After hiring the estimable Buddy Bell (.423 winning percentage in over 900 games as manager) on May 30th, the Royals shocked the baseball world with a inspiring three game sweep of the Yankees, en route to a 11-4 record to begin the Bell-era. Heading into a four game series in Tampa to close the month of July, the vaguely good play continued, with the Royals holding a 12-12 record on the month, with thoughts of attainable victories against the Devil Rays to come. Instead, the Rays swept the Royals, beginning what would become a historic 19 game losing streak; after beating the White Sox on July 27th, the Royals would not win again until August 20th in Oakland.
Post Bell Bump: 11-4 (.733 %)
Epic Losing Streak: 0-19 (.000 %)
All Other Games: 45-83 (.351 %)
Overall Record: 56-106 (.345 %)
As you can see, the losing streak almost perfectly wiped away the positive blip the Royals displayed in the heady days after the Bell hire, pushing their overall record back into the .350 range that the team accomplished during "normal" circumstances. Rarely has the phrase "regression to the mean" been enacted so explicitly and with such blunt certainty.
In the broadest terms, the Royals had the three key ingredients of a historically bad team, failing to achieve mere adequacy at the plate, on the mound or in the field. The Royals just barely topped 700 runs scored, reaching 701, good for 21st in baseball (thanks, Senior Circuit) but just 12th best in the American League. Coupled with a limited offense, the Royals' run prevention method employed an explosive formula familiar to Yankee fans/haters: bad defense with a mediocre, ball-in-play heavy pitching staff. For the second straight year, the results were disastrous in Kansas City, as the Royals allowed 935 runs, only 1 run behind the worst team in baseball, those lovable Devil Rays. Moreover, this collapse occurred despite the K's post-reconfiguration emergence as a slight pitcher's park.
But while the Yankees eventually improved their defense/K-rate combination enough to become more or less mediocre, the Royals coasted through an uninterrupted year of non-stop bleeders, seeing-eye singles and doubles and errors. Royal opponents hit an incredible .291 in 2005, by far the worst mark in the American League; a mark nearly in a different area code to the .241 or .246 allowed by Oakland and Houston. Save perhaps the more favorable estimations of David DeJesus and John Buck, it is arguable that the Royals didn't have a single "good" fielder playing regularly in 2005. At best, guys like Emil Brown, Matt Stairs and Terrence Long can strive for staying hidden and avoiding mistakes, which still translates into plays not being made. Worse, the infield struggled all season, with the supposed foundation of the infield - Berroa and Teahen - combining for 45 errors and poor range. Berroa, in particular was terrible at times, evoking memories of pre-A-Rod supported Jeter, only with worse footwork and a wilder arm. Just as a conglomeration of guys who don't suck can build to surprisingly strong results, an admixture of poor to average can produce a failure greater than the sum of its parts. Given that the offense was so bad, one wonders if the Royals could have actually been better be fielding a team of excellent minor league defenders. What, you're worried about replacing Angel Berroa's "bat"?
As stated above however, ultimately the defense and pitching staff are bound together by their related inadequacies. That .291 BAA is fueled by the team's toothless K-rate of 5.88, good for 11th in the American League. The players responsible for the bulk of the innings in 2005 were in fact worse than that overall mark:
Greinke: 183 IP; 5.61 K/9
Lima: 168.7 IP; 4.27 K/9
Hernandez: 159.7 IP; 4.96 K/9
Wood: 115 IP; 4.70 K/9
Carrasco: 114.7 IP; 3.85 K/9
Part-time starters Brian Anderson (4.99), Denny Bautista (5.80), Kyle Snyder (5.61) weren't any better, and J.P. Howell's wild, homerific 6.69 K/9 rate is not exactly something to get excited about. There's been some speculation that departing pitching coach Guy Hansen had something to do with the lack of strikeouts, and at the margins of the data this may be true. But really, how many more strikeouts would a different approach have coaxed out of these players anyway? Plus, they all stand in such sharp contradistinction to the hard-throwing bullpen pitchers that the same pitching coach instructed that actually, like, got strikeouts.
Rule 5 acquisition Andy Sisco spent most of the first-half as the team's best pitcher, posting a 2.72 ERA at the All-Star break and a 3.11 ERA for the season; buoyed by three especially dominant months (April, July, August) in which his ERA was under 2.00. Along with Sisco's 9.08 K-rate, the `pen was fortified with Mike MacDougal's (3.33 ERA, 9.21 K/9) and Ambiorix Burgos' (3.69 ERA, 9.24 K/9) consistently strong work. Because of the return of a healthy MacDougal and the sudden appearance of the Sisco/Burgos setup team, the Royals were able somewhat to offset the continued exasperation generated by year four of "The Jeremy Affeldt Experience" as well as the collapse of previously useful spare parts like Nate Field (9.45 ERA), Shawn Camp (6.24 ERA) and Jaime Cerda (6.63 ERA). For a bad team, the Royals didn't have an awful bullpen, and while Burgos, Sisco and MacDougal could easily become variously injured or less effective next season, they're also proof that you can find quality relievers pretty much anywhere. However, at press time, Allard Baird is rumored to be shopping Jeremy Affeldt for the third straight winter, which could turn out to be a costly move that weakens the team's only strength - bullpen depth - and risks a cascade effect should the fragile MacDougal again visit the disabled list.
