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After worst season, Royals seek hope

By Alan Eskew
November 14, 2002

KANSAS CITY–At the conclusion of the Royals’ first 100-loss season ever, a reporter asked first baseman Mike Sweeney if he saw light at the end of the tunnel.

"No, I don’t," Sweeney replied.

Despite hitting .340, Sweeney used adjectives like miserable and disappointing to describe the year. While the 100 defeats set a franchise record, the Royals have lost 97 or more games in three of the past four years.

The Royals did lead the league in managers, using three. Tony Muser learned of his firing from the media on April 29. John Mizerock served as the interim manager for 13 games before Tony Pena was hired on May 15.

Heading into the 2000 season, it looked liked the Royals were on the upswing. They had one of the best outfields in the majors with Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran. Top prospect Dee Brown looked ready to make an impact in the outfield. And the farm system was stocked with arms.

Since then, though, nothing has gone as planned. Only Beltran remains in the outfield after the Royals traded Damon and Dye before they could become free agents.

The Royals got shortstop prospect Angel Berroa, backup catcher A.J. Hinch and closer Roberto Hernandez in a three-team deal that cost them Damon. The slick-fielding Berroa, who looked like a jewel after leading all minor league shortstops with 60 extra-base hits in 2001, faded a bit in 2002 and turned out to be two years older than previously thought.

The Royals also gave up shortstop prospect Mark Ellis in the Damon deal. The Athletics moved Ellis to second base, where he started for the division champion A’s in 2002.

The trade of Dye for Rockies shortstop Neifi Perez, who hit .317 at Coors Field but has struggled mightily outside of Denver, turned out to be a calamity. Perez, who also turned out to be two years older than he claimed, hit .236 with 27 extra-base hits in 2002, while leading the club with 20 errors.

"I would characterize that whole situation overall as a disappointment," Royals general manager Allard Baird said. "There was an adjustment period (for Perez) coming into a new league and the first time he was traded, but overall it was a disappointment and his production was a disappointment."

Beltran can become a free agent after the 2004 season, and it will probably be difficult for the Royals to keep him after that. Brown has flopped, hitting .229 in 484 career major league at-bats. He spent most of 2002 with Triple-A Omaha, needed shoulder surgery in October and will be out of options in 2003.

Sweeney signed a five-year, $55 million extension in spring training, but it has an out clause. If the Royals are not at least a .500 club in 2003 or 2004, Sweeney can bolt.

On top of all that, the young pitching that looked like the strength of the farm system a few years ago hasn’t developed. In 1997, the Royals chose righthander Dan Reichert with the seventh overall selection. He opened the 2001 and ’02 seasons in the Royals rotation, but the Royals gave up on him in September and the Devil Rays claimed him off waivers.

In 1998, the Royals drafted Jeff Austin, Chris George and Matt Burch. Austin and George each struggled as starters and their futures lie in the bullpen. Burch has a 23-35 record in five minor league seasons and needed arm surgery last year.

In 1999, the Royals picked pitchers Kyle Snyder, Mike MacDougal, Jay Gehrke and Jimmy Gobble. Snyder, MacDougal and Gobble each have had injury setbacks, while Gehrke was released after the 2002 season.

The 2000 and 2001 drafts haven’t been much better. Lefthander Mike Stodolka has yet to reach the velocity he had in high school. Righthander Colt Griffin was a high-risk pick at ninth overall in 2001, and outfielder Roscoe Crosby was another risky pick in the second round. He has plenty of raw tools, but also plays football at Clemson. He had Tommy John surgery over the summer and has yet to play for the Royals.

Still, Snyder and Gobble could join righthander Runelvys Hernandez, lefthander Jeremy Affeldt and Miguel Asencio in future Royals rotations. Jeremy Hill, Ryan Bukvich and MacDougal could play important roles in the bullpen.

But after first baseman Ken Harvey and outfielder Alexis Gomez, the Royals have a paucity of position prospects. Their best players–second basemen Alejandro Machado and Ruben Gotay and shortstop Andres Blanco–have yet to reach Double-A.

Baird said he remains optimistic about the team’s future, and he said the Royals have upgraded and expanded their scouting department and operations in Latin America.

"I wouldn’t have signed a two-year extension if I didn’t believe that we had good prospects," Baird said. "The reason I signed is because I believe in the system. I believe in the people we have that run the system and I believe in the players."

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