Where are They Now: Powder Blue Edition

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I am friends with quite a few baseball geeks. Hey, it’s very hard to just ‘kind of’ like baseball! Because we love the game so much, we remember players who have long since either left the game or left (at least) the big stage of the big leagues. So I thought it would be fun to see what some former Royals are up to nowadays. Yes, I am as scared as most of you…

Royals vs. White Sox

Kila Ka’aihue

Kila was once a rising star in the Royals farm system as a possible solution to Kansas City’s shortage of power. In 2008, Kila was crushing balls left and right in the minor leagues and seemed to be on the fast track to Kansas City. Unfortunately, despite being called up in September of that year, Ka’aihue must not have impressed Royals management and was back in AAA in 2009, despite their need for a power bat(no, Mike Jacobs was NOT the answer!). Kila would continue to put up solid numbers in the minors until his next shot at big leagues, which wasn’t until 2010. By then, whether it was the obvious lack of faith in him by Royals management, or his flaws just being prominent against big league pitching, Ka’aihue struggled. Kila started 2011 with the Royals but only lasted 23 games before rising prospect Eric Hosmer was recalled to take over first base. That was it for his time in Kansas City. Ka’aihue bounced around the last few years, as he played in Oakland in 2012, then picked up by Arizona before the 2013 season. Kila played in the Diamondbacks farm system until June 2nd last year, when he was released so he could sign a contract with Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan. Kila is still only 29, so there is always an outside chance he could return to the big leagues at some point. I always felt like the Royals badly mismanaged Kila and never really gave him an honest chance to prove what he could do. It was obvious in 2008 that he at the least  should have been given a chance to show what he could do. Alas, that was not allowed to happen.

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Justin Huber

I always feel like if I mention Ka’aihue, I should mention Huber. Justin Huber was a prospect(from Australia) for the New York Mets before he was traded to Kansas City in July 2004 for…Jose Bautista. Yes, THAT Jose Bautista, but before he was really good. Huber was originally signed as a catcher but had made the move to first base for Kansas City, a spot that opened up once Mike Sweeney was gone. Huber had a great season in 2005 in the minor leagues and actually got 78 at bats that season for the Royals. But that would be about it for his time in Kansas City, as he would only appear in 13 big league games the next two years. During Spring Training 2008, Huber was purchased by the San Diego Padres. San Diego is where he got the most playing time of his major league career, a whole 33 games that year. Huber would also appear in a few games the following season for Minnesota, but that would be all she wrote for Huber and his time in the bigs. Huber is currently playing for the Offseason Leagues Australian Baseball League(or as I like to refer to it as, the OLABL). As to his time in Kansas City, once again, I felt like he was never given a fair shake. I fondly remember him getting called up at some point(I believe in the 2005 season) during a series in Minnesota. At the time, the Royals were sucking(as normal back then) and Huber would sit on the bench for that entire series, except for one at bat. He would then get sent back to AAA. I never understood why you would even call him up if that was all he was going to do. In all honesty, it probably meant that the Royals (and this wasn’t the first time for this) just didn’t see anything in him, a mistake that continues to get repeated. Once again, I felt like they could have at least given him a chance.

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Mitch Maier 

Hard to believe it, but Mitch Maier was a 1st Round Draft Pick of the Royals back in 2003. Even back then, it didn’t seem as if the Royals knew what to do with Mitch. He had started his career as a catcher, but by 2004 they had moved him over to third base.  With Mark Teahen on the horizon, the Royals once again moved Mitch in 2005, this time to the outfield. By 2006 he was a Texas League mid-season All-Star and made his big league debut in September. Maier would find himself back in the majors in 2008 and would hang around for awhile, becoming the Royals backup outfielder for the next 3 1/2 seasons. Mitch became a bit of everything for Kansas City, whether the team needed him to play in the outfield, pinch hit, pinch run, be the team’s third catcher at times and even come out of the bullpen. Seriously. Maier has two career pitching appearances, pitching an inning in both, giving up no runs and only one hit each appearance. The running joke amongst most of us fans was how if we needed someone to stop the bleeding, Maier should be called in to close the door. Unfortunately, Maier was designated for assignment by the Royals in July of 2012, spending the rest of the year in Omaha. Mitch would spend the 2013 season in Boston’s minor league system and has signed a minor league with the Chicago Cubs for the upcoming 2014 season. Now, I always felt Maier was a good fourth outfielder and I still feel like he has a lot of value to a team, especially a National League team. I don’t know if he would ever be a starter, but there is no reason he doesn’t have a major league job. Hopefully he catches on in Chicago and finds a new home.

