2014 Kansas City Royals: Everything’s up to date at last

Steve Whitake

Steve Whitaker was a Royal for five-and-a-half months, but never played for them. By the time his card was stuffed under a stick of gum, he was a Seattle Pilot. Whitaker, an outfielder, was selected by the Royals from the Yankees in the expansion draft of 1968. On April 1, he was dealt with John Gelnar to the Pilots for Lou Piniella, who won Rookie of the Year honors for the Royals. “Lou Piniella has the red ass,” wrote Jim Bouton in Ball Four. “He doesn’t think he’s playing enough. He’s a good-looking ballplayer…He says he knows they don’t want him and that he’s going to quit baseball rather than go back to Triple-A…Pinella is a case. He hits the hell out of the ball… but they’re easing him out. He complains a lot about the coaches and ignores them when he feels like it, and to top it off he’s sensitive as hell to things like (Pilots manager) Joe Schultz not saying good morning to him.” Needless to say, Bouton didn’t like the trade. Whitaker shuttled betwen the Pilots and the minors, hitting .250 with six homers in the majors in 116 at-bats (slugging .440). As a rookie in 1966 for the Yankees, he hit seven home runs and slugged .491 in 114 at-bats. The next year, he was the primary replacement for Roger Maris in right field on the Yankees, hitting .243 with 11 homers, but he walked only 23 times and fanned 89. He had only seven hits in 60 at-bats in ’68 and lost the job to Andy Kosco. Whitaker was traded after his one season with the Pilots, who by then were the Brewers, with outfielder Dick Simpson to the Giants for pitcher Bob Bolin. He had 27 at-bats for them in 1970 and never played in the majors again, retiring for good after two years in AAA. Final stats: .230 average, 24 home runs, .283 on-base, .367 slugging, 0.1 WAR.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Kyle Zimmer went back to college during the offseason, because even former No. 1 picks need a backup plan. Especially if their season ended early because of a stiff shoulder. It doesn’t hurt that Zimmer went to the University of San Francisco. There are worse places to spend the offseason. The question is where he’ll pitch this season, and how much. Zimmer was the fifth pick of the 2012 draft and had minor elbow surgery that year and shoulder trouble the last one. Before you’re 23, that’s a troubling status update. When healthy, Zimmer has fanned 182 batters in 148 innings, including 140 in 108.1 in 2013. He finished in AA (fanning 27 in 18.2 innings there), and there’s little between him and Kansas City. A rotation with Bruce Chen reserved a spot can’t afford to turn down first-round assistance. But Zimmer has yet to throw in spring training and will be limited for 2014.

Trivia: Of the 10 highest single-season slugging percentages for the Royals, four were by George Brett. Name the other six sluggers (there was a tie for 10th). Hint: Only two were this century. Answer below.

What he said: Pitcher Danny Duffy on Yordano Ventura, his main competition for a spot in the rotation: “He’s doing an absolutely outstanding job. He’s killing it right now. And I’m pulling for him.” What he meant: “I hope he has a helluva year. At Omaha.”

Outlook: The Royals won 86 games last year, the first time they’ve won more than they’ve lost since 2003, and just the second time since 1994. And in many of those years they didn’t even come close — 10 times since 1994 they’ve failed to win even 70 games, and twice failed to win 60.

(That 2003 team somehow won 83 games with only one pitcher, Darrell May, winning 10 games. Chris George won nine in 18 starts despite a 7.71 ERA, and the rest of the rotation included bits and pieces: Runnelvys Hernandez for 18 starts (4.61), Kyle Snyder for 15 (1-6, 5.17), Jose Lima for 14 (8-3, 4.91), Jeremy Affeldt for 18 starts and 18 relief appearances … 15 pitchers started games in all, including D.J. Carrasco, Kevin Appier, Jamey Wright and Brad Voyles, who retired with an 0-4 record lifetime.)

The Royals led the league in ERA last year, the first time they’ve been better than 10th since 2007. The James Shields trade worked, if only for a year or so.

Much of the Royals’ strength was in their deep and hard-throwing bullpen, which should be able to endure the loss of Luke Hochevar.

But they were 11th in runs scored and last in home runs in 2013, and what improvements they made are subtle. The Royals traded the finally-developed Will Smith for outfielder Norichika Aoki, who is an upgrade over David Lough in right field, which says a lot about Lough. Aoki is nothing if not consistent — he’s batted .288 and .286 in his two seasons with the Brewers, with on-base percentages of .355 and .356. He’s also been caught stealing more times than he’s homered (20-18), although he’s valuable in the way of a Tom Poquette/Al Cowens sort of hybrid: contact hitter, good speed, defense, goes first to third and keep the opposition from doing so. He’d be a perfect complement in an outfield with Amos Otis and Clint Hurdle.

Kansas City also added Omar Infante at second base and he’ll be a huge upgrade there over Chris Getz, given the latter’s penchant for hitting .220.

The Royals lost Ervin Santana from the rotation, and while Santana has had dud seasons — 5.76, 5.03 and 5.16 — he’s also had some very good ones, including last year. But Ventura could be just as good, given time — he fanned 455 in 415.1 innings, including 74 in 57.2 innings to start last year in AA.

The Royals look like their teams that won consistently in the late ’70s and 80’s, but with a better bullpen. They could use a power hitter in the outfield, but the real test of the duration of their newfound winning status will be their starting rotation. They needn’t expect too much from Chen, and they might worry about losing Shields, who is a free agent after this year. Just from a PR standpoint, it’s not going to look good as Wil Myers improves if Shields is elsewhere.

Still, everything’s finally up to date in Kansas City. And if Zimmer can stay healthy, they might go further.

Trivia answer: George Brett’s .664 in his 1980 MVP season is the highest in Royals history. He’s also at No. 4 (.585 in ’85) and twice at No. 5 (.563 in ’79 and ’83). The others, in order: Bob Hamelin (.599 in ’94), Danny Tartabull (.593 in ’91), Mike Sweeney (.563 in 2002 and .542 in 2001), Jermaine Dye (.561 in 2000), John Mayberry (.547 in 1975) and Hal McRae (.542 in 1982).

Team song Sidney Bechet: Kansas City Man Blues

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