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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Fixing the Royals

I grew up a baseball fan in Kansas, which means that I followed the Kansas City Royals through their years of glory.

You don't remember those years?

Though the Royals have had only one winning season in the last decade, from 1971 (their third year in existence), through 1989, KC was virtually a model franchise. Their average record through the period was 84.8 - 73.5. That doesn't add up to a full 162 game season because this was a period of labor unrest and lost games. Prorate the 0.536 winning rate over 162 games and their average record was 86.8 - 75.2, for 19 years.

87-75 for 19 years! Those were true glory days.

The Royals won the 1985 World Series and their typical attendance for this 19 year period was 1.8 million per year. Though they attracted 2.25 million fans as early as 1978 (!), they haven't reached even 1.8 million since 1993. They came close in 2003, their only winning season in the past decade.

The last two seasons, KC has lost 104 and 106 games. This year, they are the worst team in baseball, again on pace to lose more than 100 games. Before Saturday's game (losing 11-1 in the 7th), the team was winning 25% of its games. That's a pace for 120 losses, near the all-time worst in modern baseball history.

Why were the early Royals so good for so long, and the post-1989 Royals so bad?

One simple answer is a man named John Schuerholz.

Though the team did not play its first games until the 1969 season, Royals hired Schuerholz in 1968 "where he evolved from assistant farm director to farm director to director of player personnel." Schuerholz became the General Manager of the Royals in 1981 and remained in that position until 1990, when he took over as GM of the Atlanta Braves. Since arriving in Atlanta, Schuerholz's Braves have won 14 division titles and a World Series (1995). Note, throughout that time, the Braves have had one field manager, Bobby Cox.

This past Wednesday, KC hired a 39 year-old native Kansan to serve as General Manager, Dayton Moore, who is leaving his position as Schuerholz's Assistant GM.

Can a widely sought executive like Moore save KC baseball?

Obviously, as a fan, I hope he can...but it won't be easy.

Here's what I'd do by the end of next season. By the way, I'm not going to say that KC should fire manager Buddy Bell...though they probably should. Even a bad manager can win a lot of games with great talent. KC needs to secure some talent...on the cheap since they don't have a big media market (for broadcasting rights) and don't have huge attendance.

1. Clear out the roster. Trade as many of the aging mediocre veterans as possible for young talent. This means OF Reggie Sanders, DH Matt Stairs, 2B Mark Grudzielanek, 1B Doug Mientkiewicz and much of the rest of the team.

Hopefully, Mike Sweeney will return to health, hit as he can, and then serve as a valuable bargaining chip in a deal.

When the smoke clears, KC should still have C John Buck, CF David DeJesus, and pitchers Ambiorix Burgos and Denny Bautista. A few others may be helpful, but these are the only guys likely to be part of the next good KC team...and Buck is iffy given his performance on the field these past two years.

The trades should bring some B-level prospects, perhaps an outfielder/DH with offensive upside (though likely aging quickly), some live arms, and maybe a middle infielder with a good glove and good on-base skills. These would be useful parts of a winning team.

2. Focus development efforts on the best prospects: 3B Alex Gordon, 1B Justin Huber, hitter Billy Butler (nominally an OFer, but potentially a DH) and starting pitcher Zack Greinke.

DeJesus-Gordon-Huber and Butler could provide 4 legit bats on a contending team. They'll still need a corner OFer or two, a couple of middle infielders, and more pitching...but it's a good start.

Gordon is KC's answer to David Wright, Butler is potentially Travis Hafner, Huber could become Jack Clark and DeJesus is KC's Grady Sizemore (hopefully). That would be a good core, right?

3. Pick the top college starting pitcher available in the upcoming draft. KC has the #1 overall pick and the consensus top player available is University of North Carolina lefty Andrew Miller.

KC should take him. With Greinke, it is at least conceivable that he could form a viable one, two punch in the pitching rotation.

It will take a series of good moves to make KC at least a .500 team by 2008, and fans really want to see a competitor.

If you think I'm dreaming, do a little digging to discover how Cleveland acquired Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Andy Marte, and Jeremy Sowers.

If you haven't heard of those last two guys, just be patient.

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