The Royals seem headed towards the worst season in franchise history, but the yardstick by which to measure their ineptitude was set by the 2005 Royals. The Royals had stressed youth before, but had always seemed to take half-measures in a rebuild movement. In 2005, they announced they were committed to the future, but that meant a long season of losing.
Say hello to: Emil Brown, Eli Marrero, Terrence Long, Matt Diaz, Joe McEwing, Jose Lima, Andy Sisco, Leo Nunez
Say goodbye to: Joe Randa, Dee Brown, Benito Santiago, Juan Gonzalez, Desi Relaford, Darrell May, Dennys Reyes
All-Star: Mike Sweeney
Team payroll: $36,881,000 (29th out of 30 teams)
Highest paid player: Mike Sweeney, $11 million
Rookies: Mark Teahen, Matt Diaz, Chip Ambres, Andy Sisco, Ambriorix Burgos, J.P. Howell, Denny Bautista, Leo Nunez
Top prospect: Nineteen-year old Billy Butler hit .340/.404/.611 with 30 HR and 39 doubles between High A High Desert and AA Wichita. Baseball America ranked him the 29th-best prospect in baseball after the 2005 season.
2005 Draft: Alex Gordon (2nd overall), Jeff Bianchi. No other players reached the big leagues in an epically awful draft.
Best month: The Royals went 12-14 in June, including a sweep of the Yankees, and an 8-7 mark against National League clubs.
Worst month: The club wilted in August, dropping 21 of 26 including 19 in a row at one point.
Best game: On July 27 against the White Sox, Mike Sweeney slammed a three-run home run to tie the game in the eighth, his second homer of the game. The teams battled for four and a half hours and thirteen innings before Emil Brown blooped a single with the bases loaded for the walk-off 6-5 win.
Worst game: The Royals had lost ten in a row going into their August 9 game against the Indians, but held a 7-2 lead going into the ninth inning. The Indians began to hammer away at closer Mike MacDougal, but the Royals were still clinging to a 7-6 lead when they recorded the second out. Jeff Liefer lofted a fly ball to left for what seemed like the final out of the game, but Royals outfielder Chip Ambres inexplicably dropped the ball, allowing the tying run to score. The Indians would score 11 runs in all that inning, extending the losing streak for Kansas City.
What went right: Between Mike MacDougal, Andy Sisco, and Ambriorix Burgos, it looked like the Royals finally had some decent bullpen arms. Emil Brown was plucked off the scrap heap to become a decent hitter. Mike Sweeney had one of his healthier seasons. David DeJesus blossomed into a very good Major Leaguer.
What went wrong: Pretty much everything. Pitching phenom Zack Greinke totally fell apart and the rotation was awful. Young hitters failed to produce and the team was third-worst in runs scored.
The Royals had tried to build a young team ever since Allard Baird had been hired as General Manager, but poor deals for stars like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Jermaine Dye had thrwarted those efforts. A surprise run in 2003 offered some hope, and the team went on a mini-spending splurge in 2004, landing veteran free agents like Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago only to have it blow up in their face with a 104-loss season.
So in 2005 it was back to the drawing board, with Baird redoubling his efforts to field a young team. The problem was, there were very few good young players coming up through the system, leaving Baird many holes to fill. He entered the winter looking for an outfield bat, continuing his long-time pursuit of Rangers slugger Kevin Mench. He also tried to engineer a three-team trade for Reds outfielder Austin Kearns, but with little in his system to offer other than a few young, but underwhelming middle infielders like Andres Blanco, Donnie Murphy, and Ruben Gotay, a deal could not be struck.
Baird had to be creative to find talent, facing payroll constraints as other teams lavished free agents with big dollar deals. Owner David Glass expressed shock at the money being spent around baseball.
”I know that in Kansas City that we can break even with a payroll of between $40 million and $50 million. If that’s the case, how many players can you sign for $10 million or $15 million?”
