This year’s Royals are enduring their fourth consecutive losing season, but there is light at the end of the tunnel with a solid crop of pitching prospects beginning to infiltrate the big leagues, and a dynamic trio of hitters on the verge of making their MLB debut. The Royals have been down this path before, building a top farm system, but having to wait for the group to make their way to the big leagues. In 2010, the Royals were on the verge of “flipping the switch” and going young, but the debut of young stars like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez would still be a year away.
General Manager: Dayton Moore
Manager: Trey Hillman (12-23), Ned Yost (55-72)
Record: 67-95, 5th place, 27 games back
Say hello to: Rick Ankiel, Wilson Betemit, Kyle Farnsworth, Chris Getz, Jason Kendall, Scott Podsednik
Say goodbye to: John Bale, Coco Crisp, Mike Jacobs, Miguel Olivo, Mark Teahen, Jamey Wright
All-Stars: Joakim Soria
Team payroll: $71,405,210 (21st out of 30 clubs)
Highest paid player: Gil Meche, $12,400,000
Rookies: Greg Holland, Dusty Hughes, Kila Kaaihue, Sean O’Sullivan, Blake Wood
Top Prospect: Former first-round pick Mike Moustakas absolutely destroyed the minor leagues that year, hitting .322/.369/.630 with 36 home runs across Double-A and Triple-A. Fellow first-rounder Eric Hosmer was not far behind him, hitting .338/.406/.571 with 20 home runs in High-A and Double-A. And outfielder Wil Myers hit .315/.429/.506 with 14 home runs as a 19-year old in A-ball. At the end of the season, all three would be named top ten prospects in the game by Baseball America.
2010 Draft: Christian Colon (4th overall), Brett Eibner, Kevin Chapman, Jason Adam, Scott Alexander, Michael Mariot, Whit Merrifield
Best player: Billy Butler
Worst player: Yuniesky Betancourt
Best pitcher: Joakim Soria
Worst pitcher; Brian Bannister
What went right: The Royals could put the ball in play, finishing second in batting average with the fewest strikeouts in the league. Billy Butler emerged as one of the team’s top hitters with a line of .318/.388/.469 and 45 doubles. David DeJesus enjoyed a career-best year. Freely available talent like Wilson Betimet and Bruce Chen emerged as solid contributors. Joakim Soria was one of the best closers in the game.
What went wrong: Royals starters had a 5.25 ERA, worst in the American League, with Brian Bannister and Sean O’Sullivan posting ERAs over six, and Kyle Davies posting the second-worst ERA among all qualified starters. Alex Gordon was hurt and underperformed. Older vets either showed they were at the end of their career (Jason Kendall), were hurt (Rick Ankiel and Gil Meche), or were a pain in the ass (Jose Guillen).
The Royals had appeared to be making progress under General Manager Dayton Moore initially. Under new manager Trey Hillman, the team improved by seven wins in 2007, and the following year they won 75 games, their most since 2003. But after a promising start in 2009 that saw them 18-11 early in the year, the team went into freefall and lost 97 games despite a Cy Young award-winning performance from Zack Greinke. “We had a terribly disappointing year,” said owner David Glass, “and we can t have a repeat. We’re going to turn over some of the club, which we need to do.”
Dayton Moore had made a splash in prior off-seasons with some big dollar signings for pitcher Gil Meche and outfielder Jose Guillen. But those moves hadn’t propelled the team into contention, and with some terrific prospects waiting in the wings, Moore was ready to shift gears and instead look to acquire more long-term players.
The Royals made their first move immediately after the conclusion of the World Series, sending 28-year old outfielder Mark Teahen to the Chicago White Sox for rookie second baseman Chris Getz and third baseman Josh Fields. Teahen had been pushed out of a third base job by Alex Gordon, and was ill-cast as an outfielder. His power had never really developed either, and he was a below-league average hitter making several million dollars.
“Our motivation behind this deal and any deal that we make this winter”, Royals general manager Dayton Moore acknowledged, “is to acquire as many zero-to-three service-time players as we can. That was certainly what we did here.”
