Barring unforeseen circumstances, this will be the last edition of "Rany on the Royals" for a while. It’s not that I
no longer enjoy writing about the Royals, because I do. It’s not even that I’m fed up with the futility of covering a team that
seems utterly hopeless, because as cynical as some of my recent columns have been, I’m actually more optimistic today than I
have been in some time. The White Sox look to me like a paper tiger, and I fully expect a .500 team to contend for the division
title well into September.
No, the reason I’m ending this column is because I finally get it; I understand why Rob Neyer decided to end our conversations
last fall. I didn’t understand at the time, because I still had plenty to say about the Royals. But I was seeing our column from
the perspective of a Royals fan, and what was great about "Rob & Rany" was that it didn’t appeal to the Royals fan, it
appealed to the baseball fan. It did so because the Royals were a perfect microcosm of all that goes wrong in baseball
management: the once-mighty small-market team that had abandoned the principles that helped it reach the top, and was now paying
It was a great story for a while–The Decline and Fall of the Royal Empire. It was educational, in the same way that treating a
dying patient can be educational for the medical student. After nearly three years of covering the Royals, though, there was
simply nothing original to say. The Royals aren’t dying; they are dead. The novelty had long worn off. I can no more come up
with new things to say about the Royals than I can draw blood from a corpse.
the events of the last week herald a real sea change in this organization.
For the first time in years, there are more positive signs than negative.
Mike Sweeney is here, and Doug Henry is not.
The Royals have actually out-walked
their opponents (17-14) in the first week of the season, and that includes Miguel Asencio‘s ballacious debut. The
starting rotation has combined to walk two batters in 30 1/3 innings. On Sunday, the Royals forced Todd Ritchie to throw
52 pitches in the first two innings, sending him to the showers in the sixth inning even though he was pitching well. They then
feasted on the White Sox’ middle relief.
Maybe the Royals have finally righted themselves, and this is the start of a new chapter in the team’s history, a chapter on how
a down-and-out franchise can reverse course and start an improbable rise to the top. If it is, I plan to be there to cover it.
In the meantime, I’m signing off. I’ll leave you with the ten biggest keys to the Royals’ 2002 season:
- Can the Royals exorcise their April demons?
- Will the real Roberto Hernandez please stand up?
Roberto Hernandez never gives you the feeling that he’s in control of the ballgame. Even at his best, he’ll give up a walk here,
a single there, but he’ll never give in. He keeps the ball down, never gives up a game-breaking homer, and finds a way to bring
the save home.
When Hernandez is not at his best, he pitches like he did last year, and the last thing the Royals need to overcome this year is
to blow a couple of ninth-inning leads early in the season, the way Hernandez did in back-to-back games last April. Hernandez
doesn’t have to be Mariano Rivera. He doesn’t even have to be Jason Grimsley. There’s nothing wrong with using
your best reliever as a "set-up man" if that means your best reliever is the one pitching in tie games in the eighth
and ninth innings. Hernandez can’t pitch like he did last year, though, and at age 37, coming off a campaign in which he had the
lowest strikeout rate of his career, it appears that last year may be the best we can hope for.
- Can the Royals catch lightning in a bottle?
It’s been a few years–since the year of Los Dos Carlos–since the Royals had a true phenom on their roster, a rookie who could
step in immediately and make a contribution. The Royals weren’t supposed to have a can’t-miss rookie on their roster this year,
but then Jeremy Affeldt wasn’t supposed to be throwing 94 miles an hour. Having seen his major-league debut on Saturday,
I can assure you: the hype is real. He might already be the hardest-throwing southpaw in team history, and his curveball bites
like Mike Tyson. Affeldt is being handled with kid gloves for the time being, but he could be in the rotation by mid-season and
give the team a huge shot in the (left) arm.
- Is Knoblauch ready to chuck his past?
.448, .390, .361, .393, .366, .339. I don’t know what the next number in this progression is, but I can’t imagine that it will
be worse than .282, which was the combined OBP of the Royals’ leadoff hitters last year. It could be a lot better.
