Royals Rotten Decade (2003)


During the 2000s, no major league team lost more games than the Kansas City Royals.  It was a decade where the negatives far outweighed the positives.  This is the fourth installment of the 11 part Royals Rotten Decade series.  I will briefly examine each season in the last decade before wrapping up the decade in the 11th and final part.

Part 4, the 2003 Royals (83-79) 836 RS / 867 RA

Payroll:  $45.4 million (28th)  /  Attendance:  1,779,895

Draft:  OF-Chris Lubanski (1st), C-Mitch Maier (1st), OF-Shane Costa (2nd), 1B-Robert McFall (3rd), 3B-Miguel Vega (4th)*

*Best pick of the Royals 2003 draft class is 7th round selection, Mike Aviles.  If he can’t recapture some of his 2008 magic the ’03 class will be remembered for producing just 3 fringe ML players.

Top Prospect:  RHP-Zack Greinke

Above 110 OPS+ (Minimum 50 AB)
132 CF-Carlos Beltran (26):  0.307/.389/.522 in 521 AB
120 DH-Mike Sweeney (29):  0.293/.391/.467 in 392 AB
112 RF-Aaron Guiel (30):  0.277/.346/.489 in 354 AB

Above 110 ERA+ (Minimum 49.2 IP)*
130 LHP-Darrell May (31):  3.77 ERA, 1.19 WHIP,  4.9 SO/9 in 210.0 IP
125 LHP-Jeremy Affeldt (24):  3.93 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 7.0 SO/9 in 126.0 IP
123 LHP-Brian Anderson (31):  3.99 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 2.7 SO/9 in 49.2 IP
120 RHP-Mike MacDougal (26):  4.08 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 8.0 SO/9 in 64.0 IP

*I tweaked the requirement again, though by just 0.1 IP, to include Brian James Anderson.  2003, split between the Indians and Royals, was the best season of his 13 year ML career.

Finally we come to the little island in the vast ocean of losing Royals baseball during the 2000s.  The 2003 team payroll came in at $45.4 million.  It was the 3rd lowest payroll in MLB.  Despite spending $6.8 million less than in the previous season, the Royals scored 99 more runs and allowed 24 fewer runs than the 2002 team.

Beltran and Sweeney led the way, but they got help from ROY SS-Angel Berroa, 3B-Joe Randa, LF-Raul Ibanez, and RF-Aaron Guiel who all finished the season with an OPS+ above 100.  Michael Tucker, Mendy Lopez, and Rondell White gave manager Tony Pena some decent bench options from time to time during the season.  Fans also got their first look at 23-year old CF David DeJesus in September.

Only Carlos Beltran would top 20 HR during the season, but 5 others hit between 15-20. Ibanez hit 18, Berroa hit 17, Randa and Sweeney hit 16, and Guiel hit 15.  Ken Harvey and Michael Tucker would each add 13, and even Desi Relaford added 8 HR.  Beltran stole 41 bases to go along with his 26 HR.  Relaford and Berroa would steal 20 and 21 bases respectively while no other player broke double digits.

Carlos Beltran was the star of the show, especially with Sweeney limited to 108 games, and was the only player to break triple digits in runs scored or runs batted in.  He did both.  While Beltran was the engine that drove the offense, seven other players scored 60 or more runs and contributions came from everywhere during the season.

To say Darrell May pitched over his head in 2003 would be drastically understating what he accomplished.  It was the only season in his career where his ERA+ topped 100.  His 130 ERA+ was well above his career mark of 92.  His 1.19 WHIP was well below his career mark of 1.45.  May pitched 660.2 ML innings in his career and 210.0 of those came as the staff “ace” of the 2003 Royals.  If you are ever looking for the poster child for the term “career year,” look no further than Darrell May’s 2003 season.

For one season at least, Darrell May did his job, but the 2003 Royals were hampered by their lack of starting pitching.  Beyond May, who started 32 games, no other pitcher would start more than 18.  While other teams were worried about who was going to take the ball in their 5th, 4th, or maybe 3rd spots in the rotation, Kansas City couldn’t find a #2 starter to take the ball every 5th day.  Still they stayed in the race by shuffling the cards as best they could.  Chris George and Affeldt would each make 18 starts.  Runelvys would start 16 games with an ERA+ of 106.  Kyle Snyder added 15 starts with a near league average ERA+ of 95.  Jose Lima would contribute 14 starts with an ERA+ of 97.  Others to start games for the 2003 Royals included:  Jimmy Gobble (9), Brian Anderson (7), Miguel Asencio (8), Paul Abbott (8), Jamey Wright (4), Kevin Appier (4), Kris Wilson (4), Brad Voyles (3), and D.J. Carrasco (2).

Most fans remember the 2003 team for the hot start.  By the end of April, the Royals were 17-7.  In May the team was 10-19, dropping them to just 1 game above 0.500.  A funny thing happened after the disappointing month of May.  Instead of packing it in and reverting back to the losing team we had come to know, they reeled off consecutive winning months.  They went 15-12 in June and then 15-11 in July.  My own personal recollection of the 2003 team is that they completely collapsed down that stretch, but in reality they stayed competitive till the end.  The team went 13-15 in both August and September.  They finished the season 51-41 in the first half and 32-38 in the second half.  While they certainly wilted down the stretch, it wasn’t quite the collapse that I so often recalled in my mind before writing this article.

Chris George pulled off an incredible feat in his 18 starts.  He went 9-6 despite a 7.11 ERA.  He gave up 120 hits in 93.2 innings pitched and walked more batters (44) than he struck out (39).  Perhaps more astounding, his ERA+ of 69 was still better than Sidney Ponson’s 2009 ERA+ of 60.

The 2003 Royals finished the season in 3rd place 7.0 games behind the 1st place Minnesota Twins (90-72), and 3.0 games back of the second place Chicago White Sox (86-76).  The Royals didn’t collapse down the stretch as much as the Twins caught fire down the stretch.  While the Royals were gingerly hanging on, the Twins went 18-11 and then 19-7 to pull away from the rest of the field.  Minnesota would wind up with a 46-23 record in the second half.  The White Sox also briefly caught fire in the 2nd half and went 17-9 in July, then tapered off to 16-13 in August and 13-12 in September.  Chicago would finish with a 2nd half record of 41-27.

When the dust had settled and the Minnesota Twins set off to represent the AL Central in the playoffs, the 2003 Kansas City Royals had spent 107 days in 1st place.  The team played better than their individual parts, and certainly their starting pitching, would suggest.  The hope, optimism, and pride we all felt on July 17th, when our team was up by 7.5 games in the standings, would quickly be washed away by three straight 100 loss seasons.  Wave after wave of losing in the coming years would beat us down and wash our little island away, but the memory of the 2003 Royals will stand its ground.

For one season in the decade, the Royals were not lucky, they were not overachievers, they were not a punching bag for the media and fans of other teams.

For one season, the Kansas City Royals were a real major league baseball team.

(Wally Fish is the lead blogger for Kings of Kauffman and FanSided’s MLB Director.  Subscribe to his RSS feed and add him on Twitter to follow him daily.)