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The greatest shortstops in Royals history

Where does Freddie the Flea rank?

Kansas City Royals Fred Patek (left) & New York Yankees Cliff Johnson (41)

Shortstop. Considered by most, including myself, to be the toughest position to play. The position is physically and mentally demanding. In addition to having an excellent glove, the shortstop must be able to move to his right or left, direct cutoff throw traffic and have a strong arm. The shortstop is often considered the point guard of the baseball team. In modern times, we have been fortunate to have witnessed some of the best shortstops to ever play the game, guys like Ozzie Smith, Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell, Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Derek Jeter. And some of the greatest players in baseball history were shortstops - Ernie Banks and Honus Wagner come to mind.

The Royals, like most other positions through the team’s history, have had a couple of very good shortstops and a bunch that were just average. The Royals haven’t had a Hall of Fame player at the position, though that could change depending on how the career of Adalberto Mondesi progresses. I think the kid could develop into HOF-caliber - he’s only 24 and already has parts of four seasons under his belt.

His hit total could work against him, as he currently only has 219 big league hits. I would think something like 2,500 hits would be a minimum HOF cutoff. When you look at the math, if he plays until he’s 35, that’s 11 more seasons. To get to 2,500 hits, he’d have to average 207 hits per season, which given his injury history and the fact that it’s just flat-out difficult to get 200 hits in a season, well, that works against him. Even if he should play to say age 38, he’d still have to average 163 hits per season. By age 24, Barry Larkin had 326 hits (on his way to a career total of 2,340). Cal Ripken had 431 by age 24, on his way to 3,184. Alan Trammel had 650 hits by age 24, on his way to a career total of 2,365. You get the idea. If Mondesi can stay healthy, average 175+ hits per year and put up 4-8 WAR seasons for the next 10-12 years, he could get into the HOF conversation. If he continues to suffer injuries and plays 100 games a summer, well, maybe Bobby Witt, Jr. can break the jinx.

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Jay Bell, Angel Berroa, David Howard, Adalberto Mondesi.

5. Greg Gagne

It’s easy to forget that he played in Kansas City. He was originally drafted by the New York Yankees in the fifth round of the 1979 draft and in 1982, traded to the Minnesota Twins in a package for Roy Smalley. He had a couple cups of coffee with Minnesota in 1983 and 1984 before sticking for good in the 1985 season. For the next eight seasons, Gagne (along with another future Royal, Gary Gaetti) was a mainstay on the left side of the Twins infield. He averaged 141 games per season while putting up 18 WAR and leading the Twins to two World Series titles. The Twins let him walk as a free agent after the 1992 season and General Manager Herk Robinson, in one of his best moves, signed Gagne to a three-year, $10.7 million dollar deal. Gagne played in 386 games for the Royals between the 1993 and 1995 seasons and slashed .266/.317/.392. The Royals went 218-203 in those three seasons. Gagne’s best year was his first, when he put up a .280/.319/.406 number over 159 games which earned him some MVP votes. He was worth 6.5 WAR in Royals uniform. When his contract expired, he signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gagne retired after the 1997 season.

Greg Gagne
Greg Gagne

4. Kurt Stillwell

Kurt Stillwell, the son of former big leaguer Ron Stillwell, was drafted in the first round, the second-overall pick, by the Cincinnati Reds in the 1983 draft. The 1983 draft wasn’t a particularly strong one. Tim Belcher was the number one pick and he had a decent career. Roger Clemens went to the Red Sox at #19 (two picks before Kansas City, who selected Gary Thurman). Wally Joyner went at #69. Jeff Montgomery went in the ninth round. The Royals got Kevin Seitzer in round 11. Stillwell made his debut with the Reds in April of 1986 as a 20-year-old and played in 235 games over the next two seasons before the Royals acquired him and Abilene, Kansas native Ted Power during the 1987 off-season in a deal for Danny Jackson and infielder Angel Salazar. The deal initially looked like a stink bomb as Jackson went 23-8 for the Reds in what would become his career year.

Stillwell though, played well for the Royals over the next four seasons, slashing .256/.318/.373 with 26 home runs and 209 RBI while playing a solid shortstop. He made his only All-Star team in 1988 as a member of the Royals. Stillwell was worth 7 WAR over his Kansas City career.