Getz was blocked at second base by offensive-minded Alberto Callaspo, but the Royals were not enamored by Callaspo’s defense, and trade rumors sprung up immediately. There was talk about moving Callaspo to the Dodgers for catcher A.J. Ellis. The Royals were moving on from catcher Miguel Olivo, and sought a better backstop to pair with John Buck. The Royals also tried to sign veterans Brian Schneider, Rod Barajas, and Ivan Rodriguez to short-term contracts, ultimately signing 35-year old catcher Jason Kendall to a two-year, $6 million deal.
The Royals looked for more financial flexibility by moving their high-priced players like Gil Meche and Jose Guillen. There were rumors Meche might be swapped for another disappointing contract like Luis Castillo of the Mets or Milton Bradley of the Cubs, but ultimately he stayed put. Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger suggested the team trade All-Star closer Joakim Soria to get younger and Jayson Stark would later report that summer that the Yankees offered top catching prospect Jesus Montero for Soria, only to be rejected by the Royals. There were also rumblings that Greinke was growing tired of the losing, and the Royals may try to move him before his contract expired after the 2012 season. But there would be no major deal for either star player.
The Royals had major holes in their outfield, but struck out potential deals for young players like Felix Pie of the Orioles and Brett Gardner of the Yankees. They instead turned to stop-gap veteran free agents, signing Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel to one-year deals to man the outfield with David DeJesus.
Those three would start the season as the outfield with Guillen at DH. Alex Gordon would miss the start of the season with a broken thumb, so Callaspo filled in at third, with Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop, Getz at second, and Billy Butler at first. Buck would serve as a backup catcher behind Kendall, with Mitch Maier as a fourth outfielder, and Willie Bloomquist as a super utility player. Greinke would anchor the rotation with Meche, Brian Bannister, Kyle Davies, and former #1 overall pick Luke Hochevar. Soria would anchor the bullpen with veterans Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth, but an otherwise inexperienced collection of arms like Robinson Tejeda, Luis Mendoza, Roman Colon, and Dusty Hughes.
That motley crew of relievers would be a disaster early on. They posted a 6.16 ERA in April with 51 walks in 73 innings. The club actually lost more games than they won when leading after six innings. Manager Trey Hillman was criticized for saving Soria for the ninth, then seeing his middle relievers blow the game before it got to a save situation.
“One of the things I’m at wits end about is people continuing to ask me whether or not I’ve got it figured out yet,” he says. “How in the world would I have it figured out? Does anybody here have it figured out? Because if you do, let me know.”
Meanwhile, Alex Gordon returned from his thumb injury only to flounder at the big league level. The Royals were hoping he could blossom into a franchise player, but after mixed results in his first three seasons, he was under the Mendoza Line by May, earning a demotion to Omaha. With top third base prospect Mike Moustakas close to ready in the minors, Gordon had to be moved off his position. The plan was for him to learn to play the outfield in Omaha.
“The first thing we told Alex is he needs to play,” Hillman said. “We just want him to relax and get the weight off his shoulders. He’ll play some first, but we want him to concentrate on left field.”
The Royals went 9-14 in April, then dropped seven in a row in early May. The Royals would win on May 13 to improve to 12-23, but after the game, Dayton Moore fired manager Trey Hillman.
“I love Trey Hillman, I love him as a ... ,” said Moore, who needed several seconds to compose himself before continuing. “Obviously, it’s a very difficult decision. The process is very difficult, relationships that are formed are very strong, but at the end of the day we’ve got to make decisions that are best for our baseball team and our organization long-term and that’s the conclusion that we made.”
Hillman was replaced by former Brewers manager Ned Yost, who had been serving as an advisor to the Royals. Yost brought an optimistic outlook to his young team, likening them to the Brewers club he helped turn around as their manager.
“We’ve got a much better (collection) of players here, veteran players mixed in with younger players. This club is really not that far away. They’ve had their struggles. We’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it.”
