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The hole in right field

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Can you spare a player, brother?

Seattle Mariners vs. Kansas City Royals

For some strange reason, the Royals have had trouble finding, developing, and keeping a decent right fielder. Over the years, they’ve had good and often great players at every other position. But right field? Not so much.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. Bob Oliver was the Royals opening day right fielder for their first game in 1969. Oliver was a fine player and had some good moments. But the Royals moved him around a lot during his time in KC. In addition to right, Oliver played first base, third base, center, and left. The 1969 Royals had two other players who could have been a solution: Lou Piniella and Pat Kelly. Since they were an expansion team, and bereft of talent, Piniella manned left field for most of his Royal career. The Royals short-circuited that when they traded Piniella to the Yankees in 1973 for an over-the-hill Lindy McDaniel. The Yankees installed Piniella into right field, and he went on to hit .295 for them over the next 11 seasons. He wasn’t known as a great defensive outfielder, but he was better than his reputation. Kelly’s career followed a similar trajectory. After two seasons in Kansas City, where he batted just .249, he was traded to the White Sox, where in a six-year career he blossomed into a .273 hitter and made the 1973 All-Star team. He played through the end of the 1981 season and was a key contributor with the late 1970s Baltimore Orioles championship teams.

Thus began a virtual musical chair in right field: George Spriggs, Joe Keough, Ed Kirkpatrick, Ted Savage, Richie Scheinblum, Steve Hovley, Vada Pinson, Hal McRae, and Jim Wohlford all cycled through the position. Finally, in 1976, Al Cowens claimed the position and looked like he might be the long-term answer. In 1977, Cowens slashed .312/.361/.525 with 23 home runs and 112 RBI, won a Gold Glove, and finished second in the MVP vote. Cowens was good but not great the next two seasons, so the Royals shipped him to the Angels in December of 1979 for Willie Aikens.

After banishing Cowens, Kansas City installed phenom Clint Hurdle in right. Hurdle never lived up to expectations and was dealt to the Reds in December of 1981. This set off another mad search: Jerry Martin, Steve Hammond, Bombo Rivera, Leon Roberts, Cesar Geronimo, and Lynn Jones all auditioned for the position. When Willie Wilson was shifted to center field, the Royals had Amos Otis play some games in right. Eventually, the position was manned by Pat Sheridan and Darryl Motley, who both helped the team win the 1985 World Series. Sheridan was released prior to the 1986 season and Motley, who never replicated his World Series heroics, was traded to Atlanta in September of 1986.

The Royals brought in Danny Tartabull for the 1987 season, and he was their first bona fide star in right since Cowens. Tartabull spent five seasons in Kansas City, and he was terrific with the bat: .290/.376/.518 with 124 home runs and 425 RBI. He made his only All-Star team in 1991. Tartabull desired brighter lights (and a bigger paycheck) and signed with the damn Yankees as a free agent prior to the 1992 season.

With Tartabull’s departure, you could cue the music again. Over the next six seasons the Royals gave innings to Jim Eisenreich, Gary Thurman, Chris Gwynn, Kevin Koslofski, Felix Jose, Hubie Brooks, Dave Henderson, Jon Nunnally, Phil Hiatt, Les Norman, Michael Tucker, Joe Vitiello, and Yamil Benetiz for the position before Jermaine Dye mercifully emerged and laid claim to right. Dye took over right field in 1997 and held the position until July of 2001 when the Royals unwisely traded him to the Colorado Rockies for…Neifi Perez. Not Neifi Perez and other players, just Neifi Perez, straight up. It was such an absurdly bad trade that almost defies belief. The Rockies, an equal match for the Royals in front office incompetence, immediately flipped Dye to Oakland for three players who didn’t amount to a bag of balls. While in Kansas City, Dye slashed .284/.344/.477 with 85 home runs and 329 RBI. He made the All-Star team and won his only Gold Glove in 2000 as a member of the Royals. After the Royals, he played for eight more productive seasons, winning a World Series with the White Sox in 2005, in which he was named the Most Valuable Player of the series.

Since Dye was given away, the problem has become more acute. No fewer than 35 different players have roamed right field for the Royals in the last 19 seasons. Included in that group were a lot of has-beens and never-weres. Michael Tucker (again), Aaron Guiel, Mark Quinn, Alexis Gomez, Brandon Berger, Abraham Nunez, Juan Gonzalez, Emil Brown, Reggie Sanders, Shane Costa, Mitch Maier, Jose Guillen, Ryan Freel, David DeJesus, Jai Miller, Jeff Francoeur, David Lough, Jarrod Dyson, Justin Maxwell, Nori Aoki, Carlos Peguero, Alex Rios, Paulo Orlando, Rey Fuentes, Billy Burns, Brett Eibner, Jorge Bonafacio, Melky Cabrera, Jorge Soler, Brett Phillips, Bubba Starling, Edward Olivares, Whit Merrifield, Hunter Dozier, and Kyle Isbel. There were probably more. You might think I’m making up some of those names. I’m not. Some were one-hit wonders. Guiel had a decent season. Guillen hit some home runs. Francoeur, Lough, Orlando, and Bonafacio all had some moments but ended up being fools' gold. Aoki provided some comic relief before coming up big in the playoffs. The Royals have spent the last two seasons having their best player, Whit Merrifield, and Hunter Dozier play the position. Hopefully, Kyle Isbel or Edward Olivares (M.J. Melendez?) can lay claim to it and give us a few good years. The Royals internet community tossed around the idea of the club signing Japanese star Seiya Suzuki, but that’s not going to happen.

Some of the games best players have played right field: Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Henry Aaron, Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro and Dwight Evans just to name a few. The Royals' inability to find a long-term solution in right has become a maddening issue.