Nevertheless, the single largest (and most frightening) question the Royals must address is the matter of Zack Greinke's transformation into a Diamonbacks-era Brian Anderson. As noted above, Greinke's K-rate dropped in '05, while his walks went up dramatically - from 1.2 to 2.5 BB/9 - which alongside his still high home run rate, produced a sadly mediocre pitcher. Greinke's still young, but serious questions need to be asked regarding what, aside from starting his arb-clock and risking injury for two awful teams, has been gained in his 392 big league innings so far. Essentially anything's possible for Greinke in 2006, but at this moment the bitter truth is that he's much more similar to Jimmy Gobble than he is to Mark Prior, and unless that changes this franchise is in even deeper trouble.
Offensively, the 2005 Royals did everything possible to not score. They didn't hit for average (.263 BA, 10th in the AL), they didn't get on-base (.320 OBP, 13th in the AL), they didn't hit for power (.396 SLG, 12th in the AL) and they were terrible on the basepaths (62% SB success rate, 13th in the AL).
The Royals didn't hit with no one on base (.707 OPS, 9th in the AL) and they didn't hit with men on (.728 OPS, tied for 14th in the AL) either. They were bad in the first six innings (.733 OPS, 12th) and they were even worse late (.680 OPS, 14th). You get the idea, dysfunctional in every way, to take one example: the only lineup regulars with any speed, Berroa and DeJesus managed to do more harm than good, going only 12 for 22 in stolen base attempts.
While it would be easy to gasp at the completely pointless 191 plate appearances granted to Super Joe McEwing (.239/.257/.294) or the 489 PAs given to Terrence Long (.279/.321/.378) those players are acknowledged stop-gaps who are not part of the team's rumored larger plans (read: "they're good veteran clubhouse guys"). On the other hand, Mark Teahen, John Buck, Angel Berroa and some version of Donnie Murphy/Ruben Gotay are, and not a single one of those players had a good season. Teahen, Murphy and Gotay are simply not Major League level hitters right now, and John Buck isn't much further ahead of them. While David DeJesus has been an OBP source with decent pop since day one (.293/.356/.445), his comrades in the latest Royal youth movement all raise as much doubt as faith. Justin Huber may be Australian, but he'll also turn 24 next season, can only play first-base and hit .218/.271/.256 in 85 PAs last season. As for Berroa, he's now declined for two consecutive years following his 2003 Rookie of the Year campaign and heading towards age 28 at a position that peaks early. He could easily be a part-time player or even out of baseball before the next Presidential Election.
It would be irresponsible not to note the few offensive bright spots, however, regardless of their disconnect from the team's long term future. Too expensive and fragile to be traded by Baird for half his value, Mike Sweeney rebounded with a .300/.346/.517 line in over 500 plate appearances. Sweeney had his best season since 2002, and although his plate discipline continues to erode - he's lost 60 points of OBP in 5 years - he did much to demonstrate he can be a decent player for at least another season or two. Beyond Sweeney, Emil Brown was plucked from the scrap heap and handed a Raul Ibanez costume which actually fit, as the journeyman made the most of his shot with a .286/.348/.455 season. Evaluating Emil Brown is all about context: he's an elite level secondary threat in a world where Tony Womack or Quinton McCracken gets playing time, but as your everyday 4 or 5 hitter, he's inadequate. As a purely human story however, Brown's league level performance in his first full season since 2001 was one of the better plotlines of the 2005 Royals.
In sum, the 2005 Royals managed an impressive feat, managing to set a new franchise record with 106 losses without learning anything definite, and certainly nothing positive, about the young players the franchise is depending on to build around. At this point the Royals know that David DeJesus could reasonably become the next Johnny Damon and that Zack Greinke has good control and give up fly balls. That's it. Sweeney, Brown and Matt Stairs, probably won't be around for the next 85-win Royals team and the same can be said for literally every Royal, including 2005 draft pick Alex Gordon. Unlike the Brewers or even the Pirates, the supposed horizon of contention inherent in all "youth movements" is not yet visible for the Royals. While fans like to assume that all such movements naturally culminate in a good team, the history of the game is littered with just as many examples that failed. Then again, it is difficult to actually have a youth movement when you refuse to play the "youths", reminding us of the season's lasting image: an anti-intellectual, awe-shucks-ified Buddy Bell writing Terrence Long into the lineup day after damned day. While there is no solid reason to be hopeful, one still would have liked to have seen Chip Ambres and Matt Diaz eat into T-Long's playing time. Instead, Bell gave Long his at bats, benefiting no one. Perhaps this calmed him, making his nightly decision between "I don't know why we played so poorly" or "We've got to play harder" as an interview lead easier somehow.
Cruelly, or perhaps knowingly, the word out of the Royals' brass is that the team's payroll could jump towards the $50 million range next season, just in time for the weakest free agency crop in at least a decade. After hiring Buddy Bell and then bizarrely citing his track record as an asset, it has become more and more clear that Allard Baird either isn't the man to build this team or is perhaps so handicapped by the Glass family as to be wholly ineffective. Amazingly, only two seasons removed from a miraculous 83-win team that briefly revitalized the franchise; the Royals are now solidly the worst team in baseball again, at least two years away from competing with the top three teams in their own division. With the requisite stadium rumblings yet unresolved, a cheap, nepotistic ownership and an emboldened post-Montreal Selig, incredibly, this could get worse before it gets better.