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The Royals players we wish had stayed healthy

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Injuries are a part of a game, but we wish they weren’t for these players.

Kansas City Royals

After opening presents and drinking too much eggnog, it’s always fun to turn to social media to avoid, you know, having to talk to your loved ones. Last week, there was an interesting Twitter prompt from Twins writer Brandon Warne - what MLB player do you wish had stayed healthy?

There were many great answers - Eric Davis, Don Mattingly, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Dwight Gooden, Tim Lincecum, Grady Sizemore. But I wanted to focus on those Royals players whose careers could benefit from being injury-free. This is not to blame the players for being hurt - getting injured is a part of playing any sport. Really it’s almost a way of recognizing players who have been robbed of a chance to show off all their talents.

Here are the Royals players I most wished had stayed healthier.

10. Clint Hurdle

Prospects are exciting because the possibilities with their potential seem endless, but one possibility with all prospects is injury. Clint Hurdle was a high schooler athletic enough to get scholarship offers to play football at Miami, smart enough to get scholarship offers from Harvard, and gifted enough at baseball to be selected with the ninth overall pick of the 1975 draft. He put up numbers in the minors and rose through the system at a very young age. He hit .328 with 16 home runs and 96 walks in Triple-A Omaha at age 19, making his MLB debut just 50 days after his 20th birthday.

But sometimes the hype machine gets warmed up a bit too early. Hurdle seemed very promising, but he had played just nine big league games when he made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Hurdle struggled initially, largely due to a position change to first base. But he adjusted and had a decent rookie season, hitting .264/.348/.398. He was up and down in 1981, but hit .294 with 10 home runs for the pennant-winning club, and was still just 22 years old.

But early in the 1981 season, he injured his back sliding into a base and was never the same player after that. There were other reasons that kept him from becoming a phenom - an inability to hit lefties, limited defensive abilities, and alcoholism also cost his career. But you have to wonder a bit if a healthy back means Clint Hurdle is a healthy starter for a few more years.

9. George Brett

It seems weird to include George Brett because he played in 2,707 games and amassed 3,154 hits in a Hall of Fame career. But he played with reckless abandon, exemplified by his sliding attempt to catch a foul ball in the 1985 ALCS that ended up with a wipeout in the dugout. That aggressiveness made him the player he was, but it also probably cost him some 300 games in his career with 19 injuries in an eight-year span. That is potentially some 1,000 - 1,200 more at-bats, and as a .305 career hitter, some 350 more hits, which would have pushed him over 3,500 for his career, something only five hitters have ever done in the history of baseball.

Not having their best hitter available for a few weeks every year may have cost the Royals in the standings too. He missed 11 games in a pennant race in August of 1982 due to a wrist injury, and the Royals would finish three games back of the division-winning Angels. In 1987, he went down in April with a ribcage injury that cost him 18 games, then a few games later suffered a knee injury that required surgery, costing him a month. The Royals finished two games back of the eventual World Champion Twins.

If George didn’t have to play on the hideous Astroturf-on-concrete, his knees probably hold up a lot better than they did. But some of his injuries were just ridiculous. In 1983 he broke a toe hitting the door jam as he was running into the room to watch Bill Buckner. With his injury luck, it is incredible that he had the Hall of Fame career that he did.

8. Ed Hearn

In Kansas City, Ed Hearn has unfortunately become a bit of a punchline to the bad joke “what’s the worst trade in Royals history.” The Royals gave up on hometown kid David Cone to acquire the backup catcher for the Mets only to see Cone become an All-Star while Hearn played just 13 games in a Royals uniform.

But to be honest, the deal made sense at the time. Cone had suffered an injury of his own, missing an entire minor league season with a knee injury, and came back as a wild reliever in an organization flush with pitching. Hearn had played very well filling in for injured All-Star Gary Carter in the heat of a pennant race with the Mets, and the Royals did not have a catcher for the future to replace veteran Jim Sundberg.

In his first week of action with the Royals, Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield - who was large enough to be drafted by an NFL team despite never playing college football - plowed into Hearn in a home plate collision. It ended his season with a rotator cuff injury and he would never be the same after that. In 1990 he would be diagnosed with focal segmental glomeruloscerosis, requiring a kidney transplant. Even after a transplant, he suffered depression and contemplated suicide. He overcame his demons and became a motivational speaker making a nice life for himself. But it always seemed like he deserved a better shot at a baseball career.

