The Royals have had plenty of terrible seasons in club history, but the 2023 season may take the cake. The team is on pace to lose 111 games, which would easily surpass the club record of 106 losses set in 2005, and would tie for the seventh-most losses by any club since World War II. They’re battling the Oakland Athletics - a team that isn’t even trying - for worst record in baseball.
So this may be an unprecedented bad season for Royals fans, but other fanbases have gone through seasons like this in recent history. In 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost 119 games, threatening the modern MLB record for losses in a season. In 2021, the Arizona Diamondbacks lost 110 games, the second-worst season in club history. And the Baltimore Orioles lost 115 games in 2018, on their way to three consecutive seasons of 110 losses or more in a full season (save for the shortened 2020 season). All three emerged from that to become contenders not long after. I talked to fans of those teams about how they handled a god awful season.
How did things get so bad?
The Tigers were a once-proud franchise that was a behemoth in 1984, starting 35-5 and running away with the title. By the start of the 90s, however, the franchise was looking as run down as old Tiger Stadium. Former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler was inexplicably brought in to be club president of the Tigers in 1990. Under his helm, the farm system atrophied as the club fell behind the times. The club brought in Randy Smith, son of a decorated baseball executive and at one time the youngest GM in the game when he ran the Padres at the age of 29. He had a manic approach to the roster, making dozens of trades, including a nine-player deal with the Astros.
But the losing continued. Even moving into shiny Comerica Park in 2000 couldn’t turn things around. The Tigers endured losing seasons every year from 1993 to 2006. They lost 106 games in 2002, but that was just a prelude for the bottom that would drop out. The 2003 squad lost 25 of their first 28 games, eventually losing a franchise record 119 games.
By that time, Tigers fans were just numb to the losing. Roger Castillo of Motor City Bengals lived through that season, telling me that fans were accustomed to the dysfunction by then.
“Between the numerous Randy Smith trades to fix the issues of the roster to be hyped about the “future” when the Tigers moved to Comerica Park in 2000, I was at that point in my life, like most fans, was thinking about anything else.”
Like many fans, he started turning to other teams, and other sports, like the contending Detroit Red Wings in the NHL.
James Attwood of AZ Snake Pit describes the fall of the Diamondbacks a “somewhat complicated situation.” The team had hoped to contend in 2020, but the team was hit hard with injuries. They got off to a bad start, and the team seemed a bit directionless, according to Attwood.
“The front office was given marching orders AFTER the trade deadline that the team needed to part ways with recently acquired Starling Marte, as the team could “no longer afford” to keep him. This led to sapping the team’s talent even further and ensuring a sub-optimal return in the trade that sent Marte away. With zero payroll flexibility and a 26-man roster made up of probably 12-15 AAAA (or worse) talents, the team struggled to ever get anything going.”
Arizona had “less than zero depth” according to Attwood, so when injuries hit the team hard again in 2021, they were playing guys in over their head.
“Team leaders” were underperforming greatly. Some of this was certainly on the way they approached the game and the coaching. But it is tough to get too uppity with them when there were only two or three players playing well and trying to carry the entire team.”
General Manager Mike Hazen had some poor free agent signings - such as signing a washed up Madison Bumgarner five-year, $85 million deal - and was possibly distracted by some personal issues at the time. The team had a winning April, but went just 8-48 over the next two months, ending with a 52-110 record.
For the Orioles, it took many decisions over several years to lead the team to rock bottom, according to Mark Brown of Camden Chat. The Orioles were contenders form 2012 to 2016, making the playoffs three times, including the ALCS in 2014 where they lost to the Royals. The farm system wasn’t developing enough pitching under GM Dan Duquette so they had to turn to free agents to help them contend. They forfeited draft picks to sign Ubaldo Jimenez, Bud Norris, and Yovani Gallardo, but the performance from those pitchers did not justify giving up those picks.
“This was a team that desperately needed starting pitching but couldn’t afford them due to prior bad payroll decisions, or correctly identify actually good pitchers when they did have money to sign them,” said Brown.
Couple that with the disastrous $161 million Chris Davis contract and a career-ending injury to pitcher Chris Tillman, and the Orioles were hamstrung.
“Duquette could never articulate an intelligent-sounding plan, which I believe is because he didn’t have one.”
Still, the 2018 season was a shock to many. The Orioles had added two free agent starting pitchers - Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner - to try to remain competitive.
“They thought it was going to be the last hurrah for a group that included Manny Machado and Britton, among others. It was the last, but not much of a hurrah,” lamented Brown.
The team went 8-20 out of the gate and the firesale was on. Manny Machado, Zack Britton, Kevin Gausman, and Jonathan Schoop were all traded that off-season. The team finished 47-115, their worst season since moving to Baltimore in 1954.
What was the mood of the fans?
The Tigers enjoyed a nice attendance bump for their new downtown stadium in 2000, drawing their most fans since their 1984 championship season. But by 2003, the Tigers had the fourth-lowest attendance in baseball, averaging just 16,892 fans per game. With a poor product, they tried to rely on nostalgia. “Being 22 years old, I thought having 1984 hero Alan Trammell as a manager would make a difference,” reflects Castillo. “But deep down inside, it was a way to bring the fans.”
