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Royal flush

What a steal!

Over the winter I was browsing through eBay one day and came across a guy selling every Topps Kansas City Royals team set from 1982 to 2017 for something like $35. I wasn’t in the market for cards, but that was such a ridiculously cheap price for that many years of cards, so I jumped on it.

The cards arrived quickly, two boxes worth, and I stuck them in a closet until I had more time to look at them. I already had all the Royals sets from 1969 to 1975, so without trying, I filled a lot of years. Once I got the cards out and started looking at them, several things jumped out at me, in both card design and the history of the Royals.

First, on the cards. The paper stock has gotten remarkably better over the years. Older sets were made of cheaper cardboard that bent easily and faded quickly unless cared for properly. Modern cards are slick and stiff, almost like a high dollar wedding invitation. They’ll probably look as if they were just pulled from the pack fifty years from now. The second thing that I noticed is the photography has gotten a hundred times better. In the older Topps sets, say from 1965 to 1975, you might find three or four outstanding card shots in an entire set. Think Vida Blue in the 1971 set or our own Freddie Patek in the 1973 set. Today you’ll find dozens of outstanding photographs in each set.

The third thing I noticed is the production has improved greatly. Long gone are miscuts. Nary a card had a blemish on it. And those older air brushed hats that Topps grew fond of in the early 1970s? Those are history too.

Most of the cards I bought have little near or long-term value and that’s okay. There were still some notable cards in the sets: George Brett’s last card as a player plus the rookie cards of Carlos Beltran, Zach Greinke, Alex Gordon and Sal Perez.

Worst Set Design

Which set has the worst design? The 1985 set is a contender. It just looks cheap. I didn’t care for it then or now. I don’t like 2005 set either. Too much going on with the players name on top and on the side. The team’s name on the left side plus at the bottom. Topps also included their name and the year at the bottom. Just overall a bad design. The winner for the worst design for me is the 2008 set. I don’t even know how to describe this abomination. The team’s name at the top of the card, enclosed in an alternating color circle gives the cards a circus feel. The white border gives them a chevy Vega vibe. Just an all-around ugly card.

Best Set Design

The best design? That’s a tough one. I’m going with the 2010 set. Great photography and a more classic card design. I also like the 2023 Heritage sets, which are based on the classic 1973 card.

Most years had a respectable 18-25 cards per team which is a good number. The smallest set? 1997, which had a puny 7 cards. I looked on the internet to make sure that was right. I still think I’m missing something there.

Best cards

The best cards in those years? I’d like to hear from the readers what your favorites are, but these are mine in chronological order: the 1987 Bo Jackson rookie. The 1987 set was kind of ugly, with the wood grain paneling and all, but the Jackson card had some nice sizzle. The 1994 Brett, his final card as a player, showed a nice in-action shot with the scoreboard in the background. Just a great looking card. David DeJesus 2010 card was outstanding, showing him leaping to take a home run away. Same with Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain in the 2015 set. Moose was climbing into the stands for a foul ball. Lo Cain’s card shows him stretched out, diving for a liner. All three of those cards highlighted fantastic photography.

Obscure Players

Sorting through these, I noticed several very obscure players. I’ve been following the Royals since their inception, but I had to look these guys up.

1982 – Joel Johnston – No recollection of this guy at all. A right-handed pitcher, he appeared in 18 games in the 1991 and 1992 seasons.

2001 – Brett Laxton – Another right-handed pitcher, acquired in a trade with Oakland for Jeremy Giambi. He appeared in six games for KC in the summer of 2000. He spent all of 2001 and 2002 in Omaha before exiting the game, but he did get a baseball card.

2005 – Darren Fenster – drafted by the Royals in the 12th round of the 2000 draft. He made it as high as AA Wichita in 2004. He apparently was out of baseball in 2005 but did get a sweet card.

2010 – Dusty Hughes – a left-handed pitcher drafted by KC in the 11th round of the 2004 draft. He got into 65 games for the Royals, 57 in 2010 alone. He played for Minnesota in 2011 then banged around Atlanta’s minor league system through the 2013 season.

Congrats to these guys for getting a card. That must be a cool moment, seeing your first professional baseball card. The obscurity of these four, plus that of many others, leads to the second part of this essay.

The Royals have been really, really bad at scouting and drafting for several decades. You don’t lose as many games as they have over the past forty years without being fabulously inept in those departments. Forty years! Aside from a brief respite between 2013 and 2015, and the fluke 2003 team, we’ve endured a lot of losing. A. Lot. Of. Losing.

Looking at these cards and seeing who Topps had picked as the team’s rookie stars, I can understand how the losing happened. Sure, there’s been some occasional bright spots: a Kevin Appier here, a Carlos Beltran there. Johnny Damon was a good draft choice, as was Billy Butler, David DeJesus and Zach Greinke. Unfortunately, there were too many Shane Reas, Tony Clements, Sherard Clinkscales and Juan LeBrons in there. When you blow your first-round pick, especially a high choice, you’re setting your organization back in terms of years.

