The Royals became only the second team in history to lose 100 or more games one year, post a winning record the following year, and slip back to 100 or more losses in the third year. The only other team to do so was the 1985-87 Cleveland Indians.
The Royals have won two straight season openers for the first time since a three-game streak from 1983-85.
The Royals’ 5.15 team ERA ranked last in the American League and marked the sixth 5.00-plus mark in the last seven years.
The Royals became the first team in history to open the season by using left-handed starters in their first four games. Only seven teams since 1920 have used four lefty starters in their first five games.
John Buck and Abraham Nunez became the first rookie teammates in history to hit grand slams in the same game Aug. 13 in a 10–3 victory at Oakland.
Third baseman Joe Randa became the first player in American League history to get six hits and score six runs in the same game. He was 6-of-7 in a 26–5 victory at Detroit in the first game of a Sept. 9 double-header.
The Royals got just one homer and six RBIs all season from their pinch-hitters — even though Mendy Lopez hit a three-run pinch homer in the season opener.
Zach Greinke was the youngest active player (20 years, 7 months, 1 day) in the majors when he made his debut on May 22 at Oakland. He left after allowing two earned runs in five innings and had a no-decision in a 5–4, 11-inning loss. Greinke was the third-youngest pitcher to ever to start a game for the Royals. Only Brett Saberhagen (20 years, 8 days) and Mark Littell (20 years, 5 months, 27 days) were younger.
Greinke became the fifth rookie in Major League history to pitch at least 100 innings and not give up an unearned run.
It was only a year ago — wasn’t it? — that the Royals entered spring training as a trendy pick to end a postseason drought that extended to their 1985 World Series title. They had just added a bushel of veterans to a roster coming off the club’s first winning season since 1994. So much for that. The Royals staggered through an appalling summer that concluded with a franchise-record 104 losses. As a result, this season brings a return to that most-hated term in sports and something all-too-familiar in Kansas City: rebuilding.
Whether or not righthander Zack Greinke turns out to be the next Greg Maddux, as is often predicted, there might be no pitcher more intriguing or interesting to watch. Greinke, at age 21, can pump a fastball into the mid-90s on one pitch and follow it up with a 60 mph curve. And he does it all with marvelous control and a quirky personality. By himself, he offers a reason to watch the Royals (at least every fifth day). Beyond Greinke, the rotation hinges on how successfully Runelvys Hernandez returns from Tommy John surgery and whether Denny Bautista can master his three-plus pitches. Hernandez was 4–0 with a 1.36 ERA in his first six starts in 2003 before his elbow began squawking. Bautista is all potential at this point. He’ll get a long look but seems more likely to start the season in the minors. The rotation should contain at least two veterans: Jose Lima, reacquired as a free agent, and lefty Brian Anderson. Lima resurrected his career two years ago in Kansas City before a contract dispute sent him to Los Angeles. Anderson righted himself in the closing weeks last season after laboring through four brutal months. Lefty Jimmy Gobble is the best bet for the fifth slot unless Bautista sparkles. Gobble finished last season with the staff’s only winning record at 9–8.
Lefthander Jeremy Affeldt has the tools to be a top-grade closer. His fastball climbs into the upper 90s when he doesn’t pace himself, and his 12-6 curve can buckle hitters. Affeldt saved 13-of-17 games after getting yanked from the rotation in late May and was growing into the role when he suffered a strained oblique that put him on the DL for two months. Former closer Mike MacDougal, an All-Star in 2003, endured a nightmarish season that began with a strength-zapping virus in spring training. He wound up spending most of the season in the minors. If he’s healthy, he projects as the backup closer. Jaime Cerda was the bullpen’s most reliable member for much of last season. Veteran Scott Sullivan is also safe, although he was a disaster who found himself relegated to mop-up duties before suffering a season-ending back injury in late August. Shawn Camp and Nate Field head the remaining setup candidates but must beat out a platoon of contenders that includes Justin Huisman, D.J. Carrasco and Santiago Ramirez. Dennis Tankersley could emerge as the top long-man candidate over Mike Wood since the Royals have options remaining on Wood.
Shortstop Angel Berroa slumped badly and even spent time in the minors last season after his selection as the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year. The Royals need him to bounce back because he’s signed through 2008. Second baseman Tony Graffanino, 32, is a steady veteran who will open camp as the incumbent despite missing the final two months of last season because of rotator cuff surgery. His absence allowed rookies Ruben Gotay and Donnie Murphy to gain valuable experience. They each figure to open the season in the minors, assuming Graffanino is OK.
Can first baseman Mike Sweeney stay healthy? The Royals’ captain, who pulls down roughly 25 percent of the club’s payroll, missed significant time in each of the last three seasons because of back and neck injuries. When fit, he is capable of anchoring a lineup. The jury is still out on Ken Harvey, who batted .370 over the first 51 games last season before fading badly over the final three months and finishing at .287. Both figure to split time at first base and DH. Harvey is a better defensive player but hardly a Gold Glove candidate. Journeyman Chris Truby is the interim solution at third base until the Royals deem Mark Teahen, acquired last season in the Carlos Beltran trade, ready to take over.
GM Allard Baird headed into the new year frustrated by his lack of success in acquiring a young, impact corner outfielder. Instead, the Royals are likely to go with a couple of stop-gaps on both sides of center fielder David DeJesus. Eli Marrero, obtained from the Braves, should split time in left with either Matt Stairs or Terrence Long. Stairs is a steady left-handed bat who played extensively last season because of injuries to other players. Long, another lefty swinger, is looking to revive his career after arriving as part of the trade that sent pitcher Darrell May to San Diego. Long and Stairs also could spend time in right if switch-hitting Abraham Nunez struggles. The only sure thing is DeJesus, selected last season as the club’s Player of the Year after batting .303 in 85 games once he became a regular following the Beltran trade.
The Royals believe they have their catcher for the next 10 years in John Buck, another player obtained in the Beltran trade. Buck is viewed as a solid defensive player capable of supplying punch. He struggled initially at the plate before closing with a .277 surge that included 11 homers over the final 47 games. He has a strong arm but must iron out a few mechanical kinks to keep baserunners honest. Veteran Alberto Castillo projects as Buck’s backup following an off-season trade that sent Benito Santiago to Pittsburgh. Castillo batted .270 in 29 games last season in that role while Santiago was on the disabled list.
The problem isn’t the bench but that too many bench-type players are lineup regulars. Stairs, Marrero and Long — whoever isn’t playing that day — will be the primary pinch-hitters. Marrero isn’t expected to do much catching, once his main position, but his ability to do so in a pinch adds roster flexibility. Chris Clapinski, a career minor leaguer, is ticketed for the role of utility infielder.
Baird moved quickly last summer to overhaul the roster after it became apparent that signing veteran free agents wasn’t going to work. As a result, the Royals now have a nucleus of young players in place and in the pipeline that should be together for several years. Baird’s future hinges on whether that nucleus eventually proves good enough to grow into a playoff contender. Manager Tony Peña is on the spot, too. He was a runaway selection as AL Manager of the Year when he pushed all the right buttons in 2003. Last year, his happy-talk approach tanked and made him seem out of touch.
In the AL Central, there is always hope. But this year, for the Royals, there are no expectations — and that might be a good thing.