The Most Disappointing Season For…The Kansas City Royals
The 2004 Kansas City Royals
Record: 58-104 (5th in the AL Central, 14th out of 14 in AL)
Pythagorean Record: 64-98
Runs Scored: 720 (11th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 905 (14th in the AL)
Prior Season Record: 83-79
Manager: Tony Pena
Hype: After years in the weeds, the Royals had their first winning record since the Strike of 1994, and the pocketbook is being opened, slightly, to build on that success.
The Gory Details: Despite a revolving door starting rotation (15 pitchers started a game in 2003), the Royals got out to a great start and finished over .500. Most of that success was due to a revitalized offense, build around potential star Carlos Beltran, fan favorite Mike Sweeney, Rookie-of-the-Year Angel Berroa, and a couple of steady vets.
It was hoped that the starting rotation would be more stable, with Brian Anderson coming on board for a full season, to add to Darrell May, vets Dennys Reyes and Kevin Appier, and youngsters Jeremy Affeldt and Jimmy Gobble.
The bullpen would be better, too, with Mike McDougal improving and Curtis Leskanic showing he had something left in the tank. They’d miss Runelvys Hernandez, out for the year with Tommy John surgery, but they had depth, or so they surmised.
The big news was on the other side of the ball. Besides the stalwarts listed above, Ken Harvey had a rough rookie year but was improving greatly. Joe Randa was a rock at third, and the Royals added three free agents that were sure to help. Never mind that young players helped them get over .500.
Matt Stairs had done nothing but hit and hit well since he finally got a chance with Oakland in 1996. While his batting average was just…average…he got on base with regularity and could put them in the seats frequently, especially if platooned.
Benito Santiago was nearing 40 years old. He did possess a lot of savvy that could help the pitching staff and also the younger catchers in the organization.
Then there was Juan Gonzalez. He was just 33, so the thought was he had a few years left in him. He had a couple of injury plagued years on his return to Texas, but at $4 million he seemed like a steal, especially if he could heal from his calf injury and replicate the pace he was on when he was shelved in 2003.
So with great optimism, a rarity in Kansas City over the past few seasons, the 2004 season kicked off.
It didn’t take long at all to see that the season wasn’t just going to go off the rails, it was going to plummet off of a steep cliff.
Oh, sure, they won the opening game 907. They also proved they could put up big crooked numbers in some games (a 15-5 win here, a 10-1 win there). But despite those big offensive numbers in some games, they finished April at 7-14.
It was easy to see why. Their pitching staff was already screwed up.
Appier started two games, and was done. Finished. Goodbye, Kevin. Arm problems shelved him after four innings of work, which was not the way the Royals or Appier wanted to go out for the former ace.
Gobble pitched great in his first start and had decent numbers, but hadn’t pitched more than six innings in any one of his appearances. May was hit hard in his first three starts, and had to come out of his fourth after just 4 1/3 innings. Anderson started six times in April and had a 6.44 ERA to show for it. Reyes and Affeldt were up and down as well as starters.
The bullpen? MacDougal started the year on the DL, so Leskanic was installed as the closer. He saved his first two chances, but then blew three in a row and his ERA was 10.80 by April 29th.
On the offensive side, the infield was rocky as both Berroa and Desi Relaford missed time with injuries. Left fielder Aaron Guiel started out in a horrible slump so the Royals called up David DeJesus to help. Still, runs weren’t the problem in April.
They became a problem in May. The pitching wasn’t much better.
Joe Posnanski has written paragraphs on the Eduardo Villacis start, where the Royals picked a non-prospect with very limited time in AA to start a game, and it worked out as well as you’d think. That was just symptomatic of the roster process going on – short term fixes or panicked promotions and demotions. There seemingly was no plan.
Relaford’s slumping? Let’s try Mendy Lopez. DeJesus not quite ready to play every day? Guiel still not an answer? How about Adrian Brown? How about Brandon Berger? How about Byron Gettis? How about playing Relaford in the outfield so we can get Tony Graffanino in the lineup?
