Commentary

Royals' early glee quickly turned sour

After a good April, Kansas City's season hit the skids because of several key factors

Originally Published: August 25, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

The 2009 Royals have committed a sin that transcends poor pitching, hitting and defense: They're bad and they're nondescript.

Peruse the MLB Extra Innings package on a given night, and unless Zack Greinke is pitching for Kansas City, there's no compelling reason to linger. With the exception of a Billy Butler here and a Joakim Soria there, the Royals' roster is dotted with "4A" types, free-agent disappointments and guys such as Mark Teahen and David DeJesus -- solid professionals who would be complementary pieces on a winning club.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesZack Greinke is 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in four starts in August.

They've bonded through shared suffering this summer. The Royals have the second-worst record in baseball at 47-77. They rank 25th in team ERA, 26th in runs scored and 27th in fielding percentage. They lack power and discipline at the plate and sure-handedness and range in the field, and they have a knack for killing the suspense early in games. They've been outscored 299 to 225 in the first four innings this season.

Who could have predicted that the Jose Guillen ingrown-toenail incident in spring training would be a contender for the team's highlight video?

This is not what the populace envisioned in March, when the Royals were a chic pick to make waves in the American League Central.

When general manager Dayton Moore roamed the back fields in spring training in Arizona, fans in Royals garb thanked him for bringing hope back to the city. The team had increased the payroll by 20 percent in conjunction with a $250 million renovation to Kauffman Stadium and enjoyed a feel-good moment in January when Greinke signed a four-year, $38 million contract extension. He cited the franchise's heightened commitment to winning as a factor in his decision.

The Royals began the season at 18-11 and led the division by three games on May 7. But there's not enough room -- even on the Internet -- to chronicle everything that has gone wrong since.

When Coco Crisp, Alex Gordon, Mike Aviles and Gil Meche got hurt, their absences exposed the Royals' lack of depth. The bullpen unraveled when Soria went on the disabled list for a month. And with the exception of Butler and Alberto Callaspo, no one in the lineup fits into the "pleasant surprise" category.

The Royals put too much faith in Kyle Davies based on a strong September last year. Sidney Ponson, Horacio Ramirez and Bruce Chen weren't the answer at the back of the rotation, and relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz have a combined ERA of 6.07. Mike Jacobs has a .307 on-base percentage and 101 strikeouts in 98 games, and Guillen's skills have diminished in the second year of his three-year, $36 million contract.

So now it has come to this: A Kansas City Star story Sunday posed the question, "Is this the Royals' most disappointing season ever?"

Moore, who took the Kansas City job in 2006 because he relished a challenge, remains outwardly undeterred. He says he's "accountable" for moves that haven't panned out, but stresses that the Royals are committed to building a winner the right way -- through scouting and player development.

Dayton Moore We took a shot. We were very aggressive in trying to [win], and it didn't fall our way. But we're not discouraged. We're even more motivated than we were before about getting this organization back to where it was at one point in time.

-- Royals general manager Dayton Moore

"We took a shot," Moore said. "We were very aggressive in trying to do it, and it didn't fall our way. But we're not discouraged. We're even more motivated than we were before about getting this organization back to where it was at one point in time."

There's conviction in Moore's words but a trace of weariness in his voice. He's a committed, sincere and widely respected executive. But three years into his tenure, the Royals are a candidate to lose 100 games for the fifth time this decade. Moore saw a window of opportunity to compete and took his shot, and now he's stuck with some bad contracts and a grim short-term horizon.

Amid Kansas City's 14th losing season in 15 years, several questions confront Moore and his front-office team. Most notably:

Is it time to back up the truck?

Moore was vilified in the media when he traded two minor league pitchers for Seattle shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt in July. Internally, the Royals felt they had no choice. Aviles underwent Tommy John surgery, and his career is in jeopardy. There's no solution in the system, and the winter's free-agent crop will consist of Jack Wilson, Bobby Crosby, Marco Scutaro and Orlando Cabrera.

Problem is, small-market clubs that patch here, caulk there and stockpile second-tier players who are "better than what we have" tend to prolong the floundering. Just ask the Orioles, who signed marginal free agents for years and haven't fielded a winner since 1997.

The Kansas City roster needs a major overhaul. But with the exception of Greinke and Soria, no one will fetch a mother lode of talent in trade. The Royals listened on almost everybody in July and determined they were better off keeping Teahen, DeJesus & Co. rather than taking middling prospects in return.

Soria is a dynamic closer and signed for a reasonable price through 2014, and some industry observers think the Royals would be wise to shop him for two or three good young pieces. It's a new slant on the old debate: If the Royals are going to win 65 games with him, why not capitalize on his value and win 62 without him?

Moore will speak only in general terms. But you have to believe the question will be raised during the winter.

"You have to be open-minded to deals of that nature that make your team better long-term," Moore said. "I understand that."

Is Alex Gordon a cornerstone player?

Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun have become All-Stars since breaking into pro ball as top-five picks in the 2005 draft. The wait endures for Gordon and former Mariner-turned-Pirate Jeff Clement.

Injuries haven't helped. Gordon suffered a broken nose on a bad-hop grounder late in his rookie year and missed three months with hip surgery this season. But the DL time isn't the only reason for concern: After 1,281 major league plate appearances, Gordon has a .741 OPS.

In the spring of 2008, Hall of Famer and Royals VP George Brett told ESPN.com that Gordon has the ability to be a "very, very special player." But Brett and former Royals hitting coach Mike Barnett both said Gordon's natural ability masked some serious mechanical flaws in the minors. Those problems were destined to surface in the big leagues.