The Royals landed a veteran outfielder in Terrence Long, obtaining him from the Padres after a disappointing season in exchange for pitcher Darrell May. He also traded for right-handed outfielder Eli Marrero, a 31-year old once considered a promising player until injuries derailed his career.
Baird was miraculously able to move catcher Benito Santiago - who had been a bust and was facing a suspension for PED use - to the Pirates in exchange for a promising young pitcher named Leo Nunez (who would later be revealed to be named “Juan Carlos Oviedo”). He nabbed a young hard-throwing lefty in the Rule 5 draft from the Cubs named Andy Sisco. He also brought back an old friend, reuniting with pitcher Jose Lima, who was part of the magical run in 2003, but left in 2004 to pitch for the Dodgers.
“We’ve got a different direction. We’re committed to our young kids, and we’re committed to bringing up those young kids right away.”
Baird made clear the team rebuild was in full swing, which caused veteran Mike Sweeney, who had committed to the team on a long-term deal with the understanding the team would try to contend, to raise the possibility he would waive his no-trade clause to go to a contender. But with three years and $33 million left on the deal and with his injury history, he seemed to be immovable.
The Royals brought in veteran third baseman Chris Truby as a “stop gap” in case Mark Teahen wasn’t ready, but the 24-year old acquired in the Beltran trade made the Opening Day roster when Truby got hurt. The Royals went with youth up the middle with John Buck, the other main piece of the Beltran deal, at catcher. Rookie Ruben Gotay would start at second, paired with 2003 Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa at shortstop. In center was 25-year old David DeJesus, coming off his first full season.
Long would start in left with right field being a combination of Marrero, Matt Stairs, and a minor league free agent named Emil Brown. The Royals acknowledged the rotation needed help, initially going with Lima on Opening Day, followed by Runelvys Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Denny Bautista, and Brian Anderson. The bullpen had some live arms with former All-Star Mike MacDougal pitching in late innings with Burgos, Sisco, and Jeremy Affeldt.
“See, Royals fans have heard the mantra of a Royals youth movement for almost 10 years. In truth, the Royals never actually committed to a youth movement before. They stuck their big toe in it a few times, but never actually dived in headfirst.
They have now, and that’s the message the Royals need to get out. They are committed this time around.”
Antoher surprise in camp was the demotion of first baseman Ken Harvey - who had been the team’s All-Star representative the previous summer. A second-half swoon had cost Harvey his roster spot in favor of big Calvin Pickering. Pickering had become a darling for sabermetricians, who were wowed by his eye-popping power and walk totals in AAA Omaha. The PECOTA projection system predicted Pickering would be the 13th-best hitter in all of baseball.
“I want to start the `Free Calvin Pickering’ movement.”
Pickering would homer on Opening Day, but would last just seven games, hitting .148, before the team demoted him to Omaha, never to return.
Predictably, the team stumbled out of the gate, dropping nine in a row in late April to fall to 5-18. Manager Tony Pena, whose infectious enthusiasm gave the team the rallying cry !Nosotros Creamos! in 2003, earning him Manager of the Year honors, began facing scrutiny for the team’s poor fundamentals and lousy play. Despite the poor start, Pena was given a vote of confidence from Baird.
“Tony Pena is our manager this year, no doubt about it. We’re not going to change the direction of the ballclub.”
The team continued to flounder in May, when Pena was subpoenaed to testify in a civil matter, later revealed to be related to his role in an affair causing the divorce of his neighbors. On May 11, with the team record at 8-25, Pena abruptly resigned as manager of the Royals. Owner David Glass, stuck in owner’s meetings all day, didn’t even find out until a reporter told him that evening.
“I lost energy, and it’s not fun. It’s better to turn it over to somebody who’s having fun.”
Bench coach Bob Schaefer took over the job on an interim basis but Royals legend Frank White, managing the AA affiliate in Wichita, openly campaigned for the job. However the Royals wanted someone with Major League managing experience, narrowing their search to Schaefer, Dodgers farm director Terry Collins, former Mets manager Art Howe, Mets first-base coach Jerry Manuel, and the eventual choice, Indians bench coach Buddy Bell.
