Opinion

Bruce Chen, an appreciation

Bruce Chen
Bruce Chen The Kansas City Star

When he signed with the Royals on Feb. 1, left-hander Bruce Chen quietly admitted that he took less money to stay with the Royals.

He expected big things this season and wanted to be a part of it, no matter what part he might be called to fill.

When he signed with the Royals as a minor-league free agent in 2009, Chen was part of a forgettable 65-win team.

But the Royals’ victories ticked up the subsequent seasons: 67 to 71 to 72 to finally above .500 in 2013 at 86-76.

“I have been through the rebuilding process,” Chen told me in February. “I’ve seen all these guys come in and start winning. I want to get to the playoffs. I want to do it for me and I want to do it for the fans.”

Getting to the playoffs with the Royals was a desire of Chen’s heart that he shared frequently. But he won’t get that chance after being designated for assignment by the Royals on Friday.

For many fans, Chen’s departure couldn’t come quick enough. That’s too bad.

In retrospect, his contributions to the franchise were many and, frankly, unexpected.

When Chen signed with the Royals in 2009, he was 31 and had a career 4.63 ERA. And he was coming off Tommy John surgery.

The signing barely made a ripple among fans.

Chen wobbled through ’09, going 1-6 with a 5.78 ERA with the Royals, while splitting time between Kansas City and Class AAA Omaha.

He also spent time on the disabled list with a torn oblique. Nevertheless, the Royals offered another minor-league contract after the year, and Chen took off in 2010, winning the Joe Burke Special Achievement Award. After starting the season at Omaha, Chen went 12-7 (leading the Royals in victories) with a 4.17 ERA.

The next year, Chen signed as a major-league free agent and won the Bruce Rice Pitcher of the Year award, going 12-8 with a 3.77 ERA. Following the season, Chen again signed as a major-league free agent, and he was 11-14 with a 5.07 ERA in 2012.

In 2013, Chen started the season in the bullpen and was 3-0 with a 2.41 ERA before moving to the rotation.

No one saw it coming, but the 36-year-old Chen then put together the most remarkable stretch of his career, holding opponents to a .144 average with a 0.93 ERA in his first six starts. Chen finished the year 9-4 with a 3.27 ERA.

That’s why fans were excited when Chen’s deal was announced this past February at FanFest.

However, nothing went to plan this season. Chen had a 7.45 ERA after his first four starts, then had a swollen disk in his back and landed on the disabled list. Despite a few bright moments*, Chen finished his season with that 7.45 ERA.

* Chen’s last victory with the Royals came on July 22 and was career No. 82, tying him with Mariano Rivera for the most in major-league history by a Panamanian

His career numbers with the Royals won’t dazzle you — 47-43 with a 4.53 ERA. But Chen had a 6.6 WAR (according to FanGraphs), while he had just a 2.8 WAR in his previous 10 seasons with nine teams.

Chen also kept things light in the clubhouse, whether serving as a translator for Yordano Ventura or poking fun at Billy Butler after breaking his bat during spring training.

Andy McCullough, the Royals beat writer for The Star, encompassed all that Chen meant in a wonderful story earlier this year.

There’s little doubt Chen will be rooting for the Royals to make the playoffs this fall. It’s too bad that he won’t have a chance to pitch in the postseason.

When Chen was 21 years old in 1998, he was a September call-up for the Atlanta Braves, pitching in four games (2-0, 3.98 ERA). Chen obviously wasn’t on the postseason roster as the Braves lost to the Padres in the National League Championship Series.

The following year, Chen split time between Class AAA and the Braves, but he wasn’t in the postseason again when Atlanta advanced to the World Series.

So close, yet so far.

It would be another 15 years before Chen would be in a position to get into a playoff game. While the Royals are certainly not there yet, Chen is again achingly close to fulfilling a dream.

But it’s not to be.

Bruce Chen addressed Royals fans on Friday via Twitter:

To reach Pete Grathoff, call 816-234-4330 or send email to pgrathoff@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/pgrathoff

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