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Most Beloved (Obscure) Royals: Lost Causes Region

In an alternate universe, these guys might be legends...

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals Photo by John Williamson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Today, we reach our third bracket in the most beloved (obscure) tournament. This bracket is made up of guys who were the subject of high hopes that mostly went unrealized. The two subregions are “Next Big Thing”—those with general hype—and “Saber-Darlings,” those whose advocacy was mostly among analytically inclined fans.

Here is the bracket:

“Next Big Thing” Match-Ups

#1 Tom Gordon vs. #16 Gary Thurman

Tom “Flash” Gordon was one of the final arrivals in the great Royals parade of young pitchers of the late eighties. He gained fans’ attention as a 20-year-old, charging from single-A all the way to the big leagues, posting a 16-5 cumulative record, with a 1.75 ERA and 263 strikeouts in 185.2 innings pitched. He became a sensation in his his rookie season as he piled up ten wins in relief before the All-Star break (although five were vulture wins after blown saves). He joined the rotation in the second half, and he finished with a 17-9 record and the The Sporting News Rookie Pitcher of the Year award, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Orioles reliever Gregg Olson.

There was always debate on whether Gordon, who had one of the most devastating curveballs in the game, was better suited to the rotation or bullpen. He spent most of his Royals career as a starter, but he switched to the bullpen with the Red Sox at age 30, and had a long career as a late-innings reliever.

Gary Thurman looked like a speedster with a bit of power and good on-base skills in the minors. He stole 53 bases in 68 attempts as a Royal over six seasons, but with only a 66 OPS+, never earning a regular spot in the lineup. He won out over Butch Davis in the play-in match-up with 71% of the vote.


Tom Gordon or Gary Thurman?

This poll is closed

  • 95%
    Tom Gordon
    (353 votes)
  • 4%
    Gary Thurman
    (15 votes)
368 votes total Vote Now

#8 Mark Teahen vs. #9 Michael Tucker

When the Royals decided to trade Carlos Beltran, they were looking for a third baseman and catcher. They received Mark Teahen from the A’s, and he seemed to be the most promising player they received, ranking as the #85 prospect in baseball going into 2005. He really got fans excited when, after coming back from an injury in 2006, he hit .313/.385/.557 in 316 at-bats the rest of the season. He never lived up to that promise, settling in as an average to slightly below-average hitter until being shipped to the White Sox in 2010.

In the post-strike sell-off, Royals put their hopes in a prospects like Johnny Damon, Joe Vitiello, and Michael Tucker, the #32 prospect in baseball. Tucker filled in for Vince Coleman at the beginning of 1995, serving as the Opening Day leftfielder. He struggled and was sent down, returning to serve as the primary DH down the stretch. He was the team’s primary rightfielder in ‘96, when healthy, but he never broke out. He was traded for Jermaine Dye after the season, and for the first couple of seasons, it looked like the Braves got the better end of the deal. His potential and average-ish performance made him prime trade bait for years after that, landing back with the Royals for the 2002 season. He played all three outfield positions for the 2003 team, until an injury ended his season at the beginning of August. He left as a free agent at the end of the year. Overall, he hit .257/.335/.422 in his Royals career, over four seasons.


Mark Teahen or Michael Tucker?

This poll is closed

  • 69%
    Mark Teahen
    (260 votes)
  • 30%
    Michael Tucker
    (115 votes)
375 votes total Vote Now

#4 Luke Hochevar vs. #13 Clint Hurdle

People wonder if Dayton Moore would have been able to take charge before the 2006 draft, the Royals would have ended up with a better pick at #1 overall than Luke Hochevar, who ended up as the 15th-most valuable player in the first round, behind guys like Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Tim Lincecum, and Evan Longoria. Hochevar’s teasing performance as a starting pitcher made the idea that a short stretch of excellence meant that he “turned the corner” a running joke. He had a 5.44 ERA in 128 starts, but was a revelation as a reliever in 2013. He missed the 2014 season for Tommy John surgery, but was a key contributor to the 2015 World Series run. He pitched 10.2 innings, not allowing a run nor an inherited runner to score, and was the winning pitcher in the clinching game. He was injured again late in 2016, and never pitched again.

Clint Hurdle made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 20-year-old, labelled “This Year’s Phenom” in a preseason issue. He didn’t live up to the hype right away, but he steadily improved until putting together a good season for the pennant winners in 1980. He was fantastic in an injury-plagued 1981, but the Royals traded him to Cincinnati for another injury-plagued player, pitcher Scott Brown. Neither player amounted to much after the trade. Hurdle hit a respectable .276/.353/.432 in 1,240 plate appearances as a Royal.


Luke Hochevar or Clint Hurdle?

