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The most disappointing Royals

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The crying game

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Only about 19,000 men have ever played Major League Baseball. 18,918 to be exact, according to the internet, but you get the idea. If you do a Moonlight Graham and even play an inning of Major League Baseball, you have proven yourself to be one of the very best in the world at your profession. Even though you are one of the very best, fans, managers, and general managers still have expectations.

I normally try to write positive articles, as I know how much criticism can sting a person. After all, these are people we are writing about, real live people who have feelings and insecurities, just like the rest of us do. That said, this isn’t geared toward being critical. It’s just a realistic look at players who have disappointed the fan base who expected more from them.

How did they disappoint? It could have been any number of things. First off, baseball is a very difficult sport. Hitting a 95-mph fastball with a bat is one of the toughest things to do in sports. Throwing 95 mph fastballs and 85 mph sliders is insanely hard on shoulders and elbows. When you consider the physics of pitching, it’s a wonder that players can do this at all. Performance disappointment comes from any number of sources. Maybe injuries derailed a once-promising career. Maybe a player’s development stalled in the minors. Some players get burned out after years of playing amateur ball. Sometimes we, the fans and front offices, have over-inflated expectations for a player.

Often, I think we underestimate the effects of pressure on a young athlete. Can you imagine being 19 years old and having the weight of expectations of an entire city and fan base on your shoulders? Some players, unfortunately, fall victim to the temptations of alcohol and drugs. There are a million ways to fail. Scouting and developing baseball talent is one of the most difficult developmental sciences of any professional sport. When an NFL team picks its first-round draft choice, there’s a very good chance that player will see time in the NFL. Same with the NBA. Not so with MLB.

This list is not inclusive, nor is it in any kind of order. It’s simply a list of players who have gone through the Kansas City Royals organization who did not meet the expectations placed upon them.

Hurdle before his first home run

Clint Hurdle

Clint Hurdle is a fascinating baseball story. He was drafted by the Royals in the first round (#9 overall) of the 1975 amateur draft out of Merritt Island, Florida. Hurdle was a big kid, 6’3 and 195 pounds, and was a hitting prodigy from the start. He played 49 games for the Royals Rookie League team in 1975, as a 17-year-old, then spent a season at Class A Waterloo (Iowa) in 1976. He didn’t exactly set the Midwest League on fire: he hit .235, but he did club 19 home runs, drove in 89, scored 89 and drew an impressive 118 walks in just 127 games. Not bad for an 18-year-old.

The Royals bumped him to AAA Omaha for the 1977 season and he started to get it: .328/.449/.529 with 16 home runs in 129 games, which earned him the American Association Rookie of the year and the league MVP award. The Royals, in the midst of a club record 102-win summer, brought Hurdle up for a late-season cup of coffee. He made his debut on September 18 against the Seattle Mariners. Whitey Herzog batted him fifth, between two Royal icons, John Mayberry and Amos Otis. Hurdle was just five days past his twentieth birthday.

I had a seat in the first row behind home plate and was anxious to see what Hurdle, not much older than I was, could do. He grounded out to third in his first plate appearance in the second inning. Mayberry led off the fifth with a booming double to right. Just about everything Big John hit was booming. Hurdle dug in against Mariner pitcher Glenn Abbott. Abbott tried to slip a fastball past the rookie, but Hurdle got the meat of the bat on it. The ball took a majestic flight into right-center field, coming to rest in the upper pool of the water fountains. The blow drew gasps, then raucous cheers from the 33,397 in attendance. On the drive home, my father and I gushed about the home run, which traveled an estimated 450 feet. I remember my dad saying that Hurdle could be the next Mickey Mantle. Heady stuff for Kansas City fans.