"I figured he was going to get in trouble," Brett said in March 2008. "His spine angle was terrible. He was hitting off his back leg, and he wasn't getting through the ball. Every ball was hit to right field and had topspin on it. It was one of those things where I said, 'How do you change a kid who's never failed?'"

Gordon has proven he's committed in the weight room, but it remains to be seen whether he can make the necessary adjustments on the field.

"He's a classic case of what happens when you have a bad club and rush somebody through and put him in the big leagues and paint him as the savior," an AL scout said. "Some of these kids don't understand that they have negatives and things they need to do better to become good players, because they really haven't had to pay their dues."

Gordon, hitting .198 in 96 at-bats, was at the center of a miniflap last week when the Royals sent him to Triple-A Omaha for a refresher course. The move could delay Gordon's free agency from 2012 to 2013, but Moore insists that it was strictly a baseball decision and had nothing to do with economics.

Unless Gordon is better than he has shown so far, the timetable for his free agency is the least of the Royals' concerns.

Is there salvation on the farm?

Of the 25 players currently on the roster, only five -- Greinke, Butler, DeJesus, Mitch Maier and Luke Hochevar -- were homegrown.

"For us to be successful, that has to be more like 60 percent of our roster," Moore said. "That's why we're putting so much emphasis and resources into our farm system."

[+] EnlargeAaron Crow
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIAaron Crow, the Royals' first-round pick in the '09 draft, remains unsigned.

The Royals have become more assertive since former GM Allard Baird was groping through the sofa cushions for spare change to sign college seniors to $1,000 bonuses. They spent a record $11.1 million on draft picks last year -- a total since surpassed by Washington -- and Baseball America upgraded the farm system from 24th to No. 11 this season.

Problem is, there's no impact help on the immediate horizon. Outfielders David Lough and Jordan Parraz and shortstop Jeff Bianchi are potential contributors off the Double-A Northwest Arkansas roster, but the crown jewels are with Wilmington in the Class A Carolina League.

Lefty pitcher Danny Duffy is 8-3 with a 3.22 ERA and averaging a strikeout an inning. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, highly regarded former first-round picks, are both taking their lumps. Moustakas is hitting .252 with a .718 OPS and 21 errors in Wilmington, and Hosmer is batting .239 in two stops.

The Royals have until the 2010 draft to sign former Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow. Rest assured they're not going to let him get away.

What's the owner's patience level?

Royals owner David Glass made his displeasure readily apparent in July. After consenting to increase the payroll from $58 million to $70 million, the last thing Glass expected was a regression.

"None of us are happy with what we have or where we are," Glass told the Kansas City Star's Bob Dutton. "What you do to let the fans know you're as frustrated as they are is you keep improving the team. And that's what we're going to do."

The Glass family deserves some credit for pumping money into the draft and the Latin-American operation. Moore brought over J.J. Picollo from Atlanta to run the scouting operation, and senior adviser Mike Arbuckle built a solid track record in 15 seasons with Philadelphia.

But history shows that building a really good team from within takes a long time. The Rockies, Twins and Phillies are among the clubs that suffered for years before their talent coalesced in the big leagues.

"We all know that it's a process," said Moore, who speaks from personal experience. He came to Kansas City from Atlanta, where the Braves posted a 389-577 record before John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox led the team to 14 straight division titles.

Who stays, and who goes?

The Royals have an $8 million option (with a $500,000 buyout) on center fielder Coco Crisp. He's coming off shoulder surgery, so we can assume they'll take a pass.

We understand the frustration that people feel. Losing is not acceptable, and we will continue to search for solutions to improve our major league team. I'm not going to make excuses, but it's been broken here for a long time. We all knew the challenges we faced when we came here to Kansas City. We have a very small margin for error.

-- Moore

The team is committed to about $51 million in guaranteed money to Guillen, Greinke, Meche, DeJesus and five other players, and Moore has some decisions to make with his arbitration-eligible players. It's a good bet the Royals will tender contracts to Teahen and pitcher Brian Bannister. Jacobs and catcher John Buck might not be so lucky. Rather than spend $4 million-plus on Jacobs, the Royals might want to take a look at infielder Kila Ka'aihue, who has 130 homers in eight minor league seasons.

Moore and manager Trey Hillman, both of whom are signed through 2010, have endured their share of scrutiny. But the Glass family is apparently still on board, and the latest rumor in baseball circles is that David Glass is contemplating a contract extension for Moore.

For all the knocks Moore has taken, nobody knows what pressures he's subject to from above. Given the investment in Kauffman Stadium and the desire to increase the season-ticket base, the Glass family's expectation level had to be higher this year.

"In fairness to Dayton, it's hard to judge until you know the internal dynamics," an AL executive said. "If the owner says, 'We need to have a competitive team this year, and we can't win 68 or 70 games,' then the general manager has to try and execute ownership's goals."

Now that the Royals took their shot, jumped the gun with some bad free-agent signings and flopped, do they have the conviction to take a step back in advance of two steps forward?

The Pirates blew up their roster this season, and if you surveyed front-office executives, the majority would tell you that Pittsburgh is in a better position than Kansas City right now. How's that for bad news, Royals die-hards?

"We understand the frustration that people feel," Moore said. "Losing is not acceptable, and we will continue to search for solutions to improve our major league team. I'm not going to make excuses, but it's been broken here for a long time. We all knew the challenges we faced when we came here to Kansas City. We have a very small margin for error."

It's getting smaller all the time.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer