Recycling is very popular now, but baseball teams have been re-using seemingly washed-up veteran players for years. Most times it doesn’t work out - Father Time remains undefeated. But sometimes a new environment, a better clubhouse, and fresh legs can revive a player’s career.
The Royals have had some pretty gambles on reclamation projects work out in the past. These are players that were once good, fell upon some bad years, then resurrected their career in a Royals uniform. Here are the top ten career revivals in Royals history.
10. Jose Lima
Believe it! Lima won 21 games with the Astros in 1999, but the very next year his ERA ballooned to 6.65 and he gave up a whopping 48 home runs. After a 7.77 ERA with Detroit in 2002, Lima was out of affiliated baseball, pitching in the independent leagues.
The 2003 Royals got off to a crazy good start, but it was with a pitching staff held by duct tape and string. They were desperate, and purchased Lima from the Newark Bears without even scouting him - scout Art Stewart simply heard Lima had his fastball back. The 30-year old discovered a fountain of youth, winning seven starts in a row and posting a 2.17 ERA over eight starts that summer. He would regress to end the year at a 4.91 ERA, but his eight wins were third on the team, and his 1.2 rWAR was fifth-best among pitchers - all for a guy that made just 14 starts. Lima Time would head to the Dodgers in 2004 before returning to the Royals the next season (with an ugly 6.99 ERA), and retiring after the 2006 season.
9. Ryan Madson
Madson had been a very solid reliever for the Phillies for nine seasons, appearing in 491 games with a 3.59 ERA and earning a championship ring in 2008. By 2015, his career seemed over. He had needed Tommy John surgery, keeping him out of big league action for three full years. Royals executive Jim Fregosi, Jr. asked him to tutor a young high school baseball player, and that got Madson on the mound again, rekindling his love of the game. He asked for a tryout with the Royals, and after impressing them in bullpen sessions, they gave him a low-risk minor league deal. Madson would end up making 68 appearances with the eventual champs, posting a 2.13 ERA and pitching some of the most crucial innings in the post-season.
8. Jeff Francoeur
“Frenchy” took the league by storm, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting, and gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated. He smacked 29 home runs in his first full season the next year, and won a Gold Glove Award the year after that. His future seemed bright.
But his free-swinging approach began to take its toll, and he was demoted to the minors in his fourth season. The Braves shipped him to the Mets, who off-loaded him to the Rangers. Dayton Moore had been with the Braves when they drafted Francoeur in 2002, and he signed the then-27-year old outfielder to a one-year, $2.5 million deal.
Francoeur responded by hitting .285/.329/.476, becoming just the fourth player in club history to hit 20+ home runs and 20+ stolen bases. He was a 3.2 rWAR player, provided solid defense with a strong arm in right, and endeared himself with fans by buying them pizza. His comeback season was rewarded with a two-year, $13 million contract extension, but Francoeur would quickly turn back into a pumpkin.
7. Jeremy Guthrie
A “white elephant gift exchange” is when partygoers exchange intentionally terrible gifts to much amusement. The Royals and Rockies held their own white elephant gift exchange in 2012, when they swapped a pair of pitchers who just weren’t working out. The Royals had the moody and homer-prone Jonathan Sanchez putting up a 7.76 ERA in 12 starts. The Rockies had taken a chance on flyball pitcher Jeremy Guthrie in the thin air of Colorado, and that worked out about as well as you’d expect with a 6.35 ERA and 21 home runs allowed in 15 starts.
So the two teams gave each pitcher a change of scenery, and the Royals discovered that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Guthrie was all too glad to get back to sea level, posting a 3.14 ERA in 14 starts with the Royals. That earned him a three-year, $25 million contract with them, and he would win 15 games the next season and eventually start Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. Meanwhile, Sanchez would last just three starts with the Rockies, giving up 13 runs for a 9.53 ERA.
6. Cookie Rojas
Octavio “Cookie” Rojas was a Cuban-born infielder who spent seven years with the Phillies as an infielder. He was valuable for his versatility, playing every single position on the field in his career, and he hit .303 in 1965, earning his first All-Star appearances, and even a few down-ballot MVP votes. But his batting numbers slumped, and he was dumped to the Cardinals in 1970, where he lasted just 23 games before they traded him to Kansas City.
The Royals were a young team that season, looking for a veteran to give them stability and someone to teach them how to play the game the right way. Rojas was rejuvenated with the Royals and hit .300 in his first full season with them in 1971. He was voted into the All-Star game despite not being on the ballot, thanks to a write-in campaign by Royals fans, the first of four consecutive All-Star nods for Rojas. He would become one of the first popular stars on the club and was part of the second class ever to be inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame.
