The Royals have long been a team that prided itself on young, homegrown players. George Brett. Frank White. Eric Hosmer. Salvador Perez. All were signed and developed by the Royals.
But sometimes the Royals need to bring in some veteran presence. Throughout their history they have brought in once-great stars playing for their last paycheck, hoping for one last shot at relevance. Some were Hall of Famers, former MVPs, multiple All-Stars, but by the time they were with the Royals, they were very much washed up. Here are the greatest players who played out the string with the Royals.
Juan Gonzalez - 38.5 career WAR
Gonzalez was a two-time MVP who once rejected an eight-year, $140 million deal with the Tigers in 2000. This meant that after some back and calf injuries, he was scrounging around for work before the 2004 season. The Royals were coming off their surprising 83-win season, and were looking for acquisitions to build off that success that would (a) not cost too much money; and (b) not cost them future talent.
Juan Gonzalez fit that bill, and the 34-year old signed a one-year deal with the Royals worth $4.5 million with a $7 million mutual option and $3.5 million in incentives. At first the gamble looked great. Gonzalez went 2-for-4 in his Royals debut, and after a two-home run performance on April 16, he was hitting .325/.349/.625. But Gonzalez’ back could not hold up, and on May 21, he went on the disabled list with a back strain. He would not return. Gonzalez played just 33 games in his Royals career, hitting .276/.326/.441 with five home runs. He would play just one big league game the rest of his career.
Reggie Sanders - 39.6 career WAR
Reggie Sanders was one of the nicest guys in baseball, and a productive hitter nearly every year, so it was a bit of a mystery why he bounced around the league so much. From 1998 to 2006, he played for eight different teams - the Reds, Padres, Braves, Diamondbacks, Giants, Padres, and Cardinals, before finally settling in Kansas City at age 38. The Royals needed a bat in the middle of the lineup that wouldn’t cause opponents to laugh, and Sanders needed one more contract before he retired. They were a perfect fit.
Sanders signed a two-year, $9 million deal, and when healthy, Sanders hit a bit. In a Royals uniform, he batted .259/.325/.437, but he played in just 112 games over two seasons due to injury and his defense was subpar. He drew some interest from the Yankees at the 2006 trade deadline, but a hamstring injury torpedoed any chance the Royals could get value for him, and Sanders missed most of the 2007 season before calling it quits.
Jason Kendall - 41.5 career WAR
If you think Jason Kendall was a poor baseball player from his time in Kansas City, stop and rewind yourself. In his prime, Kendall was a very underrated catcher and one of the few who could bat at the top of the lineup as a table-setter. He could draw plenty of walks, and his 189 career steals as a catcher is the most in the modern era.
But by the time the Royals signed the 36-year old to a two-year, $6 million contract for the 2010 season, his shoulder was about shot. Kendall allowed the most stolen bases in the league, nailing 29% of stolen base attempts. He went homerless in 490 plate appearances, and hit just .256/.318/.297. He had surgery on his rotator cuff that September, and he never fully recovered enough to return to action the next season. A comeback attempt in 2012 never really got off the ground.
Chuck Knoblauch - 44.6 career WAR
Before he was a domestic abuser, Knoblauch was a fantastic second baseman, one of the best in the game. The four-time All-Star with Minnesota was dealt to the Yankees in a blockbuster deal in 1998, and while his numbers declined, he was still pretty good.
Then he got one of the most famous case of the “yips” the game has ever seen. He just plain forgot how to throw the ball to first base. His throws became erratic, and he famously plunked the mother of sportscaster Keith Olbermann in the stands.
The bizarre mental block led to a downhill spiral to Knoblauch’s career that forced him to move to left-field and look for work in Kansas City for the 2002 season. He signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Royals to lead off, but Knoblauch was still hitting well under the Mendoza Line in June, when he landed on the disabled list with elbow tendinitis. Chuck would end the year hitting .210/.284/.300 in 80 games, which put an end to his Major League career.
Vida Blue - 45.0 career WAR
Some times a player shoots to greatness at such a young age it leaves the entire industry in awe. In 1971, that player was Vida Blue, who was simply dominating, with a league-leading ERA of 1.82, 24 wins, 301 strikeouts and 9.0 WAR. He was named MVP that season, and won 20 games three times with the A’s before they dealt him to the San Francisco. He went to a couple more All-Star games with the Giants, but at the end of spring training in 1982, they dealt him to the Royals in a blockbuster.
Blue was still just 32 at this point, and he was still pretty solid that year, winning 13 games with a 3.78 ERA and 2.7 WAR, so perhaps it is unfair to say he “stunk.” But his signature fastball was flat the next season, as he posted a 6.01 ERA over 85 1⁄3 innings before being placed on waivers in August. Adding to his problems was the fact he was named in an FBI investigation that month, along with Royals outfielders Willie Wilson and Jerry Martin, relating to cocaine distribution, an investigation that would later lead to a year-long suspension.