Everyone wants to write off Chuck Knoblauch as an over-the-hill head case, but we’re talking about a player with a Hall
of Fame peak, who is still just 33, and whose physical and mental deterioration as a ballplayer happens to have coincided with
the descent of his father (a legendary Texas high school baseball coach) into Alzheimer’s disease. Ray Knoblauch passed away
last month, and if that brings any closure to the anguish that his son has endured the past several years, he could bounce back
in a big way. At the very least, he’ll see more pitches than any Royals leadoff hitter in memory.
- May Darrell prove to be a bargain?
On paper, the Royals’ rotation–Jeff Suppan, Dan Reichert, Paul Byrd, Darrell May, and Chad
Durbin–looks positively pitiful. Not one of the Royals’ starters would rank higher than fourth on the depth chart of a
contending squad. But if one pitcher on this staff has the potential to overcome his meager pedigree to earn the mantle of staff
ace, it’s Darrell May.
Allard Baird’s decision to sign May,
who had spent the last four years pitching in Japan, has created barely a ripple of interest. Even after May was handed a spot
in the starting rotation, his return to America generated so little interest that he is probably the most unknown #3 starter in
the major leagues.
That might be unfair. May’s lack of a stateside reputation belies his success in Japan, pitching in ballparks much smaller than
our own. Looking at his translated performance (courtesy Clay Davenport) gives us reason to think he’s going to earn a name for
himself soon enough:
Years IP H ER BB SO HR SO/BB ERA Stuff 1999-2001 410.0 391 203 120 399 62 3.33 4.46 24
Over the past three years, May would have been a smidgeon better than an average major-league pitcher. If nothing else, he’ll
provide bulk innings for $375,000. Look at that strikeout-to-walk ratio, though; a ratio better than 3-to-1 is a tremendously
positive indicator for future performance. May’s Stuff ratings are well above that of an average pitcher (10), another good
sign. If May can tame his one weakness–his penchant for giving up the long ball–he could be a Jamie Moyer-sized success
and one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season.
- Is it Febles, or feeble?
Three years ago, a 23-year-old second baseman had a rookie season that hinted at greatness to come, showing power (ten home
runs, nine triples), speed (20 steals), and above-average defense. At some point between then and his fourth DL stint, that
vision dimmed. Over the past two seasons, Carlos Febles has missed nearly as many games (145) as he has played (179).
Febles not only couldn’t stay on the field, it appeared his skills had atrophied from the constant wear and tear of diving after
unreachable balls and playing through nagging injuries. He had more extra-base hits in his rookie season than he had in the next
two years combined.
On a rehab stint in Omaha last year, Febles hit .337 with good pop, and when he returned to K.C. he exploded for seven homers in
21 games, tantalizing us with the hope that a career in the throes of Brent Gates Syndrome could still be salvaged.
This is his last chance to restore the luster of a once-shining future. If Febles wants to stay healthy for a full season, he
has to learn the fine line between giving his best effort and giving more than he can afford. If he does, Febles could return to
being a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman and a spark plug at the bottom of the lineup. If he once again argues with the laws of
mathematics and tries to give 110%, he’s going to get injured again, and another injury ought to finish him as an everyday
- Can Dan Reichert and Blake Stein turn potential into performance?
All of the hype surrounding the Royals’ depth in young pitching hides the fact that young pitchers, as a group, almost never
have success right away. They look good their first time through the league, then they get hammered, they lose their confidence,
they struggle to adjust… and then when things are finally looking up, they get hurt.
So if you’re expecting a young pitcher to suddenly break through and have a great season, your best bet is to find someone who
has already been put through the wringer and come through unscathed. Blake Stein and Dan Reichert have both had only
intermittent success to this point in their careers. Neither is a spring chicken; Reichert is 25, and Stein is 28. Both of them
have nasty stuff, and both have statistical markers for success: Stein’s strikeout rate is the best on the team, and Reichert
coaxes more ground balls than almost anyone in baseball. Both have avoided the injury bug for the most part.
Reichert was the most impressive pitcher on the staff this spring, and got his season going with one of the best starts of his
career. Stein, who saved the Royals’ first win with three scoreless innings, will get first crack at a rotation spot when
someone falters. If the two can combine for 350 innings and a 4.00 ERA, the rotation won’t be nearly the Achilles’ heel everyone
expects it to be. The Royals absolutely need both of them to step forward this season.