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Mike MacDougal

Remember MacDougal? I mean, he was a former All-Star for the Royals. MacDougal was another 1st Round Draft Pick for Kansas City, 25th pick overall in the 1999 draft. Originally a starter, MacDougal was shifted to the bullpen in 2003 and became the Royals closer that season. He had racked up 24 saves by mid-season that year and made the All-Star team. MacDougal would struggle with flu-like symptoms during Spring Training 2004 and lost his closer job to Jeremy Affeldt. MacDougal would return to the closers role the next season, as Affeldt would deal with blister issues, which plagued him during most of his time in Kansas City. Injuries found MacDougal again in 2006 and would return to the field in July of 2006. His stay in Kansas City was wrapping up though, as he was dealt to the White Sox about a week later. Mike had a great rest of the season for Chicago, but injuries would find him again. Since then, MacDougal has bounced around, from Washington, to St. Louis, to Los Angeles, to Chicago, to Cincinnati to Philadelphia. MacDougal had some success with the Dodgers a few seasons ago, but in what looks to be a pattern, then turned around and struggled the following season. MacDougal was blessed with an arm that could throw in triple digits, but between injuries and lack of consistency, he has not been able to find a steady home. There is still time for him to add to his big league resume, but at 36 time is getting short.

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Philip Humber

Humber didn’t have a very long stint with the Royals. In fact his Royals numbers only total eight games. Humber was a top prospect for the Mets before they traded him to Minnesota in the Johan Santana trade. Between a Tommy John surgery and his struggles in the minors, Humber never really settled into a home before his arrival in Kansas City. There was a lot of intrigue in Humber by Royal’s management, as the team at that time was constantly looking for fringe players who might blossom if given a chance(as long as they weren’t home grown, obviously). Humber was recalled in August of 2010 by Kansas City and earned his first major league win in relief against Detroit. He would also get a start during that period, racking up 21.2 innings in his eight appearances. Humber was let go by Kansas City in December so they could make room for Jeff Francoeur on the roster, a casualty of the numbers game. Royals management had mentioned they would have liked to keep Humber around but felt they needed to use roster space on other players. Humber would be picked up by Oakland, then designated for assignment by them as well that off-season before the White Sox picked him up. Royals fans cringed when Humber pitched well in the first half of the 2011 season, earning him a contract for the 2012 season. Humber would throw the 21st perfect game in MLB history in April of 2012 against Seattle. Unfortunately, that did not mean added success for him, as he struggled the rest of the season and was let go following season. Since then, Humber struggled with Houston last year and signed a minor league deal with Oakland this past off-season. I know there were Royals fans who felt the team gave up on Humber too soon, but he really hadn’t done anything with Kansas City that made it seem as if he was going to be a quality fifth starter for the team. I tend to credit White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper with Humber’s success, as Cooper has helped numerous pitchers rise from the ashes of fallen careers and is a big part to Humber throwing that perfect game. Humber had some success after leaving Kansas City, but not enough to make anyone feel as if they did wrong by letting him go. For most of us, he will be “that guy who threw a perfect game after leaving the Royals”.