On May 21st, the Royals fell to 13-26 after a 7-0 loss to Oakland. They were already 10 games behind. Gonzalez was hitting decently, with five home runs in 127 at bats, but nowhere near the production everyone thought he’d bring to the table.
After two at bats, he was taken out in the bottom of the fourth. Lopez moved to right, and Wilton Guerrero (boy, they were digging them up from everywhere) came in to replace him in the lineup.
Gonzalez’ back gave out. He never played another inning for the Royals.
Meanwhile, Stairs was hitting well. Randa was Randa. Sweeney was Sweeney. Beltran was doing some good things. But Harvey? He was on fire.
Tony Pena was juggling around Sweeney, Stairs, Gonzalez and Harvey for most of the season, fitting them in at first, right, and DH. Harvey was taking advantage of this playing time, and after a .397 mark in April kept it up and hit .333 with four home runs in May. Without Gonzalez, the offense would need to rely on his production.
Pitching? Well, the bullpen was leaky. Leskanic proved to be spent. McDougal proved to be unreliable and then went on the DL again. Affeldt was moved more or less full time to the pen, since they didn’t trust Shawn Camp, Nate Field or Scott Sullivan to close out games.
The big move was calling up their prize prospect, 20-year old Zack Greinke. He debuted on May 22nd, pitched well, and stayed up the rest of the year. No one else, though, was working out.
June was more of the same, especially for the staff. Gobble couldn’t go deep into games. Anderson and May were pitching more like wilted veterans than staff aces. In desperation, they called up Chris George to start some games. He was another prospect that somehow went 9-6 in 2003 despite a 7.11 ERA and a 7.29 ERA in Omaha in 2003 as well.
The money the Royals management spent was being wasted. It was clear to ownership and management that they would not win, nor compete, and that spending money was fruitless. This was driven home when during a 10-4 win over Philadelphia, Santiago broke his hand and was done for the season.
What was worse was that Kelly Stinnett hurt his elbow earlier and was also done for the year. So the Royals were left with Alberto Castillo, or Mike Tonis (who they grabbed from AA Wichita, because he was close by) at catcher unless something was done.
Beltran was making $9 million a year already, and the Royals knew he’d be commanding a lot more going into free agency. He also was growing into a franchise player. But they had DeJesus in the wings, so they felt they had no choice.
Like many others before him, Beltran was shipped off to Houston in a three-team deal that netted them Mark Teahen, Mike Wood and catcher John Buck.
Buck immediately became the starting catcher once he arrived. Wood joined the rotation, too. Teahen was sent down, even though Randa went on the DL soon after the trade. I guess the Royals decided they could live with Relaford at third.
The personnel carousel went on. Dee Brown, former prospect, was called up to play left after the other guys didn’t work out (surprise!). They gave Ruben Mateo a chance. They traded for Damian Jackson.
They called up Rudy Seanez, who managed to go through two months without being injured and flipped him for Abraham Nunez They traded for two Bautistas, Denny and Jose.
Oh, yes, Jose Bautista. The Royals were team #3 for him in 2004. After 25 at bats, they let him go to Pittsburgh, not knowing what he’d become once he got his swing mechanics down.
What was worse was that their AAA affiliate looked like a wasteland for failed prospects: Raul Casanova, Travis Dawkins, Jed Hansen, Calvin Pickering, Jarrod Patterson, Doug Linton, Jason Dickson, Mike Venafro, Kris Wilson, and Jamey Wright, not to mention where Jackson, Guerrero, and Adrian Brown hung out most of the year.
You probably could sense that the Royals had no “Plan B” unless Plan B was “maybe one of these guys in AAA will play well for a month or so up here if we need him, and then we can flip him.”