This poll is closed

  • 58%
    Luke Hochevar
    (216 votes)
  • 41%
    Clint Hurdle
    (153 votes)
369 votes total Vote Now

#5 Jeremy Affeldt vs. #12 Carlos Febles

Jeremy Affeldt burst into our consciousness in spring 2002, displaying devastating stuff (one observer used the word “Koufaxian”) he had not previously shown. He made the club out of camp, skipping AAA, and soon earned his way into the starting rotation. He had a recurring problem with blisters that kept him from establishing himself in the rotation, and he eventually moved to the bullpen. Affeldt struggled to adjust after the portion of his fingernail causing the blisters was surgically removed after the 2004 season. Now strictly in the bullpen, he became increasingly less effective over the ‘05-’06 seasons, before being packaged with Denny Bautista in the deal to bring in Ryan Shealy. He appeared in 184 games for the Royals (42 starts), with a 101 ERA+. He became a fixture for the Giants’ bullpen in his latter years, winning three rings with San Francisco; he was the winning pitcher of game 7 of the 2014 World Series.

Carlos Febles and Carlos Beltran (“Dos Carlos”) joined the Royals’ lineup together as rookies in 1999, Beltran winning Rookie of the Year and Febles posting a solid season as well. When Beltran battled injuries and poor performance in 2000, while Febles was hitting .280/.363/.360 at the end of July, many argued that Febles was actually the better of the two. Febles struggled to a .200/.302/.210 line the rest of the season, and both Febles and Beltran finished the year with OPS+ below 70. Their destinies diverged drastically from there, as Beltran built a Hall of Fame type career, and Febles continued to struggle mightily at the plate, finally losing his job to Desi Relaford in the 2003 season. He was not offered a contract for 2004, and he signed with the Red Sox, for whom he never played in the big leagues but to whom he would return after his playing career as a coach.


Jeremy Affeldt or Carlos Febles?

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    Jeremy Affeldt
    (266 votes)
  • 25%
    Carlos Febles
    (92 votes)
358 votes total Vote Now

“Saber-Darlings” Match-Ups

#2 Bill Pecota vs. #15 Calvin Pickering

Bill Pecota, who played before the Internet popularized baseball analytics to more casual fans, mostly qualifies as a “Saber-Darling” because he is the namesake of Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA (“Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm”) projection system. But advanced analytics do suggest that Bill Pecota the player was underrated. In only about two seasons’ worth of plate appearances (1232) as a utility man from 1986-91, Pecota amassed 8.1 bWAR, ranking 35th in franchise history among position players, ahead of much more celebrated players like Wally Joyner, Cookie Rojas, and Bo Jackson. Pecota never had a season where he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. The season he got the most playing time was 1991, when he replaced Kevin Seitzer as the regular third baseman when manager Hal McRae decided to overhaul the defense. He hit .286 that year in 398 at-bats, then was included in the Bret Saberhagen deal, going to the Mets.

Big Calvin Pickering took 59% of the vote in the play-in match-up over Justin Huber. Pickering is known for destroying AAA in 2004 (35 HR in 299 at-bats), then winning the Opening Day DH job over Ken Harvey in 2005. But he was given only seven games before being shipped out permanently. Among his travels after being released after the 2005 season was a gig with the Kansas City T-Bones in 2007.


Bill Pecota or Calvin Pickering?

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    Bill Pecota
    (254 votes)
  • 25%
    Calvin Pickering
    (87 votes)
341 votes total Vote Now

#7 Jon Nunnally vs. #10 Tony Graffanino

Johnny Damon and Michael Tucker were more hyped, and Tom Goodwin had flashier tools, but the best rookie outfielder for the Royals in 1995 was rightfielder Jon Nunnally. The 23-year-old Nunnally combined a good bit of power (14 HR in 303 at-bats) with good on-base skills (.357 OBP, despite a .244 AVG) to finish fourth on the team in WAR in only 360 plate appearances. He played sparingly in April, but wrested the RF job from veterans Felix Jose and Vince Coleman by the beginning of May. He even got some down-ballot Rookie of the Year votes. Despite all that, he spent most of 1996 in Omaha, not really getting any playing time until August, even though he tore up AAA to the tune of a .957 OPS. Desperate for bullpen help, the Royals sent Nunnally and Chris Stynes (another underrated player) to the Reds in 1997 for Scott Service and Hector Carrasco. Nunnally hit .318/.400/.602 for the Reds that year, in 232 PA. His career went south after that; Nunnally was not a great defender, and he never showed the ability to hit lefties, so his opportunities were scarce. He ended up with a career 111 OPS+ in 1049 plate appearances over six seasons.

By just one vote, Tony Graffanino advanced in his play-in match-up against Wilson Betemit. Graffanino was with the Royals in 2004 as well as parts of ‘05 and ‘06, leading to the odd distinction of being traded at the deadline in back-to-back seasons. The second deal netted Jorge De La Rosa, but the Royals flipped him for Ramon Ramirez before he broke out with the Rockies. (Ramirez eventually turned into Coco Crisp).


