Back in October of 2019 I did a piece ranking the Royals General Managers from worst to first. Dayton Moore, ranked #4 of 6, still had three years left on his tenure and did nothing in those years to make me feel compelled to move him up. Cedric Tallis, in my view, was the best General Manager the Royals have employed. He built the infrastructure of an expansion club, and his player moves took them to the cusp of the playoffs back when you had to beat the reigning World Series champs (Oakland) and win your division to get in. Eleven of the eighteen players in the Royals Hall of Fame were acquired by Tallis. His resume was simply astounding and the fact that he’s not in the Royals Hall of Fame remains a black mark on the club’s history.
Now that the Moore era is over, it’s interesting to compare his player acquisition to other GM’s. Allard Baird, who I had ranked at the bottom of the list, acquired three players who have a good chance of making the Royals Hall of Fame: Zach Greinke and Alex Gordon are certainties and Billy Butler is a possibility. Herk Robinson, who ranked just a smidge above Baird has Mike Sweeney in the Hall and acquired three others who could make it if the team would loosen its restrictive mindset: Carlos Beltrán, Johnny Damon and the criminally underrated David DeJesus. Dayton Moore? He signed Sal Perez, who is a lock for the Hall once he retires. After that, it gets a little dicey. Greg Holland? Maybe. Eric Hosmer? Mike Moustakas? Danny Duffy? Meh. All good, and sometimes great players but if those four didn’t make the Hall, it wouldn’t upset me. We were lucky enough to watch their peaks, but did they do enough to warrant induction?
All of this brings us to John Schuerholz, who was the top dog from 1982 through the end of the 1990 season. He’s only one of two GM’s to post a winning career record (.517) the other being Joe Burke. While finishing my series on first year players, a nagging thought started to creep into my head: was Schuerholz overrated? When he took the reins, he had nine players already on his roster that now reside in the Royals Hall. His teams finished no lower than third in their division in every season of his tenure, except for the final year when they crashed to a sixth-place finish. The Royals won their first World Series under Schuerholz and with a lucky break or two might have had another shot at a title or two.
Schuerholz and staff absolutely killed their first draft in 1982. They selected Danny Jackson, John Morris, Cecil Fielder, Will Clark and Bret Saberhagen. John Morris? Yeah, he never developed, but Schuerholz wisely flipped him to the Cardinals in 1985 for Lonnie Smith who played a huge role in the Royals winning the 1985 Series. He traded Fielder to the Blue Jays in an ill-advised trade and was unable to sign Clark, which is painful. If you saw Clark play, you know exactly what I mean. In the prime of his 15-year career, he was an exciting and feared hitter and one of the best players in baseball. Clark was a six time All Star and borderline Hall of Famer. With Clark in the fold, it’s easy to think that another World Series flag, or two, would be flying at Kauffman.
Schuerholz also scored in the 1986 and 1987 drafts. In ’86 he selected Sean Berry, Bo Jackson, Tom Gordon, Greg Hibbard and David Howard. In 1987 he tabbed Kevin Appier and Jeff Conine.
Of all the players acquired by Schuerholz, three, Saberhagen, Appier and Jeff Montgomery now reside in the Royals Hall of Fame.
After scouring the numbers each year, I believe that Schuerholz would have been better off being less transactional. Over the course of his nine-year career, he made 46 trades. Trades have three potential outcomes: win, lose or draw. Cedric Tallis won the majority of his trades and often by an alarmingly wide margin. Of the 46 trades made by Schuerholz, by my calculations he won only ten of them. He lost thirteen while the remaining 23 were classified as draws, with neither team benefiting. His most frequent trading partners were the Reds, Mets and Mariners. He victimized the Reds in his two best trades, getting Charlie Leibrandt for Bob Tufts in 1983 and swiping Jeff Montgomery for Van Snider in 1988.
He traded away a lot of good young talent for virtually nothing, guys like Rance Mulliniks, Atlee Hammaker, Cecil Fielder, Don Slaught, Scott Bankhead, David Cone, Greg Hibbard and Melido Perez. To his credit, he did get Danny Tartabull in the Bankhead deal and Tartabull had some very good years in Royal blue. His trade of Cone to the Mets, for catcher Ed Hearn and a couple of stiffs remains one of the five worst trades in Royals history and that’s being charitable. Many people consider it the worst trade in Royals history, and they might be right.
When it comes to his free agent signings, well, it gets pretty ugly. He did claim Jim Eisenreich off waivers and while Eisenreich was solid in Kansas City (he was even better after they got rid of him) at the time his signing was a crapshoot. Eisenreich had been out of baseball for two seasons dealing with the effects of Tourette’s syndrome. His next best free agent signing? Tough one to call. 41-year-old warhorse Bob Boone? How about Melido Perez or Dan Miceli, both young pitchers who had long careers after they left Kansas City?
His worst free agent signings are still panned to this day. That should tell you something. That would be the Davis boys, Mark and Storm, in December of 1989, two highly touted and expensive signings that blew up like a pack of firecrackers.
In the decade after Schuerholz left for Atlanta, the Royals got progressively worse. They finished that next 10-year span with a win percentage of .468, which included three 90+ loss seasons and four 80+ loss seasons. Schuerholz drafted no player of note in his last three drafts and his once frequent trading activity dried up. It was almost as if he’d quit trying. He absolutely left the team in worse shape than he found it.
When he moved to Atlanta, Schuerholz inherited a team that already had Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery along with offensive weapons like Ron Gant, Terry Pendleton and David Justice. With a little help from old friends Lonnie Smith and Charlie Leibrandt, that team went to the World Series, where they fell to the Twins in seven games. The Braves repeated in 1992, this time losing the Series to the Jays in six games. In the off-season, Schuerholz signed free agent Greg Maddux, a move that culminated with the Braves winning the 1995 World Series over Cleveland.
By this time, Chipper Jones, another Hall of Famer, had made his debut. Jones had been drafted by Bobby Cox the year before Schuerholz arrived. Schuerholz’s Atlanta drafts were mostly pedestrian exercises. His best pick was probably Freddie Freeman, taken in the 2nd round of Schuerholz’ last draft in 2007. He had a few other good picks, guys like Jermaine Dye, Adam Wainwright and Charlie Morton, but his Atlanta drafts weren’t anything to write home about.
Schuerholz’s Braves teams won their division an astounding 14 consecutive years. Can’t argue with that kind of success. They played in five World Series, with the 1995 team being the only winner.
Schuerholz was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017. Was Schuerholz’ Kansas City tenure overrated? At the end of the day, probably, though a lot of a General Managers success depends on if the team owner is willing to open his checkbook to sign topflight free agents like Maddux. How would have Allard Baird fared had he had a free spending owner instead of the tight-fisted board that ran the Royals during his tenure?
Despite winning a World Series title with the Royals, in retrospect, Schuerholz’s tenure with Kansas City bares a stark similarity to that of his latter day protégé, Dayton Moore. Both inherited some key pieces, drafted a couple of cornerstones, made a couple of timely acquisitions, caught lightening in a bottle for a couple of seasons and walked away with a World Series ring. The difference was Schuerholz found greener pastures and moved on while Moore rode the cycle back into the dirt. In 2019 I ranked Schuerholz #3 out of six and that still feels right.