Are we living in simulation? Are there alternate universes with different outcomes than the ones we experience in this one? Is there an alternate universe where Alex Gordon scored in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, where people wear their pants backwards, and John Stamos is President of the United States?
It is “what if” week at SB Nation, so we wanted to take a look at some of the more interesting “what ifs” in Royals history. What if things had just gone...a bit differently? Baseball history might have been changed forever.
What if Ned Yost blew the Wild Card game?
Picture, in your mind, the state of Kansas City Royals baseball after last season: the Royals were less than five years removed from consecutive trips to the World Series. The 2015 parade served as a blueprint for the Kansas City Chiefs’ parade of their own. Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, and Mike Moustakas aren’t just beloved players, but legitimate Royals legends. And Ned Yost, the winningest manager in Royals history, retired with much celebration of his career.
...yet, in the sixth inning of the Wild Card Game, there was a moment was this future was in serious jeopardy. Instead of turning to Kelvin Herrera, Yost instead turned to Yordano Ventura in order to save Herrera for when things got bad, I guess. Ventura coughed up the lead and Yost had to turn to Herrera anyways. It was the ultimate managerial blunder in the worst spot, the kind of blunder that got Yost fired from his previous position with the Milwaukee Brewers, the kind that got him labeled The Dunce mere weeks later by a national newspaper.
What would have happened if the Royals had lost that game because of that blunder? Nearly everything. Yost, for his part, probably gets fired the very next day for fumbling away the most important Royals game in nearly three decades, cementing his legacy as a bad manager and potentially preventing him from ever working in MLB again. The Royals don’t go on that 2014 playoff run at all, depriving Royals fans of one of the most magical Kansas City sports seasons in history. And even if the 2015 Royals were really good, would they have pulled the trigger on the Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist trades? Who really knows.
What if the Royals had not gotten off to a hot start in 2003?
The Royals had been a floundering franchise for a decade by the time the 2003 season rolled around, but a hot 9-0 start catapulted them into a surprising pennant race for much of the summer. While the taste of a pennant race provided excitement for fans at the time, it may have set the franchise back.
Consider that in spring training of 2003, the Royals had a deal to send Carlos Beltrán to the Rangers for third baseman Hank Blalock and second baseman Michael Young, but Beltrán injured his oblique to put the deal on hold. Once they got off to a hot start, they were unwilling to trade him. If the Royals stumble out of the game, perhaps they pull the trigger on the deal early in the season, giving the Royals two young quality infielders.
The Royals also had a unique arrangement with Mike Sweeney where if the team had a winning season in either 2003 or 2004, he became locked into a five-year, $55 million deal. With the Royals winning 83 games in 2003, Sweeney lost his escape clause and was committed to Kansas City. That turned out to be a double-edged sword as Sweeney battled injuries and was not quite worth the $55 million deal he had signed for, making it nearly impossible to trade him. Had he not been under his contract, perhaps the Royals shop him to the Angels, as was rumored at the time, for players like first baseman Casey Kotchman and young pitcher Ervin Santana.
The Royals fell back to earth in 2004 and 2005 and got off to another bad start in 2006 before finally firing General Manager Allard Baird, replacing him after the June draft with Dayton Moore. Had the 2003 season success not happened, perhaps Baird has as shorter leash and is fired after the 2005 season, giving his successor a full off-season to get the rebuild started. Perhaps Moore can get to work earlier, rather than having Baird sign stop-gap veterans like Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek, Scott Elarton, Joe Mays, and Matt Stairs. Moore would eventually get the Royals on the right track but he possibly could have rebuilt the Royals quicker had the team not had their brief success in 2003.
What if Steve Busby had not blown out his arm?
In the second round of the secondary phase of the June 1971 amateur draft, the Royals selected USC pitcher Steve Busby. Busby blew through the Royals farm system and made his big-league debut on September 8, 1972. Busby possessed an above-average fastball, a decent curve and a devastating slider. Between 1973 and 1975, he was a two time All-Star and won 56 games, striking out 532 batters in 791 innings. He also threw the first two no-hitters in Royals history in 1973 and 1974. After appearing in 13 games in 1976, he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. Unfortunately, rotator cuff surgery in those days was not the science it is today, and the injury essentially ended Busby’s promising career.
He gamely tried to come back, appearing in 40 more games between 1978 and 1980, compiling a record of 8-9, but his once devastating stuff was never the same. He retired after the 1980 season at the age of 30.
Busby was only 26 and in his prime when struck down by injury. The Royals won the American League West in 1976, 1977 and 1978 and won the American League Pennant in 1980, before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.
Had Busby stayed healthy, how would those three crushing playoff defeats to the Yankees changed? I believe Kansas City would have won the pennant all three years and advanced to the World Series.
