My oh my, how things change. In 1987, the Minnesota Twins won the Western Division with a paltry 85 wins, two wins better than the Royals. Minnesota then got hot and won the World Series. Anything can happen if you can just get into the playoffs.
In 1988, the Royals improved slightly, to 84-77, but dropped to third in the West behind Oakland and the Twins. The Twins improved as well, winning 91 games, but that Oakland team was a powerhouse, winning 104, before romping past the Red Sox in the ALCS. Waiting for them were the Los Angeles Dodgers. This was the season that Orel Hershiser was on fire. The Dodgers were the Twins of 1988, beating the heavily favored Mets in the NLCS before besting the heavily favored A’s in the Series. This was of course the Kirk Gibson series and I’m sure you’ve seen the highlight film a few thousand times. Once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen. That’s the new challenge for the 2023 Royals. Just put together a good enough team to get into the playoffs.
1988 was John Wathan’s first full season as skipper. The team employed 41 players: 24 position players, 17 pitchers. The team seemed to make a strategic shift with the new veteran players, bringing in higher-profile guys like Kurt Stilwell, Bill Buckner and Pat Tabler. Roster turnover was still heavy, with 15 of the 41 active players being new to the organization.
Luis de los Santos
Luis de los Santos was the Royals’ second-round pick in the 1984 draft (three picks ahead of Tom Glavine) out of Newtown High School in Elmhurst, New York. Luis was a big man, standing 6’5 and 205 pounds and the Royals envisioned him as a power-hitting first baseman of the future. He hit well in the minors, posting a high of .307 in 136 games in Omaha in 1988, but with little power. Despite that size, he hit only six home runs in 535 at-bats. Who knows why players never develop, but de los Santos didn’t.
The Royals gave him an 11-game cup of coffee at the end of the 1988 season with his first hit coming on September 18th, a third inning triple off the A’s Curt Young. He only managed one more hit before the season ended. He did Omaha again in 1989, and once again hit well, .297 but with only three home runs. The Royals gave him 28 more games in 1989, whereupon he hit a more respectable .253. He spent all of 1990 at Omaha before being DFA’d prior to the start of the 1991 season. The Tigers picked him up and he got into 11 games with them. As a nice memory, he stroked a double off Teddy Higuera in his last major league at-bat. Then it gets interesting. From 1992 until he finally hung up the cleats after the 2003 season, de los Santos saw a lot of the world, playing in the Taiwanese, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Italian and independent US leagues.
Jose de Jesus
De Jesus was signed by the Royals as an amateur free agent in May of 1983. The Royals lost him to the Blue Jays in the 1985 Rule 5 draft but had him returned in April of 1986. The Royals had him working as a starter in the minors and got him into two games late in the 1988 season. His first start was rough, two innings, four hits, six runs, ERA of 22.50. He gave up four more runs in his next appearance, in only 2/3 of an inning to bring his ERA to an unsightly 27. Welcome to the bigs.
After another season at Omaha, he got into three more games at the tail end of 1989. In March of 1990, the Royals traded him straight up for Lawrence native Steve Jeltz. De Jesus had a much better go in Philly, appearing in 53 games (51 starts) over the 1990 and 91 seasons, posting a 17-17 record with a 3.55 ERA. He missed a couple of years with injuries then came back to Kansas City as a free agent for the 1994 season. He appeared in five more games, going 3 and 1 with a 4.73 ERA. He spent the next two seasons in AAA before closing out his career in the Chinese and Independent leagues. He retired after the 1999 season at the age of 34.
Gordon was selected by the Royals in the sixth round of the 1986 draft. Gordon blew through the Royals' minor league system and made his debut on September 8th against Oakland at the age of 20. I remember the first time I saw Gordon pitch and was just blown away by the movement of his curveball. I immediately thought two things: first, no one alive can hit that pitch and two, how long can his elbow withstand that?
Gordon became a star in 1989, posting a 17 and 9 record, a year in which he struck out 153 batters in 163 innings of work. Baseball people today talk about the ability to miss bats. That’s what Gordon had. The Royals lost him to Boston as a free agent after the 1995 season. His time in KC I guess could be described as missed potential.