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Johnny Giavotella

Giavotella played for the Royals from 2011 to…wait, he is still with the team? Oh, that poor man! I figured since they had given up on him then that would mean they had let him move on. Should I restart the #FreeGio campaign? Or just revisit this once he is allowed to travel to greener pastures? That poor, poor man…

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So those are just a few former Royals and what they are up to now. I always find it interesting to see what happens to some of these players once they leave and you never hear from them again. At some point we will revisit some other players from years past, possibly even some from many a year ago. Sorry to leave everyone waiting, but Onix Concepcion and Angel Salazar will just have to wait. Until then I recommend chewing on a toothpick like U.L. Washington. I hear they are tasty.

FLASHBACK: The Curse of Buddy Biancalana

Author’s Note: The Flashback articles on here I originally wrote for the website royalsbaseball.net. That website has now become defunct, so I thought I would move them over here to Bleeding Royal Blue. I’d like to thank Joel Matheny for giving me the opportunity to write for his website, even if it was for just a few months. So enjoy, and go Royals!

buddy bMany a Major League baseball team have that one position they are constantly looking to upgrade. For whatever reason, they can’t seem to find stability and are stuck every few years finding someone else to take over that spot and hope they finally have found that player who will be there for years to come. Over the years, The Royals have gone through countless players at Shortstop and none ever seem to stick. Why exactly is shortstop a black hole for Kansas City?

patekIt wasn’t always like that. Back in the offseason of 1970, the Royals acquired a little known Shortstop by the name of Fred Patek from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Patek was not the tallest man alive(5’5″, some even say 5’4″)but Patek was like a hoover on the field. Patek was a three time All-Star with Kansas City and even finished sixth in the MVP voting back in 1971. Patek would end up being a vital cog for the Royals as they made 3 playoff appearances in the mid-to late 70’s. Former Royals manager and Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog once said about Patek that he was  “the best artificial turf shortstop he ever managed”, ranking him even higher than Ozzie Smith. Patek would leave the Royals at the end of the 1979 season, signing with the California Angels.  Alas, him leaving began the Royals carousel of revolving Shortstops.

ULPatek’s leaving left the spot open, and in slid UL Washington. Washington had been with Kansas City for a few years as a backup infielder and was going to finally get a chance to show what he could do. Washington had great speed, and was yet another success of the Royals Baseball Academy, a program that also netted them Frank White. Washington was above the league average in batting those first few years, and combined solid defense with excellent baserunning to give the Royals another weapon in their lineup. Washington had a career year in 1982 after coming back from injury, and it looked as if the Royals had their Shortstop for the near future. In 1983 UL slumped badly and injuries ruined his 1984 season, as Onix Concepcion had made his way into the lineup. After the 1984 season, Washington was dealt to the Montreal Expos.

Concepcion took over the job in 1984, and was the starter for most of 1985. Not happy with his play, Royals manager Dick Howser replaced him with rookie Buddy Biancalana, and Biancalana would finish not only the season as the starter, but would start all 14 playoff games for KC that season. Biancalana was inserted in the lineup more for his defense, but his offense in the playoffs was a big boost for the ballclub. His funny name even brought mentions on the David Letterman show, and eventually an appearance on Late Night. Buddy would come back to reality in 1986, hitting .242 in 100 games, although providing solid defense. By 1987 the Royals had traded Biancalana to the Astros and was out of the big leagues by the end of the next season.

stillwell_11Now, I joke about the curse of Royals Shortstops being on Biancalana’s head. Whether it was bad judgement or just plain bad luck, the Royals would continue to go through Shortstops throughout the next decade. The player that seemed to have the best shot of longevity for the Royals was one Kurt Stillwell. Stillwell was acquired from the Reds after the 1987 season, as the Royals parted way with lefthander Danny Jackson. The Reds had a logjam at Shortstop, as another youngster was ready for the bigs at the point. Some guy named Barry Larkin…ever heard of him? So Stillwell became the starter at Short and after injuries hit a few All-Stars, was an American League All-Star in 1988. Stillwell showed flashes of greatness at Shortstop, and would have streaks at the plate where it seemed he was really starting to advance, only to have equally as down periods. 1990 seemed to start off as Stillwell’s coming out party, hitting .386 in April and was still over .300
in June. Unfortunately, injuries hampered him the rest of the year and could only hit .205. In 1991, Kurt would get off to another hot start, but by Independence Day he was mired in another slump and manager Hal McRae ended up benching Stillwell. Kurt was not very fond of his new manager, and after the season wrapped up, Stillwell, still only 26 at this point, packed up and headed to San Diego. Later Kurt would say his relationship with McRae, or lack of one, sent him on his way, and alas another Shortstop for the Royals was out the door after only 4 years.