Hurdle was featured on the March 20, 1978, cover of Sports Illustrated, entitled “This Year’s Phenom”. General Manager Joe Burke called Hurdle “one of the top prospects I’ve seen in the 17 years I’ve been in the major leagues”. John Schuerholz, then the director of scouting, said, “I bubble inside when I think about his potential”. Even the esteemed hitting instructor Charlie Lau called Hurdle “the best hitting prospect I’ve ever seen in our organization”. Remember, the Royals had a couple guys named Brett and McRae on that roster, who were Lau disciples.

For his part, Hurdle lived the life of a phenom. He bought a new Dodge van, back when that was a cool thing, equipping the love machine with a refrigerator, sink, CB radio, fold out bed and spittoon. Pressure. Expectations. Cockiness. The Hurdle story had it all. Hurdle spent five seasons in Kansas City, slashing .276/.353/.432 with 26 home runs and 168 RBI over 1,085 at bats. His best year was in 1980, when he hit .294 with ten home runs while manning right field.

Had Hurdle been a 10th round selection, fans might have loved him for that production. But he never played up to the massive hype that preceded his arrival and in December of 1981, the Royals traded him to Cincinnati for pitcher Scott Brown. Brown never appeared in a game for the Royals, while Hurdle toiled until the 1987 season with the Reds, Mets and Cardinals. After retiring, Hurdle got into managing, which was his real forte. He led the Colorado Rockies to the 2007 World Series and had a nice run in Pittsburgh, where he led the Pirates to 280 victories over three seasons from 2013 to 2015. I could never understand why the Royals never made a push for Hurdle while they were wandering the managerial wilderness. Maybe the expectations would have been too great.

Adalberto Mondesí

Mondesí was signed by the Royals as an International free agent in July of 2011. Because of his bloodlines (his father was 13-year vet Raúl Mondesí), and his athleticism, expectations for Adalberto have always been on the high side. The Royals rushed Mondesí to the big leagues, having him make his debut on the biggest of stages, Game Three of the 2015 World Series. They ran the poor kid to the plate against Noah Syndergaard in his first big league at bat. Thor showed no mercy, striking him out on four pitches. At the time, Mondesí was barely 20 years old, and Syndergaard was a beast.

The Royals desperately tried to get Mondesí to stick during the next two seasons, but he only hit .181 in 209 plate appearances and was so overmatched that he often resorted to bunting in an effort to get on base. Someone should have slapped Dayton Moore upside the head for player malpractice. If anyone needed additional seasoning in the minors, it was Mondesí. He finally broke out a bit in 2018, when he hit .276 with 14 home runs and 32 stolen bases in just 75 games. Since then, it’s pretty much been all downhill: .257/.290/.429 over 808 plate appearances spread over parts of three injury-plagued seasons.

What to do with him? That is the million-dollar question that keeps Royals fans and brass up at night. Mondesi has elite defensive skills and speed. There are times when he puts it all together, like he did over the final 11 games of the 2020 season, which saw him slash .476/.522/.833 with 20 hits in 42 at-bats. It remains one of the more electrifying batting stints I have ever seen. Keeping him healthy and on the field has been a major issue. There are times when he appears disinterested and plays at a below replacement level. There are also times when you think he has the talent to play his way to Cooperstown. How long of a rope the Royals give him is anyone’s guess?

MLB: AUG 01 White Sox at Royals Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bubba Starling

Few players have aroused such heated emotions within Royals nation than Bubba Starling. Selected with the fifth selection of the 2011 draft (one pick before college player of the year, Anthony Rendon), Bubba was a local high school athletic legend. He had committed to Nebraska to play football, before the Royals threw $7.5 million dollars at him to play baseball. Rendon made the majors in 2013 and has been worth 32 WAR while picking up MVP votes in five seasons. Starling on the other hand, struggled mightily in the minor’s, which included a stint where he considered giving up the game. Starling finally had a breakthrough in 2019 when he hit .310 in 72 games at AAA Omaha. That earned him a call-up to Kansas City. He made his much-anticipated debut on July 12 in a game against Detroit and received several nice ovations from the home crowd. He got his first Major League hit the next night, a fifth-inning RBI single off Matthew Boyd. He hit his first big league home run on July 21 in Cleveland, off the Indians Brad Hand.