He finished his Royal career at 79-71 with 999 strikeouts in 1,149 innings of work plus a second-place finish in the 1989 Rookie of the Year vote. In his third season with the Red Sox, Boston wisely converted him to a closer and he was lights out, saving a league-leading 46 games and making his first All-Star team. Eventually, his shoulder blew out and after rehab, he became a bit of a nomad, playing for the Cubs, Astros, White Sox, Yankees, Phillies and Diamondbacks before finally hanging it up after the 2009 season at the age of 41.
Two of his sons, Dee and Nick are currently playing in the majors, which continues to validate my theory that teams should always draft progeny. He also became a bit of a cult hero when noted author Steven King wrote a book titled, The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon. What a career for the player affectionately known as Flash. Three-time All-Star, set a then record of 54 consecutive saves between 1998 and 1999, the only pitcher in major league history to record 100 wins, 100 saves and 100 holds and a World Series champ in 2008. Have the Royals ever made a better sixth-round choice?
Lee, no relation, was a left-handed pitcher drafted in the 15th round of the 1985 draft by Detroit by way of Florida International University and Natrona High School in Casper, Wyoming. What are the odds of a kid making the majors from Casper, Wyoming? Evidently, not too bad. Natrona has somehow produced five major league ballplayers, the most accomplished being Mike Lansing, who had a solid nine-year career with Montreal, Colorado and Boston. Natrona has also produced two professional football players and a handful of politicians, including Dick Cheney. Not bad for a cold weather high school which also boasts an Alpine and Nordic ski team.
Lee came to the Royals in a late-season 1988 trade with the Tigers that also returned Rey Palacios in exchange for Ted Power. The Royals didn’t waste any time with Lee or Palacios, as both made their major league debuts on September 8th in a game against Oakland. Lee got into four games in 1988, giving up six hits and two runs in five innings of work. Lee spent all of 1989 at AA Memphis before getting his release from the Royals. He signed with Milwaukee and in 1991 had the best year of his career, appearing in 62 games. He spent the next three seasons in the minor league systems of the Brewers, Rangers and Cubs before making it back to the show with the Orioles in 1995. He got into 39 games for Baltimore that summer. He spent the final two years of his career playing at the AAA level for the Mets, Braves and Rockies before calling it a career at the age of 32.
Palacios, a Brooklyn native, was the other piece of the Power trade, making his debut the same day as Lee. In fact, he caught Lee’s 9th inning debut and in the bottom of the inning stroked his first major league hit, a single off the A’s Greg Cadaret. Palacios got into five games with 11 at-bats, but that single was his only hit of the season. He split 1989 and 1990 between Omaha and the Royals, getting into 96 more games. His highlight as a Royal came on July 18th, 1990, in front of a raucous hometown crowd at Yankee Stadium. Palacios went 2-for-4 with a home run that day. The Royals released him after the season ended and he was out of baseball the entirety of 1991 before hooking on with the Angels and later, Oriole organizations. In retirement, he worked as a firefighter.
Sanchez was the Royals ninth-round pick in the 1982 draft out of Von Steuben High School in Chicago. After working through the minors, he made his debut on July 7th against Milwaukee. He made 19 appearances the summer of 1988, throwing nearly 36 innings. He lost most of 1989 to injury before clawing his way back to Kansas City late in the 1990 season for 11 more appearances. The Royals released him after the 1990 season. He spent the next two years playing for the Orioles AAA team in Rochester before calling it a career at the age of 28.
If a team truly wants to be transactional, acquiring a young talent like Aquino is a good example to study. The Blue Jays signed Aquino as an amateur free agent out of his native Puerto Rico in 1981. He got a brief cup of coffee with them in 1986 before the Royals acquired the 22-year-old Aquino for over-the-hill outfielder Juan Beniquez in July of 1987.
Aquino spent most of 1988 in Omaha, where he was the ace of the staff with a 2.85 ERA and a no-hitter to his credit. The Royals rewarded him with a seven-game stint late in the 1988 season, which included a complete game, six-hit shutout of his former team on August 14th. Over the next four seasons, Aquino battled a litany of injuries but still appeared in 197 games in a variety of roles: starter, middle innings and on occasion, the closer. The Royals sold him to the expansion Marlins prior to the 1994 season. He spent the next three seasons playing for Florida, Montreal and San Francisco before spending the 1996 season with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japanese League.