The Royals’ most successful run of first round drafting came between 2005 and 2008 when they picked in order: Alex Gordon, Luke Hochever, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Despite those four being selected at or near the top of each draft, they only accumulated a combined 65 WAR, over half of which came from Gordon. Nothing to write home about, but the quartet was part of the core that won a World Series. Hochever was the #1 overall pick in 2006, and had some value, especially late in his career, but in taking him the Royals passed on Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Andrew Miller and Max Scherzer, all whose careers dwarfed Hochever’s.

One of their worst runs, and I’m not certain this is even contestable in the 55-year history of the Royals, would be the stink fest between 2011 and 2016, which netted Bubba Starling, Kyle Zimmer, Hunter Dozier, Sean Manaea, Brandon Finnegan, Foster Griffin, Chase Vallot, Ashe Russell and Nolan Watson. If Nick Pratto (2017) and 2020 top pick Asa Lacy flame out, that one horrible run of first round failures. That is why the 2023 team may challenge the 1962 New York Mets as the worst team in modern history. Damn, that hurts just to type it.

I understand that baseball scouting is tough. I’ve said that many times. I think it’s the hardest of any of the major sports. When I’m watching college football or basketball in person, I can usually tell who will eventually make it to the NFL or NBA. Not so in baseball. The baseball draft is a crapshoot for the most part.

The NBA draft has turned into one as teams scramble to draft developmental players in hopes that they develop into the next Kobe Bryant. Every year there’s a player like Fred VanVleet who goes undrafted, even though they put up an impressive body of college work. VanVleet of course, signed with Toronto as a free agent after not being drafted, and this winter moved over to the Houston Rockets on a lucrative free agent deal. Why? Because he was a good basketball player, not a developmental project. Check out the 2016 NBA draft, which is littered with the names of players who never came close to having a decent career.

The baseball equivalent is when a player is called “toolsy”. That means if you squint hard enough and allow yourself some delusion, you can see the guy playing in the majors. The bottom line is: can he hit or pitch or not? The flavor du jour of recent years for the Royals has been Erick Pena. He’s shown up at different times on the Royals top prospect lists, and club officials have raved about his tools. The problem is, he can’t hit a lick. In 772 plate appearances in Rookie and Low A ball, he’s hit .146 with 331 strikeouts and only 96 hits. Let me be the first on record to say that Pena is never going to make a major league roster. The Royals need to end this illusion and give the kid his release so he can get on with his life.

I’ve often wondered if the Royals are also lacking in player development, but since very few former Royals go on to major success elsewhere, I’m blaming most of their failures on exceptionally poor scouting. There are exceptions in the development end of course. This summer we’ve seen Ryan O’Hearn blossom into a key member of the Baltimore Orioles and I’m happy for him.

The most egregious miss in recent history is that of Jose Martinez. Martinez had bounced around several teams before the Royals signed him as a minor league free agent. At the age of 26, he suddenly figured it out and hit .382 at Omaha in 2015. I repeat: HE HIT .382! The Royals brain trust didn’t even call him up for some late season at-bats. Instead, they sold him to St. Louis where in 398 games as a Cardinal between 2016 and 2019, he slashed .298/.363/.459 with 41 home runs and 172 RBI and an OPS of 119. To paraphrase Jim Gaffigan, this isn’t rocket science. If a player hits .382 in almost 500 AAA at-bats, you call him up and see what he can do. All of those failures, poor scouting, poor drafting, poor player development and evaluation, land on what used to be Dayton Moore’s desk.

The second area that they’ve done poorly in is trading those free agent assets. One of Allard Baird and Dayton Moore’s few skills was signing fringe free agents and helping them resuscitate their careers. They were pretty solid at this, bringing in guys like Raul Ibanez, Ervin Santana, Coco Crisp, Kendrys Morales and Edison Volquez. That process kind of reminds me of picking through a bin of ripe fruit at the grocery store. Some of it is mushy. There's some flies. But occasionally you find a nice peach. Some of those signings were instrumental in helping win the 2015 World Series. There were other reclamation projects over the years, guys like Kris Medlen, Ryan Madsen, Danny Valencia, Scott Podsednik, Matt Stairs and Mark Grudzielanek.

What the Royals brass was not good at was flipping these assets to contenders for future building blocks. I can think of two holy grail of aging player trades: The Astros netting Jeff Bagwell from the Red Sox for Larry Andersen in 1990 and the Padres stripping the White Sox of a young Fernando Tatis for James Shields in 2016. Remember, the Shields trade happened two seasons after the Royals gave up on him! Two!! Those are the kind of trades GMJJ needs to be trying to make. Find a team, and GM, desperate to win, and ring him up.

Dayton Moore played this game, usually as a seller. That changed in 2014 and 2015 as he became the GM desperate to win. He flipped a handful of prospects for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist at the 2015 deadline and those two made the Royals almost unbeatable. Was it worth it? Absolutely. The only prospect Moore gave up that became something was Manaea and I’d gladly sacrifice his career for the World Series win.

This year’s trade deadline brought a little hope. The Royals bungled the Nicky Lopez trade, but I have no argument with the other trades. Time will tell if they’re successful. Or not.