The memory of the Kansas City Royals‘ only winning season in the last 12 seasons already seems faint, although it really wasn’t all that long ago. The Royals went 83-79 in 2003, which garnered Tony Pena the American League Manager of the Year award, and gave their long-suffering fans hope that maybe the Royals were on their way to being a relevant baseball city again.
However, much has changed since 2003. Pena is no longer the manager, and Allard Baird was fired as the general manager last season after a final spending spree failed miserably. Baird was replaced by the highly-respected Dayton Moore, a chief lieutenant under legendary general manager John Schuerholz with the Atlnata Braves. Designated hitter Mike Sweeney is the lone regular left from that ’03 club. Center fielder David DeJesus and left-handed reliever Jimmy Gobble are the only other holdovers; both made cameo appearances as rookies.
“We know who we are now,” said Royals manager Buddy Bell, who took over for Pena 50 games into the 2005 season. “We have an identity.”
If they do, it’s a bit of a hybrid, as they are last again in the AL Central with a 25-40 record. They are one part veteran ballclub, with a few free-agent holdovers who were supposed to make the Royals respectable last season; instead they were part of a club that finished 62-100 for the Royals’ third triple-digit loss season in a row, and fourth in the last five years. Second baseman Mark Grudzielanek is the most productive of that group, which also includes right-hander Scott Elarton and right fielder Reggie Sanders, both of whom have spent considerable time on the DL this season.
They are also one part youth movement. third baseman Alex Gordon, the first pick in the 2005 draft out of Nebraska, leads a group of what the Royals believe are building blocks for an eventual contender. Numbered among this cadre are catcher John Buck, first baseman Ryan Shealy, shortstop Tony Pena Jr., DeJesus, right fielder Mark Teahen, left-handed starter Jorge de la Rosa, and right-handed pitchers Brian Bannister, Zach Greinke, and Joakim Soria.
And then there is right-hander Gil Meche, whom the Royals signed to a five-year, $55 million contract as a free agent in the offseason. It was a deal seen as foolish by many around baseball-Meche had a 55-44 career record coming into this season. It was a move the Royals defend by saying the 28-year-old gives them a talented pitcher with upside to build a rotation around.
“Ultimately, to get this thing turned around, it’s got to happen with our guys coming of age and blossoming,” Bell said. “When you commit to something like this, it usually isn’t very easy. It’s time-consuming and you have to be patient. I really feel that we have some talented young players on our club, and in the organization, but it takes time. Sometimes, it takes four or five years before young players really settle in and become good, productive major leaguers. It doesn’t usually happen overnight for guys at this level.”
The Royals are finding that out in the case of Gordon, initially considered the cornerstone of the rebuilding effort, and expected to e the best hitter produced by the organization since Hall of Famer George Brett. Instead, Gordon is hitting .198/.305/.317 in 234 plate appearances and a VORP of minus-8.7.
The Royals also called up their other top prospect, first baseman/outfielder Billy Butler, for 10 games in early May. They then optioned him back to Omaha after he hit .243/.256/.297 in 39 plate appearances. However, part of the reason Butler was sent back was to improve his defense. In contrast, the Royals aren’t inclined to give Gordon some development time at Omaha after he made the jump from Double-A to the major leagues this year in spring training.
“I’m really not interested in his numbers,” Bell said. “I just want to see him get better. There was a stretch for about three weeks when he was hitting the ball hard and not getting much reward for it. On the whole, I’ve seen a lot of progress even if doesn’t necessarily reflect in his statistics. The biggest thing with Alex is that he isn’t getting beat down mentally by this. That would be my worry and what I’ve been looking for and I haven’t seen any signs of that.”
Gordon has heard the story of Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt’s rookie season, when he hit .196/.324/.373 in 443 plate appearances for the 1973 Philadelphia Phillies. While that doesn’t necessarily make Gordon feel better about his rookie season struggles, he insists he remains confident and does not second-guess the Royals’ decision to have him bypass Triple-A.
“It’s tough to look at my batting average and see it that low because I’m just not used to that,” Gordon said. “But I haven’t lost my confidence. I still believe I can succeed at this level. I walk up to the plate in every at-bat feeling confident that I’m going to get a hit. It’s not like I’ve been defeated because I’ve struggled a little bit. And I definitely feel like it’s a great experience for me to be up here in the major leagues. I might be having more success if I were in Triple-A, but there have been so many more advantages to being up here. I’ve gotten my feet wet. I’m learning the pitchers around the league. Most importantly, I’m learning what the major leagues are all about, and I’m going to be better for the experience in the long run.”
One Royals player who can empathize with Gordon is the man who ceded his position to him in spring training-Mark Teahen, who moved from third base to right field. Teahen hit just .246/.309/.376 in 491 plate appearances as rookie with the Royals in 2005, then was sent to the minor leagues on May 5, 2006 after hitting .195/.241/.351 in the first month-plus of play. Following a tuneup at Omaha, Teahen came back to post .313/.384/.537 numbers in 356 plate appearances, finishing the season at .290/.357/.517 in 439 plate appearances.
“The thing you have to be careful of is losing your confidence because all of a sudden in the major leagues you’re facing what seems like an ace-like pitcher every day,” Teahen said. “It’s a tough adjustment, and I wasn’t the first guy who had to go back to the minor leagues and put things back together. Alex is learning that it’s a whole different world up here but I’ve watched him closely and it’s not getting him down. The guy was the College Player of the Year two years ago. He has a lot of confidence. Most importantly, he has a lot of talent. You can see that and you know it’s only a matter of time before he starts hitting more consistently at the major-league level.”
The Royals could use a lift from Gordon, as they rank 12th in the 14-team AL with 4.1 runs scored a game. Buck is their only hitter among the top 60 in the league in VORP as his 16.4 mark is good for 33rd place. He is hitting.279/.366/.564 in 164 plate appearances.
The pitching is also 12th in the league, as the Royals are giving up 5.1 runs a game. Meche has been a pleasant surprise, standing 15th in the AL’s pitching ranks with a 20.0 VORP while going 3-6 with a 3.14 ERA in 91 innings. He also ranks 21st in the league in SNLVAR.
Soria and Grienke have been bright spots in the bullpen, as they are among the top 25 in the AL in WRXL. Soria was a Rule 5 draft pick from San Diego this winter, and ranks 19th with a 0.968 mark. Grienke has shined since being dropped from the starting rotation, and is 22nd with a 0.872.
“I know our record doesn’t necessarily show it, but you can see signs that things are starting to come together,” Teahen said. “I think this is definitely the best team we’ve had in my three years here. The biggest thing is that we have a direction. There’s a plan in place, and I firmly believe it’s going to work. It may take some time to get turned around, but there is a real positive attitude that things are getting better.”