They might not have beaten the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati in the 1976 World Series, but I do believe with a healthy Busby, they would have won the 1977 and 1978 Series over the Dodgers and the 1980 Series over the Phillies. In 1979, the Royals finished three games back of the California Angels. Would a healthy Busby have pushed them over the top? I’ve always believed that with a healthy Busby, the Royals history changes from having a strong team in the mid-1970’s to having a dynasty. They would have had to erect more poles at Kauffman Stadium to hold the additional World Series flags.
What if Yordano Ventura was still throwing fire?
“Ace” was synonymous with fire. He threw it. He spoke it. He was fire personified. And to a lot of Royals fans, that was tough to deal with sometimes. He had a reputation for being a hot head and there were plenty of questions about his development and injury potential. He also had the potential to be something incredibly special. So the possibilities are indeed endless, making him my biggest “What if” so let’s take a look at some of them.
What if Yordano goes on to win multiple Cy Young Awards? I mean the talent was there. His stuff was likened to Pedro Martinez, but with a 100 mph fastball. If he were to take this:
And add the slider that Kelvin Herrera was able to add to his repertoire to go with his already above average curve and change:
I don’t know if it’s THAT far fetched.
What if he never really put it together like we all wanted and we talked about him now like we talk about Jorge Lopez? Every year we hear about Jorge Lopez having the best “stuff” in the organization but he just can’t put it all together. That could have easily been Yordano if he were to continue pitching in this organization known for its inability to develop starting pitchers and also considering the organization went through a pitching coach change. Personally, I thought Yordano’s talent was too good to fail altogether (might’ve become a dominant reliever down the road) but this scenario is likelier than a Cy Young too.
From a roster shaping perspective, Ventura’s passing left a void in the pitching staff that was originally filled by veteran Jason Hammel, whom the Royals signed a month after the tragedy for 2 years/$16 million. The Royals were repaid with just 0.4 bWAR over those two seasons. Next, the Royals committed to buying at the deadline of the 2017 season and traded for three pitchers, including veteran Trevor Cahill to fill a spot in the starting rotation. Cahill immediately made three starts where he went 11 total innings and gave up 11 earned runs. The whispers of discontent with Dayton Moore swirled among Royals fans once more and the void remained.
Then came the wide net casting where the final spots of the rotation were revolving doors consisting of Glenn Sparkman, Eric Skoglund, Heath Fillmyer, Trevor Oaks, Burch Smith, Brad Keller, and Jorge Lopez. Some of those worked out; some...did not. Had Ventura still been in a Royals uniform and avoided any major injuries, the 2019 rotation probably looks like Keller, Ventura, Duffy, Junis, and Homer Bailey/Jorge Lopez. That’s still a pretty volatile group so I don’t think Ventura’s presence in it, or any rotation prior to it, is the difference between 100 losses and postseason runs.
What if the Royals dealt him like the rumors suggested back in 2016? A flame thrower with a very team friendly contract could pull in quite a haul in the trade, especially if there was still potential for him to become a starter. That trade deadline saw the Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller blockbusters so the reliever market was hot. The following trade deadline saw Jose Quintana dealt to the Cubs for Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, and others, so the starting pitcher market was also hot and Ventura very well could have been in play, bringing back some solid pieces for the Royals moving forward.
What if the Royals started the rebuild after 2017?
You could have made the case for a rebuild in 2017, just a season and a half removed from a World Series title. The Royals were in last place in the division for much of the first half of the year, but most importantly they were set to lose half their starting lineup. We can agree though that was never going to happen.
But the stronger case would have been a rebuild that winter (when those players did leave) or during the 2018 season. Whit Merrifield was coming off a 3-win season and was in the middle of posting a 5-win season. Salvador Perez was mostly healthy and hitting well (for a catcher). Jorge Bonifacio looked like a starter for a few weeks there. Danny Duffy had just come off his best season yet in 2017 and could have gotten a top 100 prospect perhaps. Jason Hammel had a decent 2017 and could have found a new home somewhere that winter (remember he ultimately did so poorly to start 2018 he was moved to the bullpen where he was just a little better). Kelvin Herrera still had some sparkle left on him.
It’s not as if the Royals were inactive that winter of 2017. They made a three-team trade that dealt away Scott Alexander and Joakim Soria and traded away Ryan Buchter and Brandon Moss. They took two Rule 5 picks (via trades), took some flyers on vets (Ricky Nolasco, Lucas Duda, Michael Saunders, Jon Jay, Justin Grimm, Clay Buchholz). Some of the moves would have actually set them up nicely for a rebuild, giving opportunity to let guys play who were on short term deals that could possibly be traded at the deadline.
But no one was moved, mostly. They traded away Jon Jay, Mike Moustakas, and an injured Kelvin Herrera. No one who was acquired (other than Brad Keller) in the winter of 2017 or the summer of 2018, either through trades or signings, looks like a potential building block. The team still hasn’t really committed to this rebuild thing either, so the org is staring down the barrel at third straight 100 loss season (but hey - the Astros lost 100 games three straight years, so maybe it might work!).
- Shaun Newkirk
What are some what if scenarios you would like to consider?