So when I wrote about the remarkably young and settled lineup the Royals have trotted out there since Johnny Giavotella and Salvador Perez were called up in early August, my initial naïve thought was that it was the most promising offense the Royals had put together in decades, if not in their history.
And then I realized how ridiculous that was. If you want to find a Royals team brimming with youth and hope, you don’t have to go back to 1976. You only have to go back to 1999.
That season, the Royals finished 64-97, but they were outscored by just 65 runs all year, and their offense was both young and formidable.
25-year-old Mike Sweeney finally found a position at first base and hit .322/.387/.520. Joe Randa, who had been re-acquired in a much-maligned trade for former first-round pick Juan LeBron, shocked everyone by hitting .314/.363/.473, and he was still just 29 years old. Jeremy Giambi, who had put up crazy stats in the minors but wasn’t taken seriously by scouts, got into 90 games and hit .285/.373/.368; he was just 24. Carlos Febles, a 23-year-old rookie, hit .256/.336/.411 as the team’s starting second baseman.
And then there was the outfield. I’ve received some tweets from Royals fans questioning whether this year’s outfield, with Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur, is the greatest Royals outfield ever. I’m assuming these fans are too young to remember the 1999 Royals, who had one of the greatest young outfields of all time. Their leftfielder, a former phenom who had struggled to establish himself in the majors, finally had his breakout season (sound familiar?) – Johnny Damon hit .307/.379/.477. In right field, Jermaine Dye, who like Damon was still just 25 years old, hit 44 doubles and .294/.354/.526 overall. And in center field, the Royals employed 22-year-old Carlos Beltran who hit .293/.337/.454, scored 112 runs and drove in 108, and was named the AL Rookie of the Year.
Twelve years later, Damon and Beltran are still everyday players in the majors, and Dye might still be had he not rejected all the contract offers he got last season and went into a self-imposed retirement.
The similarities between the 1999 Royals offense and the 2011 Royals offense extend to having a catcher with a four-letter first name and seven-letter last name. The 2011 Royals brought in 35-year-old Matt Treanor to catch and mentor the pitching staff; the 1999 Royals brought in 34-year-old Chad Kreuter to do the same.
The Royals scored 856 runs that season; the following spring, I wrote this column for Baseball Prospectus. Yes, our tools were primitive at the time and I was using runs scored and runs batted in to make a point, but still, the case could be made that the Royals’ lineup was historically promising.
In 2000, the Royals was even more potent. Jeremy Giambi had been traded away in a typically lopsided deal with the A’s (the Royals received Brett Laxton, who threw 26 innings in his major league career) – but in his place was phenom Mark Quinn, who had hit two homers in his major league debut the previous September, and as a rookie hit .294/.342/.488. Beltran was injured and ineffective, but both Damon and Dye had career years, as did Sweeney. The criminally underrated Gregg Zaun was the team’s primary catcher and hit .274/.390/.410; the Royals got a random .278/.329/.478 line out of backup first baseman/DH Dave McCarty. The Royals led the AL in batting average that year and scored 879 runs, breaking the franchise record they had set the year before.
And none of it mattered. The Royals went a fairly promising 77-85 in 2000, but fell back to 97 losses again in 2001, and in 2002 the franchise lost 100 games for the first time. They would lose 100 games three more times in the next four years. As Joe Posnanski chronicled in this insanely detailed article – the turn-of-the-millenium Royals were dripping with promise. And they broke all of them.
That’s the cautionary tale these Royals need to avoid duplicating. These are the reasons to think that they will.
1) The 1999 Royals offense wasn’t as good as it looked. The Royals scored 856 and 879 runs in back-to-back years, but they ranked just 7th and 5th in the league in runs scored. In 2000, AL teams averaged 5.28 runs per game. This year, AL teams are averaging just 4.44 runs per game – nearly 20% fewer. So the 2011 Royals, on pace to score 719 runs this season, are almost certain to finish 6th in the AL in runs scored, their highest finish since they were 3rd in the league in runs scored in 2003. (From 2004 to 2010, they never finished higher than 10th.)
It’s not simply that offensive levels were higher at the turn of the millennium. After the 1994 season, you might recall, the Royals moved the fences in 10 feet all the way around, and immediately Kauffman Stadium transformed from one of the toughest home run parks in the majors (but a neutral offensive park overall, as it helped batting average) into one of the better hitters’ parks in the game. The fences were moved back out after the 2003 season, but from 1995 through 2003 the ballpark was a significant aid to the team’s offense. (It was even more of a detriment to the team’s pitchers, which is why they were moved back out.)