Much like Mondesi, his speed and defensive skills are elite. His bat is another story. I always found myself rooting for Bubba. He’s a local kid, he fought the good fight, grinding through the minors before making it to the big leagues. If there was any justice in baseball, Starling would be a .300 hitter. But there isn’t. He slashed .204/.246/.298 over 291 plate appearances between 2019 and 2020. He spent all of 2021 in Omaha, save for a short break playing for the Silver medal-winning Team USA in the Summer Olympics. Chances are Bubba Starling will never play another inning in Kansas City and quite possibly never play another inning for any major league team. What went wrong? The Royals brass, not wanting to miss on another local phenom (Albert Pujols anyone?) obviously overvalued his skill set. I can’t say how they did with his player development, but after watching him bat, I always thought his stance was too wide. By the time he started his swing, the ball was by him. But what do I know? I’m just a businessman and part-time baseball writer. Starling will always remain one of the Royals' greatest what-if cases.

Ashe Russell and Nolan Watson

These two Indianapolis high school pitchers will forever be linked. Russell was taken with the 21st pick of the 2015 draft while Watson was selected with the 33rd pick. In taking Russell, the Royals passed on Vanderbilt star pitcher Walker Buehler, who went to the Dodgers with pick #24. Buehler, who looks like a star, made his debut in 2017 and has a career record of 39-13.

Russell possessed the talent: a 97-mph fastball plus the ability to throw a curve, slider and changeup. He was the Indiana high school player of the year in 2015. In 2017, Russell developed confidence problems and walked away from the Royals and the game. He prepared for a comeback in 2019, but an arm injury, and subsequent Tommy John surgery, blew that out of the water. He made another attempt in 2021 but was released by the Royals in July.

Nolan Watson had committed to play for Vanderbilt before the Royals selected him. The good news is that he’s still in the Royals system, still grinding away. He spent the 2021 summer playing for Quad City (Class A) and Northwest Arkansas (Class AA).

The bad news is, he’ll be 25 at the start of the 2022 season. He’s appeared in 85 minor league games with a record of 20-39 and an ERA of 6.43.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers
Mark Davis circa 1991
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Storm Davis and Mark Davis

As with Russell and Watson, the Davis boys come as a combo platter. Ewing Kauffman and John Schuerholz thought they were delivering an early Christmas present to Royal fans when on December 7, 1989, they announced the free agent signing of the righthanded Storm Davis. Not only did the Royals get a pitcher who went 19-7 in the 1989 season, they got him from the hated Oakland A’s, so it was a double win. At least it appeared to be.

Just a few days later, on December 11th to be exact, the Royals announced the signing of Mark Davis. Mark had saved 44 games for the 1989 San Diego Padres AND won the National League Cy Young award. But as the old saying goes, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts we’d all have a Merry Christmas.

I was driving around Abilene, Kansas when the Mark Davis signing was announced on the radio. In those ancient days, the radio was our internet. Two minutes of news at the top of the hour followed by 58 minutes of music, commercials and blather by the local DJ. If you didn’t like a song, you quickly switched to a different station, usually to catch the tail end of a song that you liked. Mix tapes soon followed, as people took control of their music destiny. Anyway, back to the Davis boys.

I drove home and told my father that we needed to order World Series tickets pronto, because the Royals were absolutely, 100% going. And they were gonna win.