7. Dennis Leonard

It really is just crazy to look back at innings pitched totals for pitchers from the 70s and early 80s. Dennis Leonard has three of the top five innings pitched seasons in Royals history, twice topping 290 innings, and he didn’t even lead the league in either of those seasons (he did lead the league in the strike-shortened 1981 season with 201 23 innings for a 113-game season). And pitch counts? Forget about pitch counts. Leonard tossed 177 pitches in 10-innings outing against the Angels in 1977, and he did it with a sore back! It was...a different era.

Leonard would eventually get hurt, but it wasn’t really from logging all those innings. He was a workhorse through 1981, the third season he led the league in games started. But in 1982 he missed time when a comebacker broke two fingers on his right hand. Then in 1983, he suffered a major blow - he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee. He would miss nearly the entirety of the next two seasons, making a comeback in 1986 at the age of 35 with 30 starts and a 4.44 ERA. Perhaps all those innings would have caught up with him anyway - he was starting to lose zip on his fastball at that point. But it would have been great to see Leonard be a contributor for Kansas City’s first championship club in 1985.

6. Adalberto Mondesi

Mondesi has teased Royals fans with an amazing blend of power and speed, combined with an incredible inability to stay on the field. He has never played more than 102 games in his career, and has suffered a spate of injuries:

  • In 2015, he missed six weeks in the minors to start the year with a lower back injury
  • In 2018, he missed the first month with a right shoulder impingement
  • In 2019, he missed two weeks in June with a groin injury, then six more weeks in July and August with a shoulder injury. He would re-injure the shoulder in September to miss the final week of the season
  • In 2021, he missed the first seven weeks with a right oblique injury, the missed two weeks in June with a hamstring injury. After just three games, he would injure his left oblique, costing him over two months.

Mondesi can no longer be counted on as an everyday player, and at 26 years old with a lifetime OPS+ of 85 and just two years away from free agency, he is at a crossroads in his career. Let’s hope he can have an injury-free 2022.

5. Jose Rosado

There is a reason managers use pitch counts now, and one of the reasons is guys like Jose Rosado. Rosado was a very promising young lefty in an era where the Royals were really struggling to develop any pitching at all. In his first four seasons, he pitched 692 innings with a 115 ERA+, was worth 10.2 rWAR, and was a two-time All-Star, all before his 25th birthday.

But the Royals had an awful bullpen in those days, and manager Bob Boone and Tony Muser were old school guys who kept their starters in games, pitch counts be damned. Rosado suffered from a “tired arm” in 1998 and was moved to the bullpen for ineffectiveness. Despite that, the next season Muser road him even harder. He pitched at least 110 pitches in 15 of his 33 starts, and 120 or more in nine starts, topping out at 134 pitches in a July 28 start against Seattle.

Unfortunately, Tony Muser shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a pitching staff. If I had a son who pitched in Little League, I wouldn’t let him play for a team managed by Tony Muser. If Tony Muser and I co-managed a Rotisserie team, I would send him out for cold beverages when it came time to bid on pitchers. If I were a pitcher, and Tony Muser and I were stranded on a desert island ... well, you get the idea.

-Rob Neyer

In his second start of the 2000 season, Rosado’s fastball was clocked at 81 mph. He skipped a start, then returned looking like the normal Jose Rosado. Only that would be his last Major League start. He was diagnosed with tendinitis and eventually had surgery on his elbow. The next spring he had a superior labral tear that required surgery. He came back the next year, and in spring training he was throwing 77 mph fastballs. His career was over.

4. Mike Sweeney

I think it gets overlooked just how amazing Mike Sweeney was as a hitter. From 1999-2002 he hit .324/.396/.535, averaging 29 home runs-per-162 games. Yes, this was the sillyball/PED era, but as far as we know he was clean as a whistle, and he still hit 34 percent better than the league average. By comparison, over the past four seasons, only three players in baseball have hit a 134 OPS+ in over 500 games - Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman, and Paul Goldschmidt.

Sweeney signed a five-year, $55 million contract in 2002 to commit to the franchise, but his body began to betray him just after that. He missed 30 games that summer with a hip strain, the first time in his career he would land on the disabled list. He would miss seven weeks with nerve irritation in his back in 2003 as the team was battling for a division title. He missed the final 40 games of the 2004 season, and two weeks in 2005, the last season he would ever play as many as 100 games. He missed nearly 200 games the next two seasons as his back could not hold up. The Royals were so bad most of those years that having Sweeney’s bat in the lineup wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the standings, but it still would have been nice to see him continue smacking the heck out of the ball.