5. Paul Byrd
Byrd migrated around the league a lot early in his career, going from the Indians to the Mets to the Braves to the Phillies. In 1999, he won 15 games with Philadelphia, earning his only All-Star appearance. But he posted a 6.69 ERA in 16 starts after that, and they shipped him to Kansas City for reliever Jose Santiago in the summer of 2001. He pitched reasonably well for the pitching-starved Royals, and the next season he earned a spot in the rotation.
That April, Byrd began doing something no starting pitcher had done in Kansas City in several years - win games. He won his first four starts that year, capped off by a complete game shutout over the Tigers. By the end of May he was already 8-2 with a 2.88 ERA. Fans were so starved for something to be excited about with the Royals, they began donning bird costumes to comprise the “Byrd’s Nest.” He would end up with 17 wins, the most by a Royals pitcher in nearly a decade.
4. Gary Gaetti
Gaetti had been a two-time All-Star and power-hitting third baseman on two championship teams in Minnesota before he signed a big free agent deal with the California Angels in 1991. But he played terrible defense and couldn’t hit, and the Halos let him go with over a year left on his four-year, $11.4 million contract.
The Royals wouldn’t have to pay anything more than the league minimum for his services, so they signed “The Rat” to compete at third with rookie Phil Hiatt. His 14 home runs that season would be fourth on the club, despite coming in just 82 games. His numbers were mediocre the next season, and the club seemed ready to move on, but he agreed to a minor league deal in 1995 to compete with rookie Joe Randa at third. But Gaetti would seize the job with a home run tear, eventually hitting 35 dingers, at the time the second-most in club history in a single season. He won the Silver Slugger Award and finished tenth in MVP voting.
3. Jose Offerman
Offerman was a highly prized prospect - Baseball America ranked him #4 in baseball in 1991 after he hit .326 with 60 steals in Triple-A. But he had some major defensive issues, committing 42 errors in his first full season, then 37 the next season. His bat was slow to come around, but he did hit well enough in 1995 to earn an All-Star nod.
Despite the offensive improvement, the Dodgers could no longer stand his miscues at short, nor his surliness. He accused Dodgers fans of being racist after they booed him, and got into a dugout brawl with teammate Eric Karros, sealing his fate in Los Angeles. They shipped him to the Royals for lefty reliever Billy Brewer.
Offerman was a much better teammate in Kansas City, and they were able to neutralize his defense by playing him at first and second base. He hit .306/.385/.419 in his three seasons in Kansas City. He has the highest career batting average and on-base percentage for any Royals hitter with at least 1,000 plate appearances, and his 89 walks are the most by any Royals hitter in the last 30 years.
2. Melky Cabrera
The Melk Man had been a top prospect with the Yankees who impressed with a 3.0 rWAR season his rookie seasons. But he found consistent playing time hard to get in the Bronx, and his offense never really took off. They shipped him to Atlanta in 2010, but the Braves were underwhelmed by his bat and his work ethic, particularly in regard to his physical fitness.
The Royals signed Cabrera to a one-year, $1.25 million contract to join Francoeur in the outfield in 2011, and while Frenchy enjoyed a career revival, Melky outshone him. Cabrera played centerfield and hit a career-high .305 with 18 home runs and 20 steals, leading the team with 102 runs scored. The Royals were rumored to have offered a contract extension to Cabrera only to be rebuffed, so they offered one to Francoeur instead and traded Cabrera to the Giants for pitcher Jonathan Sanchez. While Sanchez would flounder, Cabrera would hit .346 and win MVP at the All-Star Game in.....Kansas City.
1. Kendrys Morales
The Qualifying Offer is a way to drag free agent salaries, and has really cost a few players that were valuable enough to warrant a multi-year deal, but not valuable enough for teams to want to fork over a first-round pick as compensation. Morales discovered how baseball could be a business when he embarked on free agency after the 2013 season. He had finished fifth in MVP voting in 2009, and was coming off back-to-back 20+ home run seasons. But no one was willing to give up a high draft pick for a player limited to DH duties, and Morales had to wait until after the draft to sign with the Twins. The late start cost Morales greatly, and he struggled to hit just .218/.274/.338 with just eight home runs in 98 games.
The Royals needed a boost to their lineup to get them back to the World Series, so they took a gamble on Morales - who no longer had draft pick compensation attached to him - signing him to a two-year, $17 million deal. He became the middle-of-the-order bat they needed and the veteran presence that provided the swagger they needed in their post-season run, punctuated by his Game 5 home run in the ALDS against Houston. Morales would win the Silver Slugger award that season, then smack 30 home runs the next year.
Honorable mention: Vince Coleman, Tim Belcher, Jason Grimsley, Chris Young, Homer Bailey