It didn’t take too many games to realize that Mark Davis was not as advertised. In fact, he was a colossal disappointment. John Wathan managed those 1990 Royals and against his better judgement, ran Mark Davis to the mound on 53 occasions, only to watch him get blistered for 71 hits and 52 walks in just 68 and 2/3 innings of work. He allowed 43 runs, finishing with a record of 2 and 7 with a 5.11 ERA. He saved all of 6 games. His ERA+, which had been 191 the year before, cratered to 76. The Royals brought him back for the 1991 season, giving him another 29 appearances for slightly better results: 6 and 3 record, 4.45 ERA and an ERA+ of 94. They kept him around for half of the 1992 season before coming to their senses and flipping him to Atlanta for another pitcher, Juan Berenguer. From 1983 to 1991, Berenguer, who had one of the all-time great nicknames, Senor Smoke, was a solid middle innings eater. By 1992, the smoke had blown off. El Gasolino appeared in 19 games for the Royals, giving up 42 hits in 44 innings. Basically, Berenguer was Mark Davis in a different body. Senor smoke pitched in the Independent Leagues for four more seasons, but never appeared in another big-league game.

Mark Davis played through the 1994 season, spent 1995 in the Marlins minor league system, did not play in 1996, and made an abbreviated comeback with Milwaukee in 1997. He retired after the 1997 season with a career total of 96 saves, 44 of which came in his career year before the Royals dumped a truckload of money on him. Post-baseball, Mark Davis returned to the Royals as their minor league pitching coordinator for the 2011 season.

If anything saved Storm Davis from the fan’s ire, it was because Mark Davis stole all of the hostile glory. It quickly became apparent that Storm Davis’ 1989 season was a fluke. A mirage. In 1989, he had an ERA+ of 85, an ERA of 4.36, a WHIP of 1.506 and was worth .20 WAR. His 1990 numbers for the Royals were similar: ERA+ of 81, a 4.74 ERA, a WHIP of 1.464 and he was worth, you guessed it, .20 WAR. The only difference was he went 7 and 10, while the fans were expecting, I don’t know, something like 15 to 20 wins. The advanced stats didn’t exist then, of course, so fans relied on the old measurements. 7 and 10 was completely unacceptable. What they did understand was watching a pitcher get shelled in every appearance and the Davis boys delivered on that.

The Royals moved Storm Davis to the bullpen for 1991, hoping he could reclaim some of the illusion. He didn’t. He appeared in 51 games, had an ERA+ of 84, a WHIP of 1.627, an ERA of 4.96 and was worth exactly 0 WAR. Basically, the same player he was in 1989 and 1990, minus the gaudy record.

Bottom line: the Royals brass got hoodwinked. They tried to clean up their mess by shipping Storm off the Baltimore Orioles for catcher Bob Melvin. I don’t recall Melvin playing for KC, but his numbers weren’t all bad: .314/.351/.386 in 77 plate appearances. Mike Macfarlane was the catcher of the future, so when Melvin hit free agency after the season ended, he got the hell out of Dodge and signed with Boston.

Storm Davis pitched through the end of the 1994 season, for Baltimore, Oakland and Detroit, appearing in 126 more games, going 11 and 15 with a 4.13 ERA.

The Davis signings, Kansas City’s first foray into the expensive world of off-season free agents, was a massive failure. That steaming turd landed right on the desk of General Manager John Schuerholz. Winning the off-season is great, but it doesn’t count for squat in the standings.

Colt Griffin

Griffin was a high school All-American in 2001 and was the first documented high school pitcher to throw 100 MPH, though players who batted against Nolan Ryan might argue that point. The Royals selected Griffin with the ninth overall selection of the 2001 draft. In all fairness, the 2001 draft was a stinker. Joe Mauer, Mark Prior, and Mark Teixeira went within the first five picks and the only other first rounder who amounted to much was David Wright, selected at #38. Ryan Howard, a local pick (Missouri State) slipped by Royals scouts and went to Philadelphia in the fifth round. The Royals gave Griffin $2.5 million with the hope that he could harness his righteous fastball. He couldn’t. In 373 minor league innings, he walked 272 batters, threw 82 wild pitches and hit another 44 unfortunate souls. He suffered a series of injuries, which culminated in rotator cuff surgery. He attempted a comeback, pitching out of the bullpen for AA Wichita, but finally called it a career in July of 2006.