Miguel Tejada - 46.9 career WAR
In 2009, Tejada made his sixth All-Star team and led the league with 46 doubles. His numbers fell off a cliff in 2010, and fell further in 2011. In 2012, he could not even find a Major League gig, spending most of the season in the minors with the Orioles. The next year, he found his opportunity - reserve infielder with the Kansas City Royals.
At age 39, Tejada wasn’t a terrible hitter for the Royals. He filled in all over the infield and hit a respectable .288/.317/.378. There was even talk of bringing him back for the 2014 season, but in mid-August it all came crashing down. Tejada was suspended 105 games for two positive tests for amphetamines. The suspension effectively ended his stint in a Royals uniform after just 53 games, and would be the end of his Major League career as well.
Orlando Cepeda - 50.3 career WAR
“Baby Bull” was a seven-time All-Star with the Giants and Cardinals and was the 1967 National League MVP, part of what would eventually be a Hall of Fame career. In 1973, serving as designated hitter for the Red Sox, the 35-year old hit 20 home runs and finished 15th in MVP voting. However, after the spring training of 1974, Cepeda was released by Boston and ended up playing in the Mexican League.
When John Mayberry went down for the Royals in August, the young Royals looked for a veteran bat to hit in the middle of the lineup and turned to Cepeda. He looked great at first, hitting at DH with Hal McRae moving to left field. Cepeda collected 12 RBI in his first six games and homered in his tenth to keep him over .300. But he hit just .156 after that, finishing at .215/.282/.290 as the Royals sank below .500. His 33 games with the Royals would be the last time he would appear in a Major League uniform.
Vada Pinson - 54.1 career WAR
The Oakland-born Pinson was one of the more underrated players in baseball. He was a terrific centerfielder and top-of-the-order hitter who led the league in runs scored and doubles at age 20 for the Cincinnati Reds. In the spring of 1974, the Royals wanted to get minor league outfielder Al Cowens a bit more seasoning, so they acquired the 34-year old Pinson from the Angels for pitcher Barry Raziano. Pinson would play right field along with Amos Otis and Jim Wohlford.
Pinson was considered one of the best veterans to have in a clubhouse, but his hitting had fallen off some. He hit .276/.312/.374 with 6 HR 41 RBI in 1974, but with his defensive decline, was just a 0.8 WAR player. He declined even more in 1975, hitting just .223/.248/.335 in 103 games, the last time he would appear in the big leagues.
Harmon Killebrew - 60.3 career WAR
At his peak, Killebrew was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. Six times he led the American League in home runs playing for the Washington Senators, and their relocated descendants, the Minnesota Twins. In January of 1975, the Twins released the 38-year old slugger, and just over a week later, the Royals scooped him up, outbidding the Rangers for his services.
Killebrew had the fifth-most home runs in history at the time, so the Royals were looking for him to be a power source in the middle of the lineup. But “Killer” had hit just 18 home runs over the previous two seasons combined, a big reason why the Twins were willing to let the franchise player go. He was terrific in April for the Royals, smacking four home runs with an .876 OPS. But he hit just .188 the rest of the season, finishing below the Mendoza Line with just 14 home runs in 106 games.
Gaylord Perry - 93.7 career WAR
Perry was the first pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award in each league, winning 318 games in his illustrious, Hall of Fame career. He led the league in wins with the Padres in 1979, but he would spend the next five seasons with six different clubs, ending his career with the Royals.
The notorious spitballer was still a useful 2.2 WAR pitcher with the Mariners in 1982, winning his 300th career game that season. But midway through the 1983 season they were ready to move on, releasing Perry in July. The Royals were hovering around .500, but were just a few games out of a weak Western Division. Despite the fact that the 44-year old Perry was older than General Manager John Schuerholz, the Royals signed him and added him to the rotation.
Perry joined an already old pitching staff full of guys over 34 - Vida Blue, Paul Splittorff, Steve Renko, and Larry Gura. He had mixed results with the Royals, with the high point being a complete game shutout against the Rangers in September. But overall, Perry had a below-average 4.27 ERA in 14 starts with the Royals, and after the season he finally put his spitter to rest.
Others: Bill Buckner and Tommy Davis both had over 2,000 hits in their Major League careers but were near the end of the line with the Royals. George Scott was a three-time All-Star who played 44 games with the Royals in his final season. Lee May hit 354 career home runs in his career, but only three came with the Royals at the end of his career. Hoyt Wilhelm was a Hall of Fame reliever, and while he never actually donned a Royals uniform, he was selected by them in the 1969 Expansion Draft before being traded to the Angels for Ed Kirkpatrick.