“The important thing to me was the direction this club is going,” Bell said. “I’ve watched their ups and downs, but I’ve been impressed by the good young players they’ve put on the field. I want to be part of turning that around. I would not be here today if I didn’t believe we could do that.”
Bell was an experienced manager, but his experience was with losing teams. In six seasons with the Tigers and Rockies, he had just one winning year, and overall lost 57% of his games. The play under Bell did not improve. They lost six in a row in late May, then dropped 12 of 13 in June going into July, getting shut out three times in four nights. The offense was anemic, with struggles from many of the young players like Teahen, Gotay, and Buck. Long hit .279, but with very little power or ability to draw walks. Marrero was a bust and was traded to Baltimore mid-season. The team would finish dead last in home runs, with Sweeney being the only Royals hitter to hit more than 20.
“It’s gotten so bad in Kansas City, Major League Baseball is demanding they take steroids.”
-Jay Leno, on The Tonight Show
If the offense was bad, the pitching was worse. Zack Greinke, who had turned in an impressive rookie season in 2004, had his brains beat in for 2005. He pitched well to start the season, carrying a 4.23 ERA after two months but he was rocked for 11 runs in a game against the Diamondbacks (in which he homered), a start that would lead to a steady downfall. He would finish with a 5.80 ERA and a league-high 17 losses and would temporarily leave the team the next spring.
But Greinke looked like a Cy Young candidate compared to Jose Lima. The Royals badly needed a starter to sop up innings to keep them from overworking their bullpen or calling up pitchers before they were ready, as they had done the previous season with the embarrassing “Eduardo Villacis incident.” So despite pitching lousy pretty much all year, Lima kept getting starts. His 6.99 ERA is the highest in baseball history for a pitcher who made 30 starts or more in a season.
The Royals had a nice comeback walk-off victory on July 27 against the White Sox. They would not win another game for three weeks. The losing streak seemed like it might end on August 9 against the Indians, but Chip Ambres dropped what would have been the last out of the game, allowing the Indians to stage an epic comeback. The Royals were swept by the Rays, Red Sox, A’s, Indians, Tigers, and Mariners before finally beating the A’s on August 20. In all, they lost 19 games in a row, the tenth in team in baseball history with a losing streak that long.
“It has been a cavalcade of errors, a parade of gags. What can you say? The Royals can’t do anything right these days. Every trade backfires. Every free agent flops. Every pitcher gets shellacked. The Royals don’t just lose - they lose funny. If the Royals had invested in Microsoft stock in the early years, the abacus would have come back.”
On September 22, the Royals lost their 100th game of the season, giving them 100 losses in the third season out of the last four. A week later they would eclipse the franchise record for losses in a season, set just the previous season. They would end the year with a mark of 56-106, finishing 43 games back of the first place Indians, and 11 games worse than any other team in baseball.
The Royals knew there would be some lumps to be taken with a youth movement, and they stressed the future. Billy Butler was destroying minor league pitching, the team had just inked College Player of the Year Alex Gordon to a $4 million bonus, and there were some other interesting players in the farm system, like first baseman Justin Huber, named a Top 100 prospect by Baseball America that year.
“We’ve got guys like Billy Butler and Mitch Maier and Chris Lubanski who should be here soon. They’re coming up fast...We’ll have another crop right behind those guys I mentioned. We’ve got shortstop Jeff Bianchi, who I can say is the most exciting guy I’ve ever scouted. He could be that good. And, of course, we’ve got Alex Gordon.”
-Scouting director Deric Ladnier
As much as the front office touted the future, however, it was not nearly as bright as they thought, and a year later, many would be looking for new jobs.
The 2005 Royals were just an epically awful club, who couldn’t hit, couldn’t pitch, and really couldn’t do much of anything right on a baseball field. It seems hard to fathom how a team could be much worse, but we shall see if this year’s edition is up to the task.