The Royals did win six of their next eight to right the ship a bit. A 13-14 June, and a hot streak in the first week of July brought them to 39-46 going into the All-Star break.
But it didn’t help matters that their high-priced slugger, Jose Guillen, ripped the team publicly that summer.
“This organization when I came here, it was not what I thought it was going to be, The atmosphere. I was expecting a lot of fire and winning attitude. And it wasn’t any of that. None of that. I tried to say some things and do some things to change the atmosphere and then people went ‘Oh, here goes Jose Guillen again.’ But, hey, I don’t like to babysit guys. You try to tell young guys some things, they get their feelings hurt. That’s Little League stuff.
Fundamentally, this is one of the worst teams in all of baseball. This is true, I’ve been here for three years. I know everything that’s going on. We’re one of the worst teams fundamentally. Why do we get 14 or 15 hits and we score one or two runs. How does that happen? Lack of concentration. Lack of being smart.”
Guillen, who had never been a player praised for his fundamentals, had been a malcontent in the Royals’ clubhouse for years. He had hit well enough to draw some trade interest from San Francisco, with some rumors the Royals were willing to eat a substantial portion of his contract.
But the player that was generating the most trade interest was David DeJesus, who was enjoying a career season, and had only one year left on his contract. The Padres, Braves, and Red Sox were among the teams said to be the most interested, and the Royals made “genuine progress” on a deal with the Giants. But the Royals had a high asking price of “a major league-ready prospect, along with at least one midlevel prospect or a pair of lower-level players” and were rejected by Boston when they asked for shortstop Jose Iglesias or outfielder Josh Reddick.
Any hopes of a deal were quickly dashed when DeJesus injured his thumb crashing into the outfield wall with a week to go before the trade deadline, ending his season prematurely. To replace DeJesus on the roster, the Royals would recall Alex Gordon, now a left fielder. Little did they know at the time they were calling up a future Gold Glover.
Meanwhile, the minors were teeming with hitting talent. Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Wil Myers were all considered some of the top prospects in the game and were destroying minor league pitching. Second baseman Johnny Giovatella was hitting .322 for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. A 20-year old Venezuelan catcher named Salvador Perez was hitting .290 in the notoriously difficult hitting environment at Wilmington. Even older guys like Kila Kaaihue and Clint Robinson were clobbering home runs for Omaha.
The Royals needed to clear the roster to make room for the youngers, so they were active in the trade market. Dayton Moore shipped Callaspo to the Angels for pitchers Will Smith and Sean O’Sullivan. The next week he sent speedy outfielder Scott Podsednik to the Dodgers for catcher Lucas May. In the waning hours before the trade deadline, he completed a five-player trade with the Braves, sending outfielder Rick Ankiel and pitcher Kyle Farnsworth to Atlanta for outfielder Gregor Blanco, and pitchers Jesse Chavez and Tim Collins. Even after the trade deadline he was able to finally ship Guillen to San Francisco for Kevin Pucetas, with the Royals eating some of his salary.
The moves allowed the Royals to get a longer look at some of their younger players. They called up a short, stocky reliever with a devastating slider named Greg Holland. They called up a former 50th-round pick who hit .299 with blazing speed named Jarrod Dyson. They let Gordon play left field on an everyday basis. Not all of the youngsters that played at the end of the year would work out - do you remember Lucas May, Jai Miller or Sean O’Sullivan? But the seeds were there for what would eventually become a championship club.
The youngsters weren’t quite ready to win, and the team stumbled to lose 27 of their final 40 games to finish 67-95, just a two win improvement from their disappointing 2009 record. They had the fifth-worst record in baseball, and on a surface level, it seemed the Dayton Moore era was more of the same.
But that off-season, their farm system would be crowned the best in the game by Baseball America. Players like Jose Guillen, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Kyle Davies, were really just placeholders for the minor leaguers that were on their way. Change was coming, but not even the most wide-eyed optimist would have an inkling on where the team would end up.