Kansas City Royals v California Angels Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

3. U L Washington

Washington was signed by the Royals as an amateur free agent in August of 1972 and assigned to their Baseball Academy. U L (his name is actually U L, not U.L.) along with Frank White and Ron Washington (no relation) were the only grads of the Baseball Academy to play in the majors. Washington got a ten-game cup of coffee with Kansas City in 1977 followed by a 69-game stint in 1978, before taking over the shortstop position for good in 1979. His best season came in 1982, when he slashed .286/.338/.412 with 10 home runs and 60 RBI, both career highs.

For his eight-year Royals career, the switch-hitting Washington slashed a respectable .254/.316/.347. Washington played 685 games at short for Kansas City and also saw some time at second and third base. Washington, who often played and batted with a toothpick tucked into the corner of his mouth, was one of the cooler Royals to ever wear the blue. I’m talking “cool” in a Miles Davis sense of the word. He ended his Royal career with 8.5 WAR. Kansas City let him walk after the 1984 season. Washington spent 1985 in Montreal and ’86 and ’87 in Pittsburgh before calling it a career at age 33.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

2. Alcides Escobar

Escobar was originally signed by the Milwaukee Brewers as an international free agent in July of 2003 as a 17-year-old. He made his debut in Milwaukee in 2008 as a 21-year-old, appearing in nine late season games. He was recalled in August of 2009 and took over as the Brewers regular shortstop, appearing in 39 games and batting a respectable .306 in 134 plate appearances. In 2010, he appeared in 145 games for the Brew Crew and as they so often do, pitchers adjusted, and Escobar’s slash dropped to .235/.288/.326.

In December 2010, the Brewers were desperate to add a top line starter to their rotation in a quest to get back to the playoffs. Kansas City had one who wanted out, Zach Greinke, and Greinke did the Royals faithful a huge solid by rejecting General Manager Dayton Moore’s proposed trade to the Washington Nationals. Greinke did accept the trade to the Brewers and that deal changed the face of Kansas City baseball.

Milwaukee got Greinke, cash and Yuniesky Betancourt in exchange for Lorenzo Cain, Jeremy Jeffress, Jake Odorizzi and Escobar. Greinke is a probable Hall of Famer, but looking at the trade today makes you wonder if Milwaukee would have been better off just standing pat. Escobar spent eight productive seasons in Kansas City, where he was something of an iron man, averaging 156 games per year and slashing a reasonable .259/.292/.344 while playing decent defense. Cain developed into one of the better outfielders in major league baseball. Odorizzi has developed into a solid starter and Jeffress had a few decent seasons. Greinke on the other hand, made 49 starts for Milwaukee, going 25-9 and helping Milwaukee win the National League Central crown in 2011. The Brewers flipped Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels in July of 2012 for a trio of players, none who had a lasting impact in Milwaukee. Betancourt played in 152 games for the Brewers in 2011 before becoming a free agent. Unbelievably, Dayton Moore signed him for a second go around in Kansas City, which lasted 57 games before the Royals released him in August of 2012.

But the deal worked out well for Kansas City. Escobar is one of those players who elicit mixed emotions from Royals fans. During his best years, he was a solid shortstop and a somewhat productive bat. During his final two years, age and the wear and tear of playing shortstop began to catch up to him and he was a below level replacement player. Fans grew frustrated as Ned Yost continued to pencil him into the everyday lineup at a variety of positions: short, third, second and center field, not to say anything of Ned’s predilection to batting Escobar in the leadoff slot. Had Ned used Esky as a utility guy the last two seasons and batted him in the eight or nine hole, where he belonged, fans might have had a different reaction to him.

Escobar’s best season came in 2012, when he slashed .293/.331/.390. He collected 177 hits that summer, but he also struck out 100 times. Never one to walk much, Escobar drew 231 bases on balls in 5,702 career plate appearances.

Escobar also performed well in the playoffs and World Series, slashing .311/.326/.467 in 147 plate appearances. His lead-off, inside the park home run in game one of the 2015 World Series off New York Met ace Matt Harvey, set the tone for the Royals Series win. Yet in classic Escobar style, he only walked once in those 147 plate appearances while striking out 21 times.