How many of you older fans forgot that Bannister was the #1 pick in the 1976 draft? He was tabbed as the next sure thing after being named college player of the year while at Arizona State. He only appeared in 7 minor league games before making his major league debut with the Astros in 1977. He spent time with the Mariners and White Sox, before the Royals acquired him in a December of 1987 trade with the Sox. He appeared in 45 games for the Royals, with 31 of those coming in 1988. He was lost to injury part way through the 1989 season and finding no takers for 1990, pitched in Japan for the Yakult Swallows. He returned to the majors in 1991 with California and spent 1992 with Texas before calling it a career at the age of 37. His son, Brian, pitched for the Royals from 2007 to 2010.
It’s unfortunate that for younger fans the most lasting image they have of Bill Buckner is of Mookie Wilson’s ground ball rolling through his legs. That Buckner was already 36 and playing on two bad ankles. He could still hit, but his best days were far behind him. But Buckner at his peak, which ran 11 seasons from 1972 to 1982, was something to behold. His slash during that span was .300/.331/.418 with 1,677 hits. He picked up MVP votes in five seasons and won the National League batting title in 1980 with a .324 mark. Somehow, he only appeared in one All-Star game. George Brett famously broke his big toe after slamming it into a table while rushing from his kitchen to his TV room to catch a Buckner at bat. The guy could flat-out hit.
Buckner was drafted by the Dodgers in the second round of the 1968 draft and got his first taste of big-league action barely a year later, as a 19-year-old wunderkind. His first at-bat came against Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry and his first major league hit came on April 8th, 1970, an eighth inning single off the Reds Jim McGlothin. On April 8th, 1974, Buckner was stationed in left field when Henry Aaron lofted a deep fly over the left field fence for career home run 715. Buckner tried to climb the fence to retrieve the ball but had no chance as the blast landed in Tom House’s glove.
Buckner enjoyed his best years with the Chicago Cubs from 1977 to 1984. He came to Kansas City as a free agent early in the 1988 season. I was excited to have him on the team, if for no other reason than to see a legendary player in Royal blue. Billy Buck was 38 when he arrived in Kansas City, and it showed as he only slashed .239/.269/.316 in 168 games over two seasons. His career concluded after a 22-game stint back in Boston in the 1990 season, making Buckner one of the rare players to make appearances in four decades.
He ended his career with 2,715 hits and 498 doubles. He hit over .300 seven times and drove in more than 100 runs in three seasons. He led his league in doubles twice and assists four times and his mark of 1,351 assists while playing first base remains the fourth-most in Major League history, yet his career was somehow only worth 15 WAR. Tragically, Buckner was lost in May of 2019 to Lewy body dementia.
Capra, a Denver native was originally drafted by the Expos in 1976 and in 1979, by the Rangers. He got into a smattering of games for Texas in 1982, 1983 and 1985. The Royals signed him off the free agent market in December of 1987. He spent most of 1988 in Omaha but did get into 14 games in July and August. He only hit .138 which earned him a trip north on I-29. He spent all of 1989 in Omaha before the Royals released him. He hooked on with Texas and made it back to the show for two games in 1991. He spent the final four seasons of his career in AAA before hanging up the spikes at the age of 37. In retirement, he joined the White Sox staff in 1996 and stayed with the organization until 2020.
Owen was a tenth-round pick of the Cubs back in 1979. A utility infielder, he made it to Chicago for 16 games in 1983 and 69 more between 1984 and 1985 on those great Chicago teams that featured guys like Leon Durham, Bob Dernier, Ron Cey, Ryne Sandberg and Jody Davis. He collected his last major league hit in October of 1985 with an eighth-inning single off Bill “Soup” Campbell, who just passed away recently. He bounced from the Cubs to the Giants then to the Rangers, never making it back to the show. The Royals got him from Texas for a minor leaguer named Rufus Ellis in July of 1987. He made it to Kansas City for five games in the 1988 season but went hitless in five at-bats. He spent the 1989 season with the Iowa Cubs before calling it a career. His younger brother Spike had a solid 13-year big league career. Owen later served as bench coach for the Royals under Trey Hillman.
Power was a multi-sport star at Abilene, Kansas high school. The Dodgers took him in the 5th round of the 1976 draft out of Kansas State. He made his debut with Los Angeles in 1981 and over his 13-year career was a bit of a vagabond, also playing for the Reds (twice), Tigers, Cardinals, Pirates, Indians and Mariners in addition to a 22-game stint with the Royals in 1988.