Because they had to send someone, Harvey represented the Royals at the All-Star game. He was still hitting over .300, which was a good thing. But the Royals were going from bad to heinous.
They played a three game series in Minnesota where they didn’t score a single run. They got four hits off of Brad Radke, three off of Johan Santana, and six off of Kyle Lohse in a 12-0 loss. Those losses were part of a run where they lost 13 of 14.
After the break, they lost eight in a row and ended July at 36-66. All they could do now was see who would develop and who wouldn’t. Greinke accounted for himself pretty well over the last few months.
Buck played as well as a 23-year old rookie catcher could play while being thrust upon the job in an instant. As for the others? DeJesus was coming along and progressing. Dee Brown and Nunez were double mehs. Julio Gotay got time at second replacing Graffanino and hit an empty .270.
A big concern was Berroa. After fighting injuries early in the year he was fighting to get his batting average up to .250, plus his stolen base ability was deteriorating.
Pitching was still a big problem. They were running through arms left and right in the organization. Gobble slipped badly in the second half. Wood turned into a pumpkin. George was just as bad in 2004 as he was in 2003. Denny Bautista got hit hard in five starts. They tried Jimmy Serrano, Matt Kinney, DJ Carrasco. Bupkis.
May and Anderson, though. They were the clinchers. Both had ERAs over 5.60. Anderson was even pulled out of the rotation for a while.
Then there was Harvey. The All-Star. While Sweeney and Stairs plugged along all season, Harvey went into free-fall. After the break, he hit just .256 with only three homers and had a SLG under .400. He was benched for a while as well.
Thankfully, thankfully, the end was in sight. The Royals had thoughts of winning 90 when the season started. They were trying to avoid 100 losses as it turned out. After an 8-6 win over the White Sox they stood at 57-96. Just nine more games, and if they could go 6-3…
Hah. They lost seven in a row and eight of the last nine, with the only win a 10-2 laugher over the Pale Hose thanks to a home run by Pickering off of Jason Grilli and four RBI from Gotay (!) In the other eight games, they scored 10 runs total, including four in a row where they plated one solitary marker.
Instead of capitalizing on their 2003 success, 2004 sent the Royals deeper into the dregs. It took until 2013 for them to have another winning season. Pena resigned in 2005 after another horrible start. Harvey was back in the minors for good by June. Berroa never recovered his 2003 magic.
Buck turned into a journeyman catcher, but not a star. The team patched a lot of holes much like they did in 2004 with guys that were once considered prospects but never stuck, or players that flamed out and never got back their mojo.
Their pitching was a total wreck for years. Injuries, depression and misses on high draft picks did them in. It seemed the only thing the Royals were good at was giving marginal players major league service time.
The 2004 Royals were a bad idea gone haywire. They tried to spend money, and failed by investing in older, injury prone players, and then went right back to their miserly ways. It took a very patient process for them to get to where they are today, and in doing so almost lost their entire fan base thanks to years of ineptitude.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Greinke, who threw 145 decent innings, led the team in WAR at 3.7. I’m sure other teams have had an All-Star with a negative WAR, but Harvey wound up at -0.2 for the year.
Honorable Mention Team: The 1986 Royals tried to defend their unlikely World Series Championship, but fell to 76-86 thanks to a huge falloff on offense (last in runs scored). Sadly, manager Dick Howser was suffering from a brain tumor and left the team after the All-Star game. He passed away one year later.
Bad Blast from the Past: They tried to plant major league baseball in Kansas City three times in the 1880’s, but the teams were just awful. In 1914, they had a Federal League team, but it was bad.
However, in 1915 that team finished 81-72 and just 5 ½ games out of first place behind good seasons from Duke Kenworthy, Al Shaw and Grover Gilmore and a steady, solid quartet of pitchers (Nick Cullop, Gene Packard, Chief Johnson and Alex Main). But it was not to last, as the Federal League disbanded, disappointing fans that thought KC was a major league city