The Most Kansas City Sports Team Ever celebrates with barbecue sauce.
These Royals are made up of broken promises and comeback stories and funny guys who don’t mind laughing at themselves. They have won games they had no business winning, and lost games that would make even Little League coaches angry. Less than halfway through the season they’ve been in first place, last place, and had long losing and winning streaks separated by less than a week.
They are The Most Kansas City Team Ever for inspiring jokes about the “manager tree,” man-crushes on Sal Perez and agony over wasted roster spots on players who can’t get on base.
But mostly, this is The Most Kansas City Team Ever for being so bad at half the game (12th in the American League in runs scored) that being so good at the other half (first in ERA) doesn’t mean as much as it should. The problems are only amplified with 11 total runs in their last five games, four of them losses. The Royals are 4-7 when giving up exactly three runs. That’s a .364 winning percentage, compared to .626 for the rest of the league.
Royals officials have long believed the offense would improve as the season progresses. But with each passing day it is becoming more and more obvious the team must try to fix this with a trade.
We’ve seen this kind of team too many times before, and not just in baseball.
This is something like an agonizing way of life around here, like the summer humidity. The Royals and Chiefs usually stink, of course — it’s been nearly 20 years since either won a playoff game.
But over those last two decades, each franchise has given us a few flashes of promise. In hindsight, it has been more like mediocrity cloaked in sparkles but, hey, stale bread is delicious if you’re hungry enough.
The pattern is unmistakable, and covers both sides of the Truman Sports Complex parking lot.
Marty Schottenheimer and Carl Peterson turned the Chiefs around in the 1990s with defense. Those were the years of Derrick Thomas coming around the edge for a strip-sack, of Neil Smith celebrating with his home-run swing and, well, of the Chiefs averaging 11 points in their playoff losses.
This was a bit of a different NFL back then, when people said “defense wins championships” and they meant it. The Chiefs went all-in on this idea. Every year from 1989 to 1997 — a period in which Steve DeBerg, Dave Krieg, Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac and Rich Gannon all started at quarterback — the Chiefs’ best player according to Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value was on defense.
Thomas. Smith. Albert Lewis. Deron Cherry. Dale Carter. James Hasty. Gunther Cunningham promoted a nasty attitude that made Arrowhead Stadium one of the hardest places to win. But then Lin Elliott missed field goals. Or Grbac melted down in the last two minutes against Denver. And all Kansas City had to show for it was heartache.
The Chiefs flipped after the 2000 season, firing Cunningham as head coach and hiring Dick Vermeil. Those were some pretty teams to watch. Trent Green threw for more than 4,500 yards one year. Tony Gonzalez had the most prolific season of his Hall of Fame career. Priest Holmes broke the NFL’s single-season touchdown record.
And those teams are best symbolized by the playoff loss after the 2003 season in which the Chiefs never punted, but lost to Indianapolis anyway because they never forced a punt, either.
The context with the Royals is a bit different because their default over the last two decades has been “awful at everything.” There have been flashes of exceptions, like Zack Greinke’s 2009 Cy Young season, Carlos Beltran’s brilliance, Mike Sweeney’s line drives, and the 2003 team’s four-month stretch of luck.
But the best example of what we’re talking about here came in 2000. That team went 77-85 which, sadly, is the most victories in a Royals season since the strike, except for The Great Fluke of ’03.
This was Sweeney (144 RBIs), Johnny Damon (46 steals and 136 runs) and Jermaine Dye (33 homers and 41 doubles) at the heights of their powers. Joe Randa drove in 106. The Royals set a franchise record with 879 runs (breaking the record they set the year before) but also set a franchise record by giving up 930.
Their closer that year was Ricky Bottalico, who had a 4.83 ERA and didn’t convert more than two consecutive saves until after the All-Star break. Jeff Suppan was the ace that year, and he finished with a 4.94 ERA. They gave nine starts to Chris Fussell and Miguel Batista. Chad Durbin once gave up nine runs in 11/3 innings. He started 16 games with an 8.21 ERA, incompetence achieved only once before since 1901.
This is the pattern of the Chiefs and Royals, the rhythm of sports life to which Kansas City has unwittingly become accustomed:
Soul-numbing stretches of failure, occasionally broken up with success by half the team which serves mostly to expose the ineptness of the other half.
The 2013 Royals, so far, are like the valedictorian of the Kansas City School of Sports Stink.
The Royals’ pitching is good enough to win a World Series. Think about that. This isn’t “Greinke is good enough to be a division winner’s ace,” or “Alex Gordon is one of the better corner outfielders in baseball.”
Pitching is, roughly, half of the sport. And the Royals have it licked. The best ERA in the American League, and it’s not a fluke. Very good rotation, great bullpen, the whole bit. Maybe this pace won’t keep up — only one AL team has had a lower ERA in the last 30 years — but the pitching staff is good enough to win a playoff series.
But they need help.
There are too many holes in the lineup. Right field, most nights. Second base. Shortstop. Third base. The Royals appear committed to seeing it through with Mike Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar isn’t going anywhere.
That means a team that is two bats short of being a legitimate contender needs those bats at second base and right field. Johnny Giavotella is hitting again in Omaha, and Royals officials are spending more time sorting through trade options. Some names that make sense include the Rockies’ Michael Cuddyer, the Cubs’ Nate Schierholtz and the Mets’ Marlon Byrd. The Royals have relief pitching and some marketable prospects they can trade to make themselves better and more balanced.
The alternative is maintaining a team good enough to aim at .500, and to be remembered as another in an agonizing line of Kansas City teams whose enormous flaw undermined a significant strength.
We’ve seen that too many times already.