Kansas City Royals

Al Hrabosky

Hrabosky, the Mad Hungarian, came to Kansas City in a December 1977 trade for pitcher Mark Littell and catcher Buck Martinez from the other Missouri team. Manager Whitey Herzog had loudly complained to the baseball press that the only thing keeping Kansas City out of the World Series was the lack of a legitimate closer. The Royals thought they solved that issue when they traded for Hrabosky.

Hrabosky’s two-year run in Kansas City wasn’t a disaster. He went 17-11 with a 3.28 ERA and saved 31 games while making 116 appearances. His personality and toughness were welcomed by the fans and teammates alike. Hrabosky’s problems were all perception-related. Fans expected him to be the missing piece to help them get past the pesky Yankees. He wasn’t. He was a situational reliever on the downside of his career. He was always a tough competitor and gave the Royals a solid lefty out of the bullpen. Plus, he was fun to cheer for. But after seeing him get roughed up in a late summer 1978 game, I realized that he was not the player who was going to get the team to the World Series.

The Royals let Hrabosky walk in free agency after the 1979 season, and Hrabosky cashed in, signing a massive five-year deal with the Atlanta Braves. It got kind of ugly at the end. Hrabosky had a dust-up with a TV reporter and only played three seasons in Atlanta, going 7 and 4 with 7 saves in 100 appearances. But he remains immensely popular in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Littell, also a fan favorite in Kansas City, did well with the Cardinals. He appeared in 193 games from 1978 through the end of the 1982 season, throwing 261 innings and going 14 and 18 with 28 saves. He put up an ERA of 3.31 and an ERA+ of 111 and won a World Series with the 1982 Cards. This trade was the brainchild of Joe Burke, who sits in the Royals Hall of Fame, while the General Manager who built those winning teams, Cedric Tallis, remains on the outside looking in. Something is very wrong about that.

Blue Jays v Royals Photo by John Williamson/MLB via Getty Images

Juan Gonzalez

Juan Gone was a two-time MVP winner (1996, 1998), three-time All-Star and winner of six Silver Sluggers when the Royals, desperate for some power, signed him to a one-year, $4 million dollar deal on January 6, 2004. The Royals were coming off a surprising 2003 season in which they led the American League Central for much of the summer, before a late-season fade left them at 83 and 79.

The front office signed a bunch of veteran free agents, guys like Benito Santiago, Tony Graffanino, Wilton Guerrero, Doug Linton, and Kelly Stinnett, hoping they’d catch lightning one last time and push the Royals to the top of the heap. The biggest signing was Gonzalez, who they hoped would give them a strong, middle of the order bat. He didn’t. Gonzalez was going into his age 34 season and had been in significant decline for two seasons prior the Royals vomiting money on him.

Gonzalez got off to a hot start, then settled into the .275 range. His once-legendary power was gone, though he did clip Minnesota for two home runs on April 16th. After 33 games, Gonzalez injured his back and that was it. Juan was gone. The Royals got five home runs and 17 RBIs for their money. Kansas City declined his option, making him a free agent. Gonzalez signed with Cleveland for the 2005 season. Most of the great ones have a hard time knowing when the end is nigh, and Gonzalez was no different. In his first at-bat of the 2005 season, he tore his hamstring off the bone, at the knee joint, ending his second stint with the Indians. Gonzalez’ saga proved to be a cautionary tale to signing over the hill stars to high dollar contracts, hoping to hold off father time. It very rarely works out.

Luke Hochevar

Hochevar was a bit like Hrabosky, a victim of expectations. The performance was not disastrous, it just wasn’t on par with expectations. Ah yes, good old expectations. Hochevar’s expectations arose from the fact that the Royals selected him with the #1 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Kansas City passed on players such as Evan Longoria, Andrew Miller, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer to take Hochevar. Kershaw and Scherzer are most likely headed to Cooperstown. Longoria, who’s had a great career, is a borderline candidate. The miss on Scherzer was particularly grating, since he played his college ball just down the I-70 at Missouri. I always wonder who the regional scout was that missed this?

