Royals Hope

Just finished a long piece about former All-Star Frank White and the Royals and how things go wrong … it should run soon. Originally I had a section in there about the Royals' already odd offseason. It didn't quite fit, so I took it out. And I'll put it here.

The Royals -- as every Kansas City baseball fan knows -- have been trying for a quarter century to find a way to break through and be a legitimate baseball contender. This has led them down many different paths, all of them foiled by incompetence or flawed thinking or bad luck or lack of money or some cruel combination of the lot.

This absolutely amazed me. Since 2000, the Royals have acquired: Luis Alicea, Willie Bloomquist, Bruce Chen, Elmer Dessens, Kyle Farnsworth, Ryan Freel, Juan Gonzalez, Ross Gload, Tony Graffanino, Mark Grudzielanek, Jose Guillen, Doug Henry, Denny Hocking, Jason Kendall, Chuck Knoblauch, Jason LaRue, Curt Leskanic, Al Levine, Jose Lima (twice!), Ron Mahay, Super Joe McEwing, Hideo Nomo (at 39), Sidney Ponson, Mark Redman, Kerry Robinson*, Reggie Sanders, Benito Santiago, Scott Sullivan, Brett tomko, Michael Tucker ...

… this is an effort to actually win games ...

… What would that list look like if the Royals were trying to LOSE games?

*Robinson was most famous for climbing the wall on a deep fly ball, only the watch the ball land on the warning track and bounce over his head.

That list, by the way, only includes players 32 and older. The Royals made plenty of bad choices for players younger than 32 too … but these choices were particularly specious because the players not just suspect, they were also old. It's one thing to sign a 26-year-old Jeff Francoeur and hope for the best. It's not necessarily smart to do that, but it's one thing.

But it's an altogether different thing to sign players nobody else particularly wants AND have them be undeniably past their prime ages. I would say this particular Royals strategy -- among the myriad failed strategies the Royals have employed -- has been the most depressing. Because it was the most hopeless.

This off-season, the Royals have made two bold moves. One, they traded for 30-year-old Ervin Santana, who is coming off a season in which he just might have been the worst starting pitcher in the American League (though Luke Hochevar fought hard for that honor; the Royals already have Hochevar secured). They will pay Santana roughly $11 million of the $12 million he has left on his deal, assuming his $13 million option in 2013 isn't picked up.

Two, they gave the soon-to-be-34-year-old Jeremy Guthrie a three-year, $25 million deal. Guthrie has allowed more runs than any pitcher in baseball since 2009.

Now, if you do not follow the Royals, you might ask: Why would they do such a thing? That just seems illogical, gosh darn it.

But if you do follow the Royals, you already know why.

1. The Royals have no starting pitching whatsoever. This is a team that has given Hochevar 128 starts despite his career 5.39 ERA -- and, best I can tell, he's already locked into next year's rotation. This is a team that, earlier, gave 99 starts to Kyle Davies (career 5.59 ERA) because he had a good September once. When you don't have options, you will try almost anything. And convince yourself it might work.

2. The Royals cannot sign actual, valuable free agents because those players won't come to Kansas City and/or the Royals' payroll is half or one-third or one-fourth the size of free-agent contenders like Philadelphia and New York and Detroit and so on.

3. The Royals, in the almost 20 years I have studied them, have never shown the proper respect for what the years do to ballplayers.

And so, they end up repeating themselves again and again. Is it possible that Ervin Santana will rebound with a good year in Kansas City? Possible? Sure. Is it possible that Jeremy Guthrie, who pitched well for Kansas City the last two months of the year, will settle into a nice middle-of-the-rotation rhythm? Possible? Sure.

But possible is just about as high as you will want to go with your aspirations. Are either of these things likely? No. Reasonable? No. Plausible? Um, depending on your definition of plausible … no. When the Royals hired Buddy Bell in 2007 -- this even though Buddy Bell (a good man and a good baseball man) had played or managed for 24 seasons and had never reached the playoffs -- I wrote that the Royals were like a guy playing blackjack in a casino who hits on 20. The ace might come up. It almost certainly won't. And even on the rare occasions that it does -- it is a dumb play that screws up the future because it reinforces bad thinking.

I desperately want the Royals to be good again. I want it for Kansas City. No baseball town has been dragged through so much the last 25 years. The Royals are the only team to not reach the postseason since 1985. The fans have endured four 100-loss season and four more 95-loss seasons and four more 90-loss seasons just since the 1994 strike. They have endured seven different managers over that time. They have watched their great players run off to sign with other teams, and the not-so-great retained year after year.

Now, they have a young team that could be very exciting -- Salvy Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, these are really good players. Billy Butler can hit. Alcides Escobar can field. Wil Myers is one of the best hitting prospects in the game. The bullpen is filled with promising  and powerful young arms which is both great (it's great to be able to throw young strikeout pitchers like Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Greg Holland and Aaron Crow at teams) and depressing (how could NONE OF THEM be prospective starters?).

And the rotation? A nightmare. An absolute nightmare. The rotation at this moment is one more year of the Hochevar Experiment, the sinker-slider stylings of soon-to-be 36-year-old-Bruce Chen*, the hope-springs-eternal comeback of Ervin Santana, the "I hope the last two months were relevant" reality tour of Jeremy Guthrie and a mystery pitcher that, at this point, could come from anywhere.

*Remember the poem for  Spahn and Sain a nd pray for rain?

(The whole poem actually goes like this).

I thought the Royals rotation last year should have used this poem:

First there'll be lightning

Then there'll be rain

Then an off day

Followed by Chen

Maybe a blackout

And lightning again

Perhaps a freak snowstorm

And then pray for Chen 

It's hard to watch. Someday, I suspect, the stars will align and the Royals will win (or at least sort of win) despite themselves. That's what happened for a while in 2003. The team had an energetic young manager, an in-his-prime superstar in Carlos Beltran, a few hitters in the pretty good to very good range (Angel Berroa, Joe Randa, Mike Sweeney), and a handful of nice surprises (Angel Berroa and Aaron Guiel on the hitting side; Darrell May, Jose Lima and Runelvys Hernandez on the pitching side) and they were able to contend in a lousy division for five months.

That -- at least -- will happen again someday, maybe even as soon as this year. Alex Gordon is one of the best players in baseball, even if few people know it. He could have an MVP-type breakout year. Hosmer struggled in his second year, but don't be surprised if he breaks out. Salvador Perez might be the best defensive catcher in the league right now, and he's going to hit. With some bullpen work, a little luck in the rotation, a couple of surprises, hey, it could happen.

But that's almost always true. Lighting could strike. The ace could come up. The thing Royals fans keep waiting for is a sense that the team will actually become good someday without needing to hope for Ervin Santana to find 2011 or Jeremy Guthrie to repeat a relatively hot two months. And, no, they're not there yet.