Baseball is cruel, and all Kansas City fans should know that. Dashing high expectations on the sharp rocks of reality is a feature, not a bug. Consider: Miguel Cabrera is the active career leader in batting average at .317. That’s impressive for baseball standards, but that means that Miggy gets a hit less than a third of the time he steps to the plate. That kind of rate as a ‘success’ can only exist in baseball, where the difference between a living legend and a scrub is that one fails slightly less.
Kansas City Royals fans know this excruciatingly well. How else do you explain a 29-year gap between playoff appearances? Not once between 1986 and 2013 did the Royals even sneak into the playoffs as a lucky, mediocre team, which happens sometimes. But not for them.
This was, to be fair, mostly because the Royals were excruciatingly horrible. Ain’t never gettin’ into October with 90-loss seasons, and the Royals averaged that for two decades. They tallied up four 100-loss seasons in a five-year span. And after one of those years, the Royals acquired a Mexican pitcher named Joakim Soria.
Kansas City plucked Soria from the San Diego Padres in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, and he made his Royals debut in 2007. The Rule 5 draft is a bizarre octopus of a concept, and it usually exists as a boogeyman or as offseason discussion fodder when there is literally nothing more exciting to talk about. Its purpose is to ensure that teams aren’t stockpiling minor league talent with no intention of using said talent, but in practice all the best prospects are protected one way or another from the draft and its somewhat draconian core policy (that for a team to keep a player selected in the Rule 5 draft they must remain on the 25-man roster all season) means that very few players actually end the year on the team that drafted them.
Even fewer become good enough to make an All-Star team, but that’s just what Soria became: good enough.
More than good enough, actually. Soria was an excellent reliever for the Royals for five years. From 2007 to 2011, he pitched in 315.1 innings, where his ERA at 2.40 was 81% better than league average over that span and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was almost four. Soria was a two-time All-Star and was good enough to receive Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP votes. He saved 160 games for the Royals during that time.
That is extraordinarily impressive, because the Royals during that time were—ah, how should I put this?—butt. The Royals were butt. New General Manager Dayton Moore was quietly assembling a very strong minor league system, but his Major League deals were about as effective as an invasion of Russia in the winter, but without the feeling of competitiveness.
Put it this way: Soria’s best season was 2010. The Royals should have been in rebuilding mode, meaning that the team should have been filled with young, unproven guys under team control. But a huge amount of the team was totally replaceable filler. Of the 46 guys who suited up in Royals blue and white that year, nine guys never played another MLB game after that. Another seven would go on to play only one additional season in the big leagues. The average age of those 16 players*? Twenty-nine. None were under 25. Moore wasn’t even getting players with any upside to fill roster spots.
*Because someone will want names: Roman Colon, Josh Rupe, Rob Tejada, Jai Miller, Scott Podsednik, Anthony Lerew, John Parrish, Gil Meche, Brad Thompson, Lucas May, Jose Guillen, Jason Kendall, Dusty Hughes, Bryan Bullington, Josh Fields, and Kanekoa Texeira
Dragged down by oodles of riffraff, Soria still put up an inhuman 1.78 ERA and 43 saves. The team lost 95 games, meaning only 22 times did the Royals win a game that did not require a Soria save. That is almost incomprehensibly bonkers: if Greg Holland had saved games at Soria’s 2010 rate in 2014, he would have ended up with 58, which would have been the second-best single season save count of all time. As reality stands, though, Holland only notched 46.
In 2007, the Royals lost 93 games. In 2009, the Royals lost 97 games. In 2011, the Royals lot 91 games, and Soria underwent his second career Tommy John surgery. Kansas City’s 2008 yielded only 87 losses, a comparatively burning supernova of competence compared to the cold, dark, lonely void of consistent floundering that the Royals perfected as both art and science in the years surrounding.
Royals fans know this story, though. It has happy ending—for us. After enduring years of pure, concentrated stupid, the Royals made the playoffs in 2014. Kauffman Stadium shook harder than it ever had after James Shields fired a first-pitch strike in the Wild Card Game, and somehow shook harder still after Salvador Perez poked a walkoff single down the third base line. That team advanced to the World Series. Next year’s team did the impossible, advancing to the World Series again. Then they won it all, cementing the Second Golden Age Royals into a deserved shrine in team history.
As Royals fans and the few Royals players leftover from the bad years experienced joy beyond measure, Soria pitched elsewhere. Oh, he eventually pitched in a playoff game. Three of them, in fact, and Soria pitched in the very same playoffs as the Royals’ great two-year run. But he didn’t notch a save in any of them. His team never won a series.
In 2016, with Kansas City in search of a repeat, Moore signed Soria. It was an overpay, but there were those of us thrilled to get him back. For years, the speakers blaring ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ as Soria warmed up in the ninth inning was just about the only thing worth caring about as a Royals fan. To have Soria back on a good team? It was right. It was the rare instance of the Baseball Gods smiling down on a player, gracing him with something that he deserved for all the hard work and losing he endured for what seemed like an age.
But Royals fans know the story. Alas, the Baseball Gods were smiling, but not benevolently. It was a cruel smile. Soria was not good for the 2016 Royals, blowing tied games and leads left and right. At the end of the season, Kansas City teetered at the fulcrum point of 81-81. And while Soria improved in 2017, the balance started to dip, and the team finished 80-82.
The Royals traded Soria to the Chicago White Sox, where he will play next year. It is the third time in the past four seasons he’s been traded.
But that’s not the sad part. The sad part is this: Soria finished his seven-year Royals career with a nifty 2.82 ERA, 473 strikeouts, and also 162 saves, a count which places him third all-time in Kansas City history behind Royals Hall of Famers Jeff Montgomery and Dan Quisenberry.
Soria never experienced a single winning season with the Royals. He was there before the success. But while Royals fans were rewarded for their patience with two World Series appearances and trophies galore, Soria was rewarded for his patience and service time with nothing. And when he was brought back to extend the Golden Age, when his 2010 season would have mattered, his twice-reconstructed elbow and age instead stood in the way.
Make no mistake: we ought to see Soria in the Royals Hall of Fame someday. It is not a World Series ring, but it will be an official recognition of a man who was a brilliant jewel in the history of the franchise, a jewel embedded in a bunch of crap.
Goodbye, Jack. Thanks for everything.