Escobar played in 1,209 games at shortstop for the Royals and ended his career with a .259/.292/.344 line worth 9.3 WAR, while winning one Gold Glove and appearing in one All-Star game.

1. Fred Patek

Freddie Patek was not destined to become a baseball player. He grew up in Seguin, Texas, which isn’t exactly a baseball hotbed. And he only stood 5’5’’ and weighed 148 pounds. The chances of him making it to the big leagues were astronomical, yet he not only made it, he thrived.

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Patek in the 22nd round of the 1965 draft. His minor league career was up and down: .310 at A league Gastonia. .203 at AA Ashville and .139 at AAA Columbus, all in 1966. He spent nearly all of 1967 at Columbus and improve his batting average to .255. He started 1968 in Columbus but after hitting .304, the Pirates called him up. The Pirates already had an All-Star shortstop in Gene Alley, so they played Patek all over the diamond - shortstop, right field, left field and third base. He acquitted himself well, slashing .255/.298/.322 over 234 plate appearances. He appeared in 292 games over the course of three seasons in Pittsburgh before Royals General Manager Cedric Tallis waved his magic trade wand and sweet talked the Pirates into taking Jim Campanis, Jackie Hernandez and Bob Johnson in exchange for Patek, catcher Jerry May and pitcher Bruce Dal Canton in what can best be described as the baseball version of a Brinks robbery. May and Dal Canton were contributors but Patek was the steal.

Manager Bob Lemon installed Patek as his starting shortstop and the results were spectacular. In his first Royals season (1971) Patek slashed .267/.323/.371 while collecting a career high 158 hits and hitting a league leading 11 triples. He also hit a career high six home runs and stole 49 bases, which earned him a sixth-place finish in the American League MVP vote.

On July 9th, 1971, Patek became the first Royal to hit for the cycle, accomplishing the feat against Jim Perry and the Minnesota Twins in a game at the old Metropolitan Stadium. Beginning in June of 1970, Patek was teamed with another National League castoff (and Tallis steal), second baseman Cookie Rojas. The duo formed one of the most lethal double play combos in American League history. For four consecutive seasons between 1971 and 1974, Patek was credited with more than 100 double plays each year. Many older Royal fans will recall Patek and Rojas frolicking in the right field water fountains after clinching the American League West pennant for the first time in 1976. Patek played 1,241 games at shortstop for Kansas City over nine seasons. His final numbers were: .241/.309/.321 with 1,036 hits, 571 runs and 336 stolen bases including a league leading 53 in 1977.

I can remember watching Patek steal second base in a game during the 1977 season. I was sitting behind first base, so I had a good view of the proceedings. First, he got an audacious lead. Then when he got his pitch, he put his head down and shocked me with his sprinter’s acceleration. He finished with a hard slide for the steal. I had a newfound respect for him after watching him perform his craft. Patek’s 385 career steals still rank #83 on the all-time major league list.

Patek made three American league All-Star teams and was worth 20.5 WAR over his Kansas City career. He performed exceptionally well in the 1976 and 1977 American League Championship Series, batting .389 in each affair. He struggled in the 1978 ALCS, only collecting one hit in 14 plate appearances, the hit being a seventh inning home run off the Yankees Dick Tidrow in game two of the series. He played his final game in a Royal uniform on August 22, 1979 in a game against the New York Yankees at Royals Stadium. In the top of the second, Royal killer Chris Chambliss hit a ground ball to short, which Patek fielded and flipped to Pete LaCock at first for the last of his 2,132 putouts as a Royal. In the bottom of the second, he drew a walk. In the fourth, Patek stroked a two-out single to left in what was his final at-bat and hit as a Royal. Manager Whitey Herzog sent in a young shortstop named U L Washington to run for Patek and that was that. Herzog loved Patek, calling him “the best artificial turf shortstop I have ever managed.” That is high praise coming from Herzog, who also managed a guy named Ozzie Smith.

The Royals let Patek walk as a free agent after the 1979 season. He played in 113 games over the next two seasons with the California Angels, before retiring at the age of 36. Freddie Patek was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1992.