- How mighty is Quinn?
It is no exaggeration to state that the success of the Royals’ offense hinges on Mark Quinn. As it stands today, the
heart of the Royals’ order begins and ends with Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney. If Quinn can put his ego aside
long enough to admit that he may not know everything there is to know about hitting, and that there might be something to this
idea that you shouldn’t swing at pitches outside the strike zone, he could give the Royals the #5 hitter they need to extend the
lineup and create an adequate impersonation of a major-league offense. If Quinn once again decides to take walks as a personal
insult, then he’s going to post a .298 OBP again, and he’s never going to reach his power potential.
- Will Mickey Mantle return to Kansas City?
Mickey Mantle set a new standard for center fielders the moment he joined the Yankees from their Triple-A team in Kansas City.
Mantle was the first switch-hitting center fielder in history to both score and drive in 100 runs in the same season, and for
the first 125 years of professional baseball, he was the only player to accomplish the feat. He was finally joined by fellow
Yankee Bernie Williams in 1996.
Carlos Beltran is now the third. It can be argued, without hyperbole, that Beltran is capable of putting together a
Mantlesque season this year. We know he’s capable because he already has played at an MVP level for half a season. Beltran might
have been the best player in the AL after the All-Star Break last year, hitting .358/.424/.617 with counting stats that project
to 27 homers, 89 extra-base hits, 45 steals, and even 63 walks over a full season.
Beltran appears to have worked through the doubt and insecurity that plagued him during his sophomore season. The Carlos Beltran
that took the field during the second half of last season was a confident, vocal player comfortable with his place as one of the
best young players in the game. If he can carry that confidence–and that talent–through an entire season, look out. George
Brett might finally have some company in the Royals’ inner circle of superstar players.
- Can Tony Muser manage to change?
The Million Dollar Question. Tony Muser has now officially been granted more chances than any other first-time manager in
major-league history. Only one manager in history (Burt Shotton) managed five straight years for the same club with a worse
winning percentage than Muser’s (.426) and still got invited back for a sixth go ’round. Even Shotton had earned his reprieve by
finishing over .500 in Year 5.
Good, bad, or awful, the Royals’ decision to bring Muser back is refreshing precisely because it is so unprecedented. To be fair
to Muser, with his job so obviously on the line this year, it would have been very understandable for him to arrive in camp
tighter than ever. No one would have been surprised if he had resurrected boot camp in one final, desperate attempt to mold a
winning team in his image. He didn’t do that. Instead, he listened to criticism, and has tried to learn from it. This year’s
spring training was the lightest, most easygoing camp in his tenure. When NRI Matt Skrmetta‘s extended family made up
half the crowd during one exhibition game, Muser actually indulged them by bringing Skrmetta in to close out the contest. He’s
smiling, he’s cracking jokes, and he’s trying to let his players have fun.
All that is just window dressing if he manages like he did on Opening Day, when he brought in a 33-year-old rookie pitcher with
the bases loaded and two out in a one-run game, and when he pinch-hit for Raul Ibanez with Donnie Sadler, which
ranks as the most extreme application of platooning since Monty Burns pulled Darryl Strawberry for Homer Simpson.
It’s a start, though. The Royals have given Tony Muser an opportunity that no one else has received, an opportunity that he
frankly doesn’t deserve. Wouldn’t it be something if it turns out this old dog can learn some new tricks?
The last time the Royals finished April with a winning record, the Berlin Wall was still standing. In the past 12 Aprils, the
Royals have combined to go 99-141, a nifty .413 winning percentage. Blame it on poor preparation, lousy roster construction, or
just plain bad luck, but every year the Royals dig themselves a hole in April that they can’t escape.
As bad as the first month has been, though, the first few days have been even worse. The Royals are now a combined 5-28 during
the first three games of the season dating back to 1992. The Royals have won only twice on Opening Day since 1991, and they’ve
now lost the second game of the season 12 years in a row.
If this year’s team can just hang around .500 until the end of the month, they’ll be in great shape as they welcome Mark
Quinn back into the lineup.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
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