Jon Nunnally or Tony Graffanino?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Jon Nunnally
    (196 votes)
  • 42%
    Tony Graffanino
    (142 votes)
338 votes total Vote Now

#3 Dee Brown vs. #14 Kila Ka’aihue

Before the 2000 season, Dermal “Dee” Brown was the #11 prospect in all of baseball. He was someone who seemingly had it all: he was fast, hit for a high average, had good power, and unlike most Royals prospects, had a good walk rate (which is what gave analytical fans such high hopes). He wasn’t much defensively, but he could hit, with a .353 average and 1.031 OPS in AA Wichita in 1999. The first sign of trouble was a bit of an underwhelming 2000 season in Omaha, and he finished 2000 with a .113 average in three short stints in Kansas City from 1998-2000. His only extended look came in 2001, when at age 23, he hit .245/.286/.350. He was still poor defensively, but now he could not hit or walk, and his power was gone, too. He spent most of 2002 in Omaha, turning in an even less impressive performance than in 2000. He was going the wrong direction.

Brown shuttled between Omaha and Kansas City from 2003-2004, too, and he ended his Royals career with a 58 OPS+ and -2.9 bWAR, and the Royals let him go after 2004. The former 14th overall pick bounced around in the upper minors with several organizations, including another stint with the Royals, but he never showed enough to get another shot in the big leagues.

In 2008, 24-year-old Hawaiian first baseman Kila Ka’aihue came out of nowhere, breaking out with 37 home runs and a .314/.456/.628 slash line in AA-AAA, with no drop-off after moving to AAA. He followed that with a solid 115 OPS+ in 24 late-season plate appearances with the Royals. It was obvious—obvious—what the Royals needed to do: hand Kila the first base job going into 2009. Instead, they traded for Mike Jacobs, who posted a .228 average, 84 OPS+, and was so bad defensively that he bumped Billy Butler onto the field so he could DH. Kila fell off that year in AAA, and he did not even get a September call-up. Kila had another great year in Omaha in 2010, and he finally earned the call, playing regularly in August and September. He struggled, however, and super-prospect Eric Hosmer was breathing down his neck. Kila got the first base job out of spring training in 2011, but when he again scuffled while Hosmer hit .439 in Omaha, Ka’aihue reached the end of his short leash.

He spent the rest of 2011 in Omaha, and was traded to Oakland for beans at the end of the year. Kila never proved he belonged at the big league level, posting an 89 OPS+ in limited opportunities over four partial seasons with the Royals and A’s. Was he a limited player with a brief window of “prime” seasons that he spent rotting in Omaha? Could he have developed if he were given a real opportunity at the right time? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. At least we’ll always have the Mike Jacobs memories.


Dee Brown or Kila Ka’aihue?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Dee Brown
    (119 votes)
  • 65%
    Kila Ka’aihue
    (230 votes)
349 votes total Vote Now

#6 Felipe Paulino vs. #11 Johnny Giavotella

The Royals purchased Felipe Paulino as a waiver-wire pickup in early 2011. It was a depth move for a team that really needed starting pitching. Paulino was 27 years old and a former Astros pitching prospect who had never really found success. He immediately pitched much better for the Royals, posting a 4.11 ERA in 20 starts that year, with peripherals that said he was even better than that. Rany Jazayerli became obsessed with him (seriously, go to the old ranyontheroyals site and search “Paulino”). Paulino got a late start in 2012, then made seven fantastic starts (1.67 ERA, 9.3 K/9) before missing the rest of the season and next with arm injuries. The Royals released him, and he only made four more career starts.

A lot of Saber-Darlings become popular because of their nemeses: Kila Ka’aihue vs. Mike Jacobs, Calvin Pickering vs. Ken Harvey, and Johnny Giavotella had Chris Getz. Getz only arrived in Kansas City one year ahead of Gio and left a year earlier, but Getz had 1124 plate appearances (he would have had more if he’d been completely healthy), and Gio only had 465. Getz posted an absurd .601 career OPS with the Royals, with a .295 SLG, while Giavotella waited in AAA posting averages over .300 and OPS over .800 during the same time period. The Royals weren’t high on Johnny’s defense, and he didn’t exactly seize the opportunity offensively as a Royal (only .613 himself between 2011-2013 in 400 at-bats). The Royals signed Omar Infante before 2014, and Giavotella’s window had passed. Unlike many of these guys, Gio went on to have a legitimate chance elsewhere, serving as the primary second baseman for the Angels in 2015-16. He was perfectly decent in 2015 (certainly outperformed Infante) and well blow average in 2016. That was the last of his significant big league action.


Felipe Paulino or Johnny Giavotella?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Felipe Paulino
    (80 votes)
  • 76%
    Johnny Giavotella
    (267 votes)
347 votes total Vote Now

What do you think? Could things have turned out significantly different if the Royals had handled these guys differently? Vote and tell your favorite stories.

This is the third of four regions. Just one region to go.