Before “Our Time”, before the best farm system ever, before Dayton Moore and before The Trade, the Royals were pretty miserable.
But for the briefest of moments, the Royals almost looked like a real team. Like a contender, even. In 2003, as late as August 29, they were in first place. In the end, they finished in third place but it was the first time they’d finished above .500 since 1994 and the last time they’ve hit that mark.
Despite fading late, the Royals were optimistic and it looked like good things were ahead in 2004. The push for the playoffs led to the Royals acquiring Brian Anderson, Graeme Lloyd, Kevin Appier (who’d been released by the Angels), Rondell White and Curtis Leskanic. The flurry of moves is what one GM later said showed that then-GM Allard Baird wasn’t willing ton concede just because he was in a small market. The Sporting News used the Royals as an example of small market teams who weren’t going to just give in to a wild marketplace, going so far as to suggest that the moves made had exorcised the demons borne from the Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye trades.
The article from September 8, 2003 went so far as to quote Mark Shapiro and Kenny Williams, rival GMs, who expressed frustration with Baird’s activity and David Glass’s willingness to take on some payroll to make things happen. “Everyday I look up and go ‘Ugh, they did it again.’” is what Williams said at the time.
So with that optimism, the Royals entered 2004 still refusing to concede. They signed Tony Graffanino, Matt Stairs, Benito Santiago and, most notably, Juan Gonzalez. Anderson returned. The reigning AL Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa was back. David DeJesus was a young star in the making in the Royals mind. All Star Mike MacDougal closer would be back. Darrell May had thrown 210 innings of 3.77 ball in 2003. Despite the idea that they’d have to trade him, the Royals started 2004 with Carlos Beltran entrenched as a true star. Just as now, the AL Central looked winnable and Baird was busy all offseason putting the pieces together.
In 2004, the Royals lost 104 games, then the most in team history (they’d lose 106 in 2005).
Anderson was jettisoned to the bullpen in June and finished the year with a 5.64 ERA. He made six starts for the Royals in 2005 and never made it back to the big leagues. Gonzalez made $4 million to make 138 plate appearances as he struggled with injuries. Santiago made it to 49 games. MacDougal got the flu during spring training and spent most of the year in the minors. Berroa stunk and would continue to stink, but thankfully (?) he managed to play in more games than any other position player – with 134. May’s lucky 2003 caught up to him in 2004 and the Royals had just two qualified pitchers come up with an ERA below 4.00.
So, as the line goes, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.
There’s a lesson here. Baseball is a strange game, dictated by timing, a bit of luck, the right move at the right time. It’s a game driven by the attempt of one man to hit a ball’s curved surface with the curved surface of his bat. The margin for error is immense. What should work doesn’t always, and the game continually surprises.
Dayton Moore has been active as general manager of the Royals. This offseason isn’t an anomaly. He’s always trading, always taking chances on minor league free agents. He’s got to. The Royals aren’t the organization who’s going to be the Mystery Team who swoops in and takes a big free agent from another team with a big contract. He has to tinker and find upside and value where it is.
In that way, I can’t blame him for going after someone like Miguel Tejada. I don’t expect him to turn into anything but competition in spring training, but going after him shows that the mindset is still there – pick up talent where you can find it. Moore isn’t different from Baird (or any GM) in that regard. That’s not meant to defend his questionable moves (which I find happen too frequently to be beneficial), but it’s my way of saying that I understand. It’s Kansas City. Payroll is up going into 2013. Higher than it’s ever been in team history. But it’s not at a level that’s trying to compete with the Dodgers or the Yankees, nor will it approach that level. So the digging deep continues. Absent a blank check from ownership, they have to find improvement where they can.
So now, the optimism is back. The Royals have gone out and done a lot to improve their rotation and they expect a few players to turn into young stars. The plan is coming together.
Just for comparison’s sake, in 2003, the Royals had a collective 26 bWAR and 27.8 fWAR. The 2004 crew was not so fortunate. Their bWAR was 12.1 with a fWAR of 17.3.
Last year’s team? They had 32.3 fWAR and 24.7 bWAR – not all that far off from the 2003 team’s marks.
This time around, the young players are more plentiful and have more upside. This time, the supporting cast is better. It looks more like a team that’s built to compete than that 2004 team.
The plan is that James Shields will be a 220 inning ace. The plan is that Ervin Santana is the pitcher he was in 2010 and 2011, that Jeremy Guthrie picks up where he left off last year as a Royal. The plan calls for Eric Hosmer to rebound, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler to at least repeat their 2012 success and for Salvador Perez to stay healthy. The plan is for the bullpen to stay strong.
That’s the plan at least. But you know what they say about the best laid plans… If this one goes awry, it’ll be Royals fans proclaiming “Ugh, they did it again.”
Note – an earlier draft referenced John Buck as being on the team to start 2004 which is definitely incorrect. That reference has been removed and the author feels silly for the obvious mistake.