez, who is the face of this Royals franchise?”

You could make the arguement for a couple of high-profile players (by Royals standards):

-Billy Butler.  He has been the Royals Player of the Year the past two years, carries a .299 career average, and recently became the highest paid player on the team.  He inherits the role of the team leader after those who would be considered to be that person went elsewhere.  He was the most vocal about the departure of Zack Greinke back in December, saying, “You don’t want somebody to be somewhere they don’t want to.”  That statement leads me to believe that Billy does want to be here.  He’s got to be able to make an argument as to why, and then convince others to feel the same way.

-Joakim Soria.  He is arguably the Royals most valuable player.  The negative, of course, is that he only plays if the team is ahead going into the ninth (or sometimes the eighth) inning.  It’s extremely rare for a closer to be the leader of the team.  He spends his time out in the bullpen, crossing his fingers that the team will be able to hand him the ball that day.  Soria has been the team’s Pitcher of the Year two out of the past three years (Greinke in ’09), and is a two-time All-Star.  He is the object of desire for every contending team with bullpen issues & will continue to be dangled in front of those teams like a steak outside of a lion cage for the foreseeable future.  However, it’s not really in Soria’s nature to grab the spotlight, even going so far as to request that his (awesome) “Mexicutioner” nickname no longer be used.

But ask yourself, what makes a leader?  Think about guys who you would consider the leader or face of a winning franchise.  Derek Jeter is known not only as the Captain of the Yankees, but as the face of baseball.  He consistently puts up good numbers, plays the game with class, is a role model in the community, and has played his entire career for the same team.  All of those things combine to make him the authority of all things New York Yankees.

Here in Kansas City, we’ve had an endless string of veteran guys who found themselves here as a pit stop on their way to retirement or a better home.  (Melky Cabrera & Jeff Franceour are this year’s candidates)  Guys like Benito Santiago, Juan Gonzalez, Matt Stairs, Doug Mientkiewicz, Scott Podsednik, Rick Ankiel, and Kyle Farnsworth have all spent time in a Royals uniform.  They did the best they could while here (debatable), but it’s tough to build a franchise on that kind of leadership.

What about homegrown talent?  Butler was taken 14th overall back in 2004.  Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar were drafted 2nd & 1st overall respectively, but have never donned the slipper that automatically comes with being a First Round Draft Pick.  Hochevar will get the ball on Opening Day, and Gordon begins his first full year in the outfield, so the opportunity is there.  Up to this point though, they have been inconsistent, underwhelming, or designated for assignment, and it’s hard to be the face of the franchise from Omaha.

The fan base is feverish for leadership to come from young studs like Eric Hosmer & Mike Moustakas – but they won’t be on the opening day roster.  We will have to be patient.  I firmly believe that having leadership in place prior to their arrival in the show will go a long way towards their adjustment and maturity – and ultimately their performance at the big league level.  They can then in turn help usher in the rest of the young guys expected to make their debuts throughout the next two seasons.

As again evidenced by Friday’s events, Mike Sweeney is the last true face of the franchise.  Sweeney proudly wore the “C” on his chest and spent parts of 13 seasons in Kansas City.  He is a devout Christian and one of the most likeable players ever to button up a uniform, he once charged the mound to defend his team.  George Brett honored Sweeney on Friday, saying, “The dedication that (Sweeney) had as a player was beyond the dedication of anyone I had ever seen. … Nobody in a Royals uniform had more passion.”  George Brett said that.  Sweeney was a vocal leader, performed well on the field, was active in the community, and stood up for this franchise.  He was similar to Jeter in this regard, but Sweeney was not able to get the performance out of his teams that Royals fans would have liked.  He was basically the face of a losing franchise – a dubious honor, no?

Not since George Brett did the Royals have someone who would run trough a brick wall for this team.  And remember – Brett’s teams won.  Even in 1993, his last season, the team was 84-78 (.519), and finished 3rd in the AL West.  That’s a better win percentage than any of the last 10 years.  There were several leaders on those teams, and there was not a lot of turnover from year to year.  It’s a far cry from having to re-learn the roster every spring.

It’s unfortunate that the team finds itself opening the 2011 season in a leader-by-default situation.  However, maybe that’s what it will take for a guy like Billy Butler to step into that role and lead this team back to greatness.

I’m excited for my Chicago friends to find out who these guys are.

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Tags: AL Central Alex Gordon Baseball Billy Butler David DeJesus George Brett Joakim Soria Kansas City Royals KC Luke Hochevar MLB Royals Zack Greinke

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