Take a look at the three best offensive seasons by a Royals hitter in 1999 and 2000:
Mike Sweeney, 1999: .322/.387/.520, 128 OPS+
Mike Sweeney, 2000: .333/.407/.523, 131 OPS+
Jermaine Dye, 2000: .321/.390/.561, 135 OPS+
Then take a look at the two best offensive seasons from 2011:
Alex Gordon, 2011: .303/.375/.503, 142 OPS+
Billy Butler, 2011: .292/.364/.462, 128 OPS+
Gordon, despite raw statistics that are worse than Sweeney’s and Dye’s numbers across the board, has clearly had the best offensive season by OPS+ – because OPS+ takes into account both the league averages and the influence of the ballpark. And look at Butler – despite an OPS 80 points lower than Mike Sweeney’s performance in 1999, relative to the league and ballpark he has hit exactly as well as Sweeney did.
I think we’re all aware that runs are more precious today than they were a year ago. But it’s easy to underestimate the magnitude of the effect. I wouldn’t have guessed that Billy Butler hitting .292/.364/.462 in 2011 is just as impressive as Mike Sweeney hitting .322/.387/.520 in 1999, but it is.
This extends down the line. Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur both have higher OPS+ totals than either Damon or Dye had in 1999. In other words, while the 1999 Royals outfield may have been the best Royals outfield in terms of future performance, in terms of what they’ve done this season, Gordon, Cabrera, and Francoeur are even better.
(But they’re still not the best single-season outfield in Royals history. That would be the – surprise! – 1972 Royals, with Lou Piniella (138 OPS+), Amos Otis (129), and Richie Scheinblum (140). Yeah, I had no idea either.)
2) The 1999 Royals had a young offense – but not as young as this one. The average age of the 1999 Royals offense, as measured by baseball-reference.com, was 27.0 years old. That’s very young – the 1976 Royals were also 27.0 years old, and those are the two youngest offenses the Royals fielded from 1971 through 2010.
The 2011 Royals average 25.9 years of age. That’s more than a year younger than every Royals team of the last 40 years. And it’s getting younger – the average age of their usual lineup these days is 24, and the team has already shaved two-tenths of a year off their average age in the last two weeks. There’s a chance the 2011 Royals will break the record held by the expansion 1969 Royals, who averaged 25.8 years of age, as the youngest offense in franchise history. (The 1970 Royals averaged 26.4 years, for the record.)
I’ll line up the two teams by age:
Chad Kreuter, 34 vs. Jeff Francoeur, 27
Rey Sanchez, 31 vs. Alex Gordon, 27
Joe Randa, 29 vs. Melky Cabrera, 26
Mike Sweeney, 25 vs. Billy Butler, 25
Johnny Damon, 25 vs. Alcides Escobar, 24
Jermaine Dye, 25 vs. Johnny Giavotella, 23
Jeremy Giambi, 24 vs. Mike Moustakas, 22
Carlos Febles, 23 vs. Eric Hosmer, 21
Carlos Beltran, 22 vs. Salvador Perez, 21
The turn-of-the-millenium Royals would keep fumbling around for a catcher – they wisely picked up Gregg Zaun the following year, then foolishly let him go – and they would need to find a replacement for Rey Sanchez at shortstop before long, which led to the disastrous trades of Neifi Perez and Angel Berroa. The 2011 Royals, by contrast, don’t have even one player who is in imminent danger of being overcome by the vicissitudes of age. Regression to the mean, yes, but not age.
At the younger end of the spectrum, Hosmer and Perez are both younger than Beltran, who was the youngest member of the 1999 Royals and not coincidentally had the most upside.
3) The 1999 Royals were broken up by service time and economic issues that don’t apply in 2011. After the 1999 season, Damon was just two years away from free agency; Sweeney and Dye were three years away. Moreover, this was during a baseball era in which the Royals and other small market teams, for lack of a better term, gave up. It’s not that the Royals couldn’t necessarily afford the likes of a Johnny Damon; this was still just five years after the strike, and the relationship between owners and players was more of a Cold War than a true peace. David Glass, who was in the process of becoming the de jure owner of the team after being the de facto owner, was more interested in proving a point about baseball economics than about winning, and was perfectly willing to cut off his stars to spite his team. (Here’s an article I wrote at the time about the Royals’ unwillingness to spend money to retain their own players.)