Fans were instead left to grasp at straws, hoping for a better future. The 2003 Tigers had the 12th-ranked farm system in the game, according to Baseball America. But top prospects like Kyle Sleeth, Brent Clevlen, and Frankly German never panned out, although Jeremy Bonderman would have a nice career when healthy. “I remember getting hyped for Gene Kingsale because the local newspaper spoke highly about his play in spring training,” said Castillo, adding “Ah, youth.”
Mark Brown did not share that kind of optimism. “In 2018, there was no hope. There was only dread.”
Fans blamed Duquette for bad trades like sending Jake Arrieta to the Cubs before he became a Cy Young contender. They were concerned that even if he were fired, the team might promote from within, with Showalter perhaps ascending to the front office. Instead, they were relieved when the franchise cleaned house and dismissed Duquette and Showalter. John Angelos, who had assumed ownership control of the team from his father, brought in Mike Elias of the Astros to rebuild the team as GM and they were both committed to a total tear-down.
“Hope existed in the idea that the former Astros guy could follow the Astros tanking blueprint and that after a few years of terrible baseball, it would all be worth it.”
Diamondbacks fans like Attwood initially blamed manager Torey Lovullo for such a poor performance for a team expected to contend. But as the season went on, the blame shifted to Hazen.
“It became openly apparent to everyone that Lovullo’s “managerial decisions” (especially with regard to the bullpen) were being directed more by the front office than by on-field, real-time gut instinct.”
By May, fans had turned, and soon they were rooting against the team to win, angling for the #1 pick to the point where they were angry when the team had a comeback walk-off win in the last game.
If there was anything that gave Arizona fans hope, it was the play of pitcher Zac Gallen and outfielder Daulton Varsho, both of whom were age 25 or under. Gallen looked like he was becoming a workhorse who could miss bats while Varsho hit well enough to look like a player the club could build around.
How did the team get better?
Legendary executive Dave Dombrowski was hired by the Tigers to be club president in 2002, but he ended up firing Smith and assuming GM duties a week into that season. He oversaw their miserable 2003 season, but improved the team by 29 wins in 2004. He made some shrewd trades, picking up infielders Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco for cheap, signing future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez to a four-year, $40 million deal when the free agent found a light market, splurging on free agent outfielder Magglio Ordóñez with a five-year, $75 million deal, and drafting future three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.
“What gave me hope was that Dave Dombrowski was shedding players who were a part of a time in Tigers baseball that was in transition from ownership to a new stadium,” said Castillo.
The Tigers signed veteran starting pitcher Kenny Rogers to a two-year, $16 million deal to go with Verlander and Bonderman and added closer Todd Jones before the 2006 season and the team began to gel. They would end up winning 95 games and fell to the Cardinals in the World Series, their first trip to the Fall Classic in over 20 years.
A simple turn of the calendar, allowed the Diamondbacks to get a fresh start, according to Attwood.
“Going from 30 games under .500 to being a .500 team again is no small thing. It means that there is actually something left to play for.”
The adversity faced in the 2021 season left the team better prepared for the 2022 season. Many older underperforming veterans left the team through trades or free agency, and the Diamondbacks went young with the third-youngest lineup in baseball. The team improved by 22 wins, and have spent much of this year in first place until a second-half collapse has left them a few games above .500. Still, they have a young team and a bright future.
“We found that when we stopped worrying about the struggles and underperformance of veterans who would not be around for the next “competitive window” that we could focus on the exciting development of the younger players feeing onto the 26-man roster.”
The Orioles turnaround begins with one player - Adley Rutschman. “This is a bit of a facetious answer,” said Brown, “But this much is true: The Orioles have not been swept in a series since Rutschman debuted in May 2021.”
The former #1 pick gave the team stability behind the plate and a patient bat in the lineup. His promotion also coincided with improved performance from outfielders Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Anthony Santander. Much of the “freely available talent” picked up off the waiver wire or other methods began to pay off, with players like Ramon Urias, Jorge Mateo, Felix Bautista, and Jorge Lopez turning into very productive MLB players.
The Orioles improved by 31 games in 2022 to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2016. This year they have the most wins in the American League. And more talent is on the way - Gunnar Henderson is a Rookie of the Year candidate, Jordan Westburg, Colton Cowser, DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez are all top prospects who have made their MLB debuts this year, and 19-year-old former #1 overall pick Jackson Holliday was just promoted to Triple-A.
“The Orioles are not a flawless superteam like the Atlanta Braves seem to be,” said Brown “but a lot is going right for them this year and there is reasonable hope that many things will continue to go right for the next few seasons.”
Will the Royals be able to follow the same path? These organizations had a clean break from the past with a total house cleaning, something the Royals didn’t do when they promoted J.J. Picollo to replace Dayton Moore. But the Royals are building a nucleus of good young players, guys like Bobby Witt. Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino, Cole Ragans, and Maikel Garcia, with others as possibilities to join that list. The 2023 season has been a real stinker, but it is almost over, and perhaps we can hope for a better 2024 season.