The Royals, mired in a culture of losing, desperately needed Hochevar to be a savior. They rushed him to the majors, bringing him up for a four-game cup of coffee at the end of the 2007 season.

He broke into the starting rotation in 2008, and over the next five seasons, started 127 games. Understand, the Royals were a bad team in those years. Really, really bad. They lost 87, 97, 95, 91, and 90 games in those five seasons. Wins for any pitcher were hard to come by. Hochevar threw 758 innings, posting a 38 and 58 record with a 5.45 ERA. The pressure mounted as Miller, Kershaw, Lincecum and Scherzer all attained stardom. Finally in 2013, the Royals came to the conclusion that Hochevar was best used in the bullpen. He responded with a fabulous season: 58 appearances, mostly as Ned Yost seventh-inning guy. He threw only 70 innings, allowed just 41 hits, and struck out 82 batters. His ERA was 1.92 and his ERA+ was 215. It was a thing of beauty. I recall innings where he would use a wicked slider to blow through the side on 12 pitches. Many times, I thought Yost should have left him in for another inning.

Heading into the 2014 season, Hochevar appeared to be a key cog in a strong Royals bullpen. During a spring training game in March though, he blew out his UCL, necessitating Tommy John surgery and costing Hochevar the entire 2014 season. Hochevar rehabbed and made his return in 2015, appearing in 49 games with an ERA of 3.73. He was the winning pitcher in the deciding Game Five of the 2015 World Series. Unfortunately, Hochevar never quite reclaimed his 2013 glory. In 2016, he made 40 appearances before being shut down with thoracic outlet syndrome, which effectively ended his career. He officially retired in August of 2018.

Honorable mention:

Dee Brown, Michael Tucker, Jeff Granger, Jeff Austin, Kyle Zimmer, Joe Vitiello, Mitch Maier, Hunter Dozier, Roy Branch, Jim Wohlford.

Is it fair to say a player has been a disappointment? First-round selections today are paid big bucks and there is an expectation that they will be a cornerstone player for the franchise. Drafting baseball players is a crap shoot, but a team’s first-round pick is the one pick that is supposed to be a sure thing. Making it to the major leagues is tough, even for first-round picks. The Royals drafted Kevin Appier with their first pick in 1987 and he was worth 55 WAR over his stellar career. In 2002, they used their first pick on Zach Greinke and he has accumulated 73 WAR and counting. That is what you’d like your first-round picks to perform like.

In between Appier and Greinke, from 1988 and 2001, the Royals first-round picks accumulated a grand total of 6.3 WAR. 14 years, 14 players, 6.3 WAR. That is so unbelievably bad that a monkey could have randomly pointed at a list of players and most likely chosen players that would have been worth more than 6 WAR over 14 years of drafting. Six of those fourteen picks never played an inning in the major leagues. The very best of that sorry lot was Michael Tucker, who was worth 8.1 WAR over his career. That is the type of institutional failure that leads to 100 loss seasons, an apathetic fan base and a squadron of angry Kevins.

Dayton Moore and his staff have now overseen fifteen drafts. They scored well with their first two selections, Mike Moustakas in 2007 and Eric Hosmer in 2008. Both players were substantial contributors to the Royals 2015 Championship team. From 2009 to 2018, the Moore regime selected ten players. Three of those have never played in the majors, though Nick Pratto (2017) will most certainly make his debut in 2022.

Those ten selections have combined for 3.9 WAR. The most decorated player of that group was Aaron Crow (2009) at 2.7 WAR. In between Crow and Pratto, there was a whole lot of ugliness. The Royals are quick to point out that they are a small market team. Small market teams have a very thin margin of error. The difference between having a winning club and making the playoffs and having a team that posts annual losing records can be traced back to simple things: How well they scout and draft. How well they develop players in the minors. How successful the team is in getting major league talent back in their trades. And having their free agent signings be solid contributors. The Royals have to do better.