That led to the trades of Damon – which aside from Berroa’s rookie season brought nothing in return, and also cost the Royals Mark Ellis – and Dye – which brought back worse than nothing. The Royals couldn’t replace the loss of both outfielders, and set the team on a downward spiral of offense. The team was able to sign Mike Sweeney to a long-term deal, but after having an oral agreement with Carlos Beltran on an extension that would have bought out a year of free agency, the team tried to squeeze another million dollars out of the contract and the deal blew up.
Neither of these issues figures to hit the current Royals squad as hard. Hosmer, Moustakas, Giavotella, and Perez won’t be free agents until after 2017; Escobar won’t be until after 2015. And the economics of the game – and their owner – have changed so that the Royals aren’t resigned to losing each of their players once they qualify for free agency. Butler, who otherwise would have been a free agent in two years, signed a long-term deal with a club option that would keep him in a Royals uniform through 2015. Francoeur, of course, just signed a two-year extension that kept him from free agency. And while Alex Gordon is only locked up for two more years, both sides have made every indication that they are willing and able to get a long-term deal done this winter, which should keep Gordon through 2015 as well.
Only Melky Cabrera isn’t signed past 2012, and it’s not entirely clear that the Royals should want him past 2012 anyway. And if Gordon signs a long-term deal, that means that seven of the Royals’ nine everyday hitters are under control for at least four more seasons.
4) The farm system is better-stocked than it was a decade ago. Baseball America started publishing their Prospect Handbook in 2001, so I have a list of the team’s best prospects after the 2000 season. They are:
1) Chris George
2) Dee Brown
3) Mike MacDougal
4) Jimmy Gobble
5) Jeff Austin
6) Angel Berroa
7) Ken Harvey
8) Mike Stodolka
9) Alexis Gomez
10) Kyle Snyder
In hindsight, obviously that looks like an awful mess. It wasn’t nearly that bad at the time, but it wasn’t great. Chris George was just 21 years old and had made it to Triple-A with a fastball in the low 90s and moxie on the mound. Dee Brown had hit .331 with 25 homers and 30 steals in the minors in 1999; he was disappointing in 2000 but still hit .269 with 23 homers in Omaha.
But if you match this farm system with the one the Royals have today, it’s no contest. Mike Montgomery has better stuff than George did; Wil Myers is two years younger than Brown was. Mike MacDougal, the Royals’ #3 prospect 11 years ago, wasn’t the prospect that Jake Odorizzi is today, and Odorizzi is not (at least in my mind) the Royals’ #3 prospect today. Jeff Austin, who had already lost his fastball by that point, wouldn’t rank as one of the Royals’ top five starting pitching prospects today, let alone top five prospects overall.
5) This year’s bullpen doesn’t qualify as a Superfund site. Remember how I wrote that the Royals went 64-97 despite only being outscored by 65 runs all year? There’s a reason for that – the 1999 Royals had the worst bullpen in major-league history. This is not an exaggeration.
At the end of six innings, the 1999 Royals led in 73 games and trailed in 68. That’s right – a team that finished with 97 losses was actually above .500 after six innings. Somehow, the Royals lost TWENTY games that year that they were leading after six. In games that were tied after six innings, they went 5-15. They were a staggering 11-32 in one-run games. The Royals lost 19 games in the standings after sixth inning – the worst performance by any team in history according to available data.
Take a look at the 1999 Royals’ bullpen:
- Jeff Montgomery, in his final season, saved 12 games – and had a 6.84 ERA. From 1989 to 1997, Montgomery averaged 74 innings and a 2.81 ERA; he’s forgiven. The guys below are not.
- Scott Service tried to fill in for Montgomery and saved eight games. He had a 6.09 ERA, and allowed 132 baserunners in 75 innings.
- Matt Whisenant had a 6.35 ERA in 40 innings.
- Alvin Morman impressed with a 4.05 ERA in 53 innings; he allowed 66 hits, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 31-to-23. Let’s just say those numbers didn’t portend future greatness, or even future mediocrity.
- Jose Santiago, who was the best reliever on the team with a 3.42 ERA, but who struck out only 15 batters in 47 innings.
- Oh, and throw in Tim Byrdak, who relieved in 33 games but only survived to pitch 25 innings thanks to a 7.66 ERA and a WHIP of 2.11.
And then there were the occasional relief outings from the likes of Mac Suzuki (5.16 ERA) and Chris Fussell (7.39 ERA) and Don Wengert (9.25 ERA) and Ken Ray (8.74 ERA). Suffice it to say that the bullpen was a festering boil for the Royals at the turn of the millennium, one they couldn’t find a way to get rid of. Prior to the 2000 season, they spent free agent dollars on Ricky Bottalico (4.83 ERA) and Jerry Spradlin (5.52 ERA). When that didn’t work, they decided to use Johnny Damon as the lure to bring in a proven closer, and landed…36-year-old Roberto Hernandez, who posted ERAs of 4.12 and 4.33 in his two seasons with the Royals.