3. Bret Saberhagen

By his 28th birthday, Bret Saberhagen had 110 wins, a 128 ERA+, had won two Cy Young Awards, and a World Series MVP. Only four pitchers in the expansion era had more than his 40.7 rWAR through his age-27 season. In other words, he was on track to be a Hall of Famer.

Pitchers with the most WAR through age 27, since 1961

Pitcher WAR Wins ERA ERA+
Pitcher WAR Wins ERA ERA+
Bert Blyleven 54.6 136 2.81 132
Clayton Kershaw 48.1 114 2.43 154
Roger Clemens 45.9 116 2.89 146
Tom Seaver 41.2 116 2.43 143
Bret Saberhagen 40.7 110 3.21 128
Pedro Martinez 40.5 107 2.83 156
Dave Stieb 40.0 95 3.17 135
Felix Hernandez 39.0 110 3.20 127
Dwight Gooden 38.7 142 2.99 119
Sam McDowell 38.5 109 2.95 120

He tabulated those numbers despite some injuries. He had some nagging arm troubles in August of 1986 that caused him to miss nearly a month. And he missed two months in 1990 after surgery to remove loose bone chip fragments.

But it was really his post-Royals career where he couldn’t seem to stay healthy. The Royals shipped him to the Mets before the 1992 season (in an awful trade), and he never made more than 25 starts in any of his next four seasons. He missed the entire 1996 season and made just six starts in 1997. He finally bounced back in 1998 to make 31 starts and win 15 games with the Red Sox at age 34. But the second half of his career was far from Hall of Fame-worthy with just 57 wins in his nine seasons after leaving Kansas City. Had he stayed healthy, who knows, perhaps there would be another Royals cap in the Hall of Fame with Brett.

2. Steve Busby

Busby was a shooting star - brilliant but gone in a flash. He had been a phenom at USC, and rose quickly to the big leagues. In just his tenth big league start, he tossed the first no-hitter in Royals history. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, then avoided a sophomore slump with 22 wins and a 6.5 rWAR season, earning his first of two consecutive All-Star appearances. He tossed another no-hitter the next season, winning 18 games with a 3.08 ERA at the age of 25, but it would be his last full season.

Busby had pitched the 1975 season with arm soreness, but pitched through the pain, and it lingered into the 1976 season. He began that season on the disabled list, and when he returned, his fastball no longer had the same zip. It turned out he had torn his rotator cuff.

He missed the entire 1977 season, and pitched just 21 innings in 1978. He made a valiant comeback in 1979 as a swingman but his fastball was never the same. The Royals released him the next summer just two months before they won their first pennant. Having a healthy Busby in those epic clashes against the Yankees in the playoffs in 1976-78 would have made a huge difference, and he could have tipped the scales in the 1980 World Series as well.

1. Bo Jackson

But for this question, almost certainly the first name that comes to mind for most Royals fans is Bo. Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson was a former Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn who stunned the sports world by deciding to play both Major League Baseball and professional football at the same time. That alone made him special, but what he actually did on a baseball field made him legendary.

His first hit was a routine grounder to second base he beat out for an infield single. His first home run is considered to be the longest home run in Kauffman Stadium history, a blast that went about 475 feet and landed at the top of the grassy berm in left. He was the first right-handed hitter to hit the upper deck in right field at the Metrodome. He hit the longest home run in Arlington Stadium history. He hit a 450-foot shot in the All-Star Game, becoming the second player ever to steal a base and hit a home run in the game, earning MVP honors.

But while some players aren’t even allowed to play pickup basketball games in the off-season now, for fear of injury, Bo was allowed to pursue a “hobby” of playing for the NFL’s Raiders. He averaged 5.4 yards-per-carry in four seasons with the Raiders, but in a playoff game in January of 1991, Bengals linebacker Kevin Walker grabbed Bo’s right leg. It looked like a routine tackle but it dislocated his hip and severed a blood vessel, which led to avascular necrosis, deteriorating the cartilage around the hip.

His football career was over, and it looked like his baseball career might be done too. The Royals released him a month later, but he signed with the White Sox and appeared in 23 games for them. He had hip replacement surgery, but amazingly came back in 1993 to hit 16 home runs. He wasn’t the same player, but to even play big league baseball as a decent slugger on an artificial hip was amazing.

Some argue Bo would have gotten better - I personally think he was peaking at the time of his injury. But having his bat in the silly-ball era of the 90s - he likely would have matured as a ridiculous power hitter. Unfortunately, we’ll never really know, leaving Bo as one of the great “what ifs” in baseball history.