Last, but not...well, actually...
There are a number of baseball franchises which vie for the title of "Best Punchline." The Pirates recently set a record of prolonged futility by finishing below .500 for seventeen consecutive seasons. The Nationals/Expos have made just one playoff appearance in their 41 year history. And, of course, there are the accursed Cubs, who championship drought recently extended beyond the century mark.
But for pure sporting incompetence, it's hard to argue with the Kansas City Royals. They won the World Series in 1985 and for a few years thereafter were contenders in the AL West. Since the late eighties, however, the Royals have managed a winning record only three times (once during the strike-shortened '94 season) and have not returned to the postseason since their '85 championship.
In recent years, they have grown more and more woeful, as they've featured eight managers in their past eight seasons and cracked 100 losses four times. In the tenure of current General Manager, Dayton Moore, they have become a kind of anachronism, a franchise which seems steadfastly determined to defy the evolutions of their industry...and not in a good way.
In 2009, FanGraphs ranked 154 players according to Wins Above Replacement. Of those 154, only eight finished below replacement level. And the man who finished 154th was almost a full win worse than the guy at 153 (Aubrey Huff). That man was Yuniesky Betancourt, the former Mariner shortstop who was Moore's primary 2009 acquisition. Betancourt wasn't just the worst player in baseball, he was the worst player by a long shot.
For Dayton Moore, this is just the most dramatic instance of his stubbornly standing in defiance of "new-fangled" statistical metrics. This offseason alone he signed three players who score extraordinarily low in categories like WAR, UZR, and OPS: Scott Podsednik, Jason Kendall, and Rick Ankiel. And for this reason he's become the scourge of sabermetric analysts like Rob Neyer, who happens to also be a Royals fan.
But while Moore is eviscerated by sportswriters (in this rare instance, the sabermetricians and the traditionalists seem mostly in agreement) he has the full endorsement of Kansas City ownership, which recently extended his contract through the 2013 season. Unfortunately, that probably assures that Royals fans are looking at four more years of absolutely dismal baseball.
John Buck (29) C [Signed w/ Blue Jays]
Coco Crisp (30) CF [Signed w/ Athletics]
Mike Jacobs (29) 1B/DH
Miguel Olivo (31) C/DH [Signed w/ Rockies]
Noel Aarguelles (20) LHSP
Aaron Crow (23) RHSP
Kila Ka'aihue (26) 1B
Let's start with the good news. In 2009, not only did Zack Greinke win a Cy Young award and cement his place among the best pitchers in the game, but Billy Butler also finally developed into the legitimate middle-of-the-order presence the Royals had been waiting on for the last three seasons. Butler hit for average (.301) and power (21 HR), and there is reason to believe his could be even better in 2010, not only because he'll be a year older (now 24), but because he raised his OPS by 136 points in the second half of '09, to a sparkling 925. If Butler can produce at that rate over the course of a full season, he could become one of the premier hitters in the American League.
Unfortunately, one great pitcher and one good hitter does not a quality team make. The lineup around Butler and the rotation behind Greinke are very much works in progress, with only a few components which even offer high-end potential. Third baseman Alex Gordon broke into the majors in 2007, the same year as Butler, and was considered the league's top prospect at the time. He has been unable to live up to those expectations thusfar, but at 26-years-old, he may still have a little time.
Similarly, Luke Hochevar, another first-round draft pick, also 26, has been bouncing back and forth between Kansas City and Omaha for the past two seasons. He's shown flashes of brilliance (3-1 with a 2.94 ERA in five June starts in '09), but the overall body of work (13-25, 6.06 ERA, 1.48 WHIP) has not been promising. If the Royals are to build about the emergence of Greinke and Butler, they will need Gordon and Hochevar to become, at the very least, solid sidekicks.
Strangely, for a team that has had great draft positions for the last decade, Kansas City's farm system isn't that great, especially at the upper levels. Their best major-league ready prospect is Kila Ka'aihue, a classic "Moneyball" type, who possesses excellent plate discipline (significantly more walks than strikeouts in each of the last two seasons) and moderate power. Unfortunately, Moore, again in defiance of the conventional wisdom, has been reluctant to promote him, burying him behind players will much more limited potential, like Mike Jacobs and Josh Fields. Hopefully this will be the season they finally make room for him, or at least send him somewhere where his skills will be appreciated.
Moore did make a small splash in 2009 by adding a pair of pitchers who will shoot to the top of the organizations prospect list. Kansas City took Aaron Crow with their first-round draft pick, #12 overall. The Royals hope Crow, who pitched four years in college and then took a year off when he couldn't reach an agreement with the Nationals (who drafted him at #9 in '08), will prove a finished product who moves quickly through the system (think Mark Prior, David Price, & Stephen Strasburg), but that remains to be seen. His Arizona Fall League performance was quite mediocre (0-2, 5.87 ERA) and he may suffer from missing a year of competition (he did pitch a small amount of independent league ball during the layoff).
The Royals also very quietly signed the "other Cuban defector," Noel Arguelles, who Keith Law calls "the equivalent of an extra first-round pick." Arguelles didn't command nearly the attention of his countryman, Aroldis Chapman, but he came at a much more reasonable price. Moore signed him for $7 Million over five years, compared to the $30 the Reds gave Chapman for six years. Like Chapman, Arguelles is young, left-handed, and mysterious. Arguelles didn't even appear in the WBC in '09 and has made few appearance in international competition, so even major-league scouts are a bit mystified. As with Crow, it's a bit of a long shot to expect Arguelles to reach the bigs this year, but it will be exciting to see what he's working with during Spring Training and in his first few months of professional baseball.
I could probably fake a little optimism about Rick Ankiel, Alberto Callaspo, or David DeJesus, and I would, if they were lining up in the bottom third of the Kansas City lineup. However, in addition to having an unproven rotation, a shallow bullpen, and an atrocious defense, the real problem with the Royals is their propensity for giving away outs. You will probably be surprised to know that Miguel Olivo and John Buck were the second best catching tandem in the American League last season (following Joe Mauer and Jose Morales in Minnesota), at least offensively. The Kansas City catchers led the AL in HR, and finished second in RBI and OPS. So, naturally, Mr. Moore released them both, even though he could've retained the pair of them for around $5 Million and instead he signed Jason Kendall to a two-year, $6 Million deal. Kendall, by the way, was probably the worst hitting catcher in all of baseball in '09, and his former team, Milwaukee, finished 15th in the NL in OPS, 12th in RBI, and 16th in HR. Kendall also, by the way, finished last among catcher in WAR and 133rd out of 154 overall. Clearly, he's a logical fit to hit just in front of Yuniesky Betancourt.
As long as the Kansas City front office insists on giving away a third of their at-bats, the Royals won't lead the league in anything but bitterness, apathy, and right-handed pitchers.
Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:
LF David DeJesus (L)
DH Alberto Callaspo (S)
1B Billy Butler (R)
3B Alex Gordon (L)
RF Jose Guillen (R)
CF Rick Ankiel (L)
2B Chris Getz (L)
C Jason Kendall (R)
SS Yuniesky Betancourt (R)
SP Zack Greinke (R)
SP Gil Meche (R)
SP Luke Hochevar (R)
SP Brian Bannister (R)
SP Kyle Davis (R)
CL Joakim Soria (R)
SU Juan Cruz (R)
SU Kyle Farnsworth (R)
MR Robinson Tejada (R)
MR Roman Colon (R)
MOP Victor Marte (R)
MOP Carlos Rosa (R)
C Brayan Pena (S)
IF Willie Bloomquist (R)
1B/3B Josh Fields (R)
OF Mitch Maier (L)