In 2003 the Royals finally came up with a home-grown option in Mike MacDougal, and for one year he actually looked like a solution – although even he had a 4.08 ERA. Then he got hurt, and the Royals tried Jeremy Affeldt in that role, and by 2006 the Royals were closing with Ambiorix Burgos, who set the franchise record with 12 blown saves that year.
And those were the closers. You can only guess how bad the set-up men and middle relievers were. But if you can’t, here’s a clue:
From 1999 through 2006, the Royals used 36 different pitchers to relieve in 30 or more games. The LOWEST ERA of those 36 pitchers was 3.73, by the unforgettable Cory Bailey. (Yeah, I had forgotten him too.) Bailey, MacDougal, and Jason Grimsley were the only three relievers who managed an ERA under 4. Sixteen of the 36 relievers had ERAs over 5, and 8 of them had ERAs over 6.
The bullpen was so bad that the Royals couldn’t even luck into a randomly good season from one. Can we all agree that a typical bullpen should have at least one reliever with an ERA under 3? From 1995 through 2006 – a span of TWELVE seasons – the Royals DIDN’T HAVE A SINGLE RELIEVER with an ERA under 3 and at least 30 games pitched. (This year alone, they have three.)
It’s almost impossible to overstate the difficulty the Royals had, for close to a decade, in finding a reliever – any reliever – who could get guys out. This might be the single biggest indictment of Allard Baird as a General Manager. So many of the Royals’ problems in those years can be blamed on meddling or stingy ownership – but no amount of meddling or stinginess should have kept Baird from dredging up a semi-competent reliever every now and then. He couldn’t.
In comparison, the 2011 Royals bullpen has a 3.67 ERA as a group. (Take out Vinny Mazzaro’s one relief appearance, and it drops to 3.46.) Even factoring in the decline in offense, the bullpen as a whole this year is as good as, if not better than, EVERY SINGLE RELIEVER the team employed from 1999 to 2006.
The turn-of-the-millenium Royals failed to launch in part because they traded Johnny Damon for Roberto Hernandez. Unless Dayton Moore trades Alex Gordon for Heath Bell, that’s one bump in the road we probably don’t need to worry about.
6) The 1999 Royals had no starting pitching. The 2011 Royals, well…As young as the Royals’ offense was a decade ago, their pitching staff was even younger. In 1999, the Royals traded Kevin Appier at the trading deadline for three young arms, divesting themselves of their only thirty-something starter. As a result, the average age of the pitchers the Royals used in 2000 was just 25.8, the third-youngest pitching staff in Royals history. Here’s your starting rotation:
- Jeff Suppan (25) made 33 starts.
- Mac Suzuki (25) made 29 starts.
- Dan Reichert (23) made 18 starts.
- Blake Stein (26) made 17 starts.
- Jay Witasick (27) made 14 starts.
- Brian Meadows (24) made 10 starts.
- Chris Fussell (24) made 9 starts.
- Miguel Batista (29) made 9 starts.
- Jose Rosado (25) made 5 starts.
Throw in single starts from Brett Laxton (26) and Jeff D’Amico (25), and every starter the Royals used that year was under the age of 30. All but nine starts were made by pitchers 27 or younger.
And you know what? It didn’t matter, because with the exception of Suppan, they all sucked. (Except for Rosado, whose arm was destroyed by the organization.) Once upon a time, Casey Stengel was asked about a couple of promising young players in spring training camp. “See that fella over there? He’s 20 years old. In 10 years, he’s got a chance to be a star. Now that fella over there, he’s 20 years old, too. In 10 years he’s got a chance to be 30.” The Royals had a very young rotation – but they were all the second kind of fella. It was an entire rotation of Sean O’Sullivans and Vinny Mazzaros – pitchers who had almost nothing positive to offer other than their birth certificate.
As for the 2011 Royals…yeah, not even I can spin their rotation into a positive. If there’s one thing that can derail the dream of the 2011 Royals and turn this into another Lost Decade, it’s the lack of starting pitching. Between now and next April, the Royals need to – and I am almost certain will – acquire two or three potential solutions for their rotation. Their success in doing so, more than anything else, will determine whether the Royals will be legitimate contenders in either of the next two years.
Who should they try to acquire? That will be the subject of my next column.