He came to the Royals in the Kurt Stilwell trade and was shipped to the Tigers in a late-season deal for Rey Palacios and Mark Lee. Power did a bit of everything in his career, appearing in 564 games, which included 85 starts and 70 saves. His best year was 1984 with the Reds when he appeared in a league-high 78 games and where he posted an excellent 2.82 ERA. His best stretch as a Royal came on June 2nd and June 7th when he threw back-to-back complete game shutouts against the Mariners and the A’s. In retirement, he worked as a pitching coach in the Padres and Reds systems.
Stilwell was the second overall pick in the 1983 draft, taken by the Reds after a standout career at Thousand Oaks (CA) high school. He made his debut with Cincy in 1986 and flashed enough potential that the Royals traded Danny Jackson to get him. He made his only All-Star team in 1988 and in his four-year Royal career was incredibly consistent. The Royals let him walk after the 1991 season and he spent time with the Padres, Angels and Rangers before hanging it up at the age of 31. In retirement he worked as a fishing guide and for mega agent Scott Boros. His father Ron had a brief career with the Washington Senators in 1961 and 1962.
Tabler was originally drafted by the Yankees in the first round of the 1976 draft, the same draft that saw future teammate Floyd Bannister go #1. That first round was strong, producing Ken Landreaux, Steve Trout, Leon Durham, Mike Scioscia and Bruce Hurst. The Royals' choice in that first round was a Florida high school pitcher named Ben Grzybek, one pick before Scioscia and four picks before Hurst. The second round also produced a couple of stars in Alan Trammell and Mike Scott. The Royals whiffed that round as well with another high school pitcher named Tim Brandenburg. They also whiffed on their third and fourth round selections, including missing on an Oakland teenager named Rickey Henderson. Rough year for the Royals scouts.
The Yankees traded Tabler to the Cubs, where he made his major league debut in 1981. After two seasons, Chicago sent him to Cleveland where he enjoyed modest success for six seasons, including his only All-Star appearance in 1987. His best years were 1986 and 1987, where he was a 2.5 WAR player each year. Naturally, as the Royals are want to do, they acquired Tabler in June of 1988 for pitcher Bud Black. Tabler was worth a negative 2.5 WAR in three seasons at Kauffman while Black was worth 2 WAR in his four Cleveland seasons. Tabler’s numbers in Kansas City weren’t horrible: .279/.339/.347 but as you can see, he had little power with just four home runs and 110 RBI in 984 plate appearances. In August of 1990, the Royals traded Tabler to the Mets for pitcher Archie Corbin. He spent the last two summers of his career in Toronto, where he was part of their World Series championship team, before it ended at the age of 34.
Tabler had an uncanny ability to hit well with the bases loaded, hitting .489 (43 for 88) with the bases juiced. In retirement, Tabler had a long engagement as a studio analyst and color commentator for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Royals have long had a love affair with second basemen who couldn’t hit. If the team had a wall of fame for these guys, you’d see names like Juan Rios, Tommy Matchick, Terry Shumpert, Chris Getz, Elliot Johnson and Wellman. I’m sure I’m missing a few, but you get the idea. Wellman was originally signed by the Royals as a free agent back in August of 1978. In March of 1982, he was part of the package (Wellman, Craig Chamberlain, Atlee Hammaker and Renie Martin) sent to the Giants in exchange for Vida Blue and Bob Tufts. He got into six games with the Giants in 1982 and over the next four seasons played a prominent utility role for them.
In 1987, he went to the Dodgers as a free agent, but only saw action in three games. It was then that the Royals decided they needed more Wellman and brought the prodigal son back in a free agent deal. He wasn’t terrible: .246/.286/.302, in 285 at-bats over two seasons, but he wasn’t great either. His Royal contract expired at the end of the 1989 season and finding no takers, he retired at the age of 29. Wellman, from Lodi, California, went out strong, collecting two hits in his final game which was played in nearby Oakland. In a strange twist, his brother-in-law was former pitcher Tom Candiotti, who was originally signed by the Royals as an amateur free agent in 1980. The Royals lost Candiotti to the Brewers in the Rule 5 draft. Candiotti, nicknamed Cotton, wound up playing for 16 seasons, throwing over 2,700 career innings and was worth 41 WAR.
We’ll look at two more years of first-year players to conclude the Schuerholz era, before I do a deep dive into the career of Schuerholz.