This is one of a series of posts in which we grade each team’s wily hot stove maneuvers and tragic offseason blunders.
It’s easy to forget that in 2003, the Kansas City Royals were a winning team. Possibly because they won 83, the absolute minimum number of wins before a team could be described as winning. Possibly because their Pythagorean W-L record was 78-84. Or maybe it’s because it’s the only time they finished a season above .500 in the last 13 years. Needless to say, the recent history of this particular franchise has not been exactly stellar. They’ve taken their hits, and have certainly been the butt of jokes on many occasions. However, the 2008 Royals appear to have something that they’ve lacked for as long as I can remember – building blocks.
Only the most die-hard fans expect this team to compete with the Indians and Tigers for the division crown. But there are two players that we as baseball fans ought to be excited over – 24-year old third baseman Alex Gordon and 21-year old 1B/DH Billy Butler. It was Gordon who received much of the fan fare, touted as the franchise’s savior and the most talented Royals third baseman since George Brett (apologies to Joe Randa). But Butler had the better offensive percentages, albeit in a shorter span of time. In 2007, both players made their MLB debuts, and while Gordon struggled to adjust and posted a measly .247 AVG and .314 OBP, Billy boy turned some heads with a .292 AVG and .347 OBP to go along with a respectable .447 SLG. Remember, this is a 21-year old we’re talking about. This of course does not mean that Gordon will be a bust. The vast majority of talent evaluators still consider him the better prospect, mainly because Butler doesn’t really have a position and Gordon ably plays the hot corner. Regardless, this should be an organization that is building their talent base to coincide with the timing of the growth of these two players. But this offseason, they haven’t exactly convinced me that they’re all on the same page.
After signing Gil Meche to a five-year, $55 million deal prior to last season, it was expected that the Royals would not spend so freely this time around. They then went out and signed 31-year old Jose Guillen at three-years and $36 million… Yeah… Not the way I would have gone. But then again, I thought the Meche deal was ridiculous but he then went out and embarrassed my prognostication abilities to the tune of a 3.67 ERA and 156 Ks over 216 innings. So what do I know?
But even ignoring the dollars and cents for the moment, what the Royals ended up getting was a right-fielder with some pretty good pop and not much else. Although I usually don’t like to be selective of what statistical samples to look at, in 2004, 2005, and 2007 (eliminating his injury-plagued 2006 campaign), Guillen put up a .289 AVG, .347 OBP and .479 SLG. Which looks pretty good until you account for the fact that those are slightly below average for a regular right fielder. And in his 11-year career, he’s played more than 150 games twice (1998 and 2007). The kicker is the fact that he and Jay Gibbons are currently facing a 15-game suspension for the use of illegal performance-enhancers to begin the regular season (and the Royals knew that he had been caught before they signed him). Add it all up and it’s just a puzzling decision on the surface.
The team also signed catcher Miguel Olivo (aka one of the worse offensive players in baseball) to a one-year deal worth just over $2 million to complement John Buck behind the plate. On the pitching side, they “added” Brett Tomko for one year and $3 million, which is also strangely… well, nonsensical, really. He’ll be 35 in April and compiled a 5.55 ERA in 15 starts last year, pitching for both the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers – two teams that play in the offensively challenged NL West and one of which that plays 1/2 their games in a great pitcher’s park. So good luck in the AL Central, Brett. The bullpen should get a boost from the addition of Ron Mahay, who has been a good, but not great reliever for much of his 11-year career. And what kind a of Japanese man would I be if I at least didn’t mention that KC signed reliever Yasuhiko Yabuta to a two-year $6 million contract straight out of Japan. Americans who watched the World Baseball Classic in 2006 may remember Yabuta as the guy who retired all four American batters he faced including handing out Ks to A-Rod, Johnny Damon, and Derrek Lee. Or more likely, you don’t remember this at all. Long story short, he’s a righty reliever who has had himself a very nice 12-year career pitching for the Chiba Lotte Marines, posting pretty good strikeout/walk ratios during this span. He may be joined by fellow-countryman Hideo Nomo, who’s looking to make a successful (longshot) return to the Majors.
But perhaps the biggest change – and one that’s harder to quantify – is their new manager, Trey Hillman. The fresh-faced skipper has been across the Pacific for the last few years (managing the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to the championship in 2006) and this will be his first managerial gig stateside. So what should the Royals expect out of Hillman? Well, how about an international country music phenomenon? Does that do anything for ya?
C – Miguel Olivo
1B – Ross Gload
2B – Mark Grudzielanek
3B – Alex Gordon
SS – Tony Pena Jr.
LF – Mark Teahen
CF – David DeJesus
RF – Jose Guillen
DH – Billy Butler
SP1. Gil Meche
SP2. Brian Bannister
SP3. Zack Greinke
SP4 & 5. Luke Hochevar/Kyle Davies/Brett Tomko/Jorge De La Rossa/Luke Hudson/Brian Lawrence/Hideo Nomo (got all that?)
CL: Joakim Soria
SU: Jimmy Gobble
Acquisitions: Jose Guillen, Miguel Olivo, Brett Tomko, Rom Mahay, Yasuhiko Yabuta, Hideo Nomo, Brian Lawrence, Alberto Callaspo
Losses: Emil Brown, Jason LaRue, David Riske, Billy Buckner
Offseason Grade: C
As I’ve said earlier, the Royals have something to look forward to. In a few years, most believe that Alex Gordon will be an All-Star who will be the centerpiece of a lineup featuring solid hitters like Billy Butler, Mark Teahen, and David DeJesus. But this is in a few years. Committing three-years to Jose Guillen just doesn’t make much sense to me. On the pitching side, I don’t understand why they would guarantee money to Brett Tomko, who is probably not going to do any better than prospect Luke Hochevar, or the still-young Kyle Davies and Jorge De La Rossa. And those guys can do it at a fraction of the cost all while gaining necessary experience.
One thing I can credit them for is not making rash decisions and trading away their young core. This is also a team whose farm system is quite bare at the moment, mostly due to the fact they’ve promoted many of their top prospects already, so at least they didn’t go out and sign any Type-A free agents and lose draft picks.
But for now, this franchise needs to concentrate on developing their young hitters. They have the makings of a half-decent rotation as well, especially if Hochevar ever figures it out. 2008 will not be their year, and this is a team that despite some questionable moves, still hasn’t lost their hopes for the future.
How’s that for a backhanded compliment?