Over the next few years, a number of players tried to solidify the position, only to leave earlier than expected. Greg Gagne, Jose Offerman, Jay Bell and Rey Sanchez are just a few of the players who occupied the position. Most were solid players, but none were long term solutions.

berroaThat seemed to all change in 2003. Rookie Angel Berroa was handed the Shortstop job and seemed to be the future of this organization. Berroa had a rocky start to the season, but by years end his defense seemed to get better and his hitting had more than improved. Berroa hit .287 that season with 17 Homeruns,  73 RBI, and 21 stolen bases. Berroa would win the American League Rookie of the Year Award, being only the fourth Royal to accomplish such a feat. Things went downhill from there on. Season by season, Berroa seemed to regress more and more, especially defensively, as his error rate was the highest in the Majors during that period. Angel also seemed lost at the plate, not seeming to have any real gameplan and flailing at pitches out of the strike zone. Finally in 2007, the Royals acquired Tony Pena Jr. from Atlanta, and Berroa was sent to the minor leagues. Outside of nine games that season, Berroa spent the rest of his time in AAA Omaha. 2008
started the same way and on June 6th was traded to the Dodgers.

tony_pena_jr_2008_04_13Pena wasn’t the answer here either. As much as Pena was a good fielder, he couldn’t hit worth a lick. By mid-2008, Pena was out and in stepped Mike Aviles. Aviles was finally getting his shot in the Bigs, and he took advantage of it. Aviles ended the season hitting  .325 in 102 games, with 10 home runs and 51 RBI’s. Aviles’ season was so good that the Royals named him their 2008 Player of the Year. Aviles, unfortunately, would suffer an arm injury playing winter ball, and be forced to miss most of the 2009 season due to Tommy John surgery. Whatever it was that Aviles had in 2008, he never seemed to catch it again. Aviles split 2010 between Omaha and the Majors, but mainly as a backup. Mike started the 2011 season at Third Base for KC but never got going and was traded to Boston at the end of July. I was always an Aviles fan and really hoped that he would end up breaking the curse. Unfortunately, Mike Aviles was not meant to be that guy.

YuniWhen it became apparent in 2009 that Aviles would be gone for the foreseeable future, the Royals acquired Yuniesky Betancourt from the Seattle Mariners. Betancourt went from being one of the better defensive Shortstop’s in the game early in his career to a plodding Shortstop with no range by the time he appeared in Kansas City. Betancourt brought a little pop in his bat as well, and to be honest, at the time it wasn’t like there was a better option for the team either on the roster or in the minors.  In 2009, he had the lowest on base percentage of any starter in the major leagues, at .274, and the lowest slugging percentage in the American League with .351. His numbers did improve in 2010, but he still was a liability on both defense and offense. Yuni obviously wasn’t the long term answer.

In the winter of 2010, the Royals would acquire their current Shortstop, trading Ace pitcher Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt to the Milwaukee Brewers for Alcides Escobar and three youngsters. Escobar showed last season why he was a good commodity, flashing great defense at Shortstop. After the Berroa/Betancourt years, it was good to see a Shortstop with a great glove. Escobar even earned the nickname “Shortstop Jesus” by Royals fans. Escobar struggled with the bat, although he seemed to hit better as the season went on. By the time it was all said and done, Escobar hit .254 for the Royals, and some experts predict he could hit as high .269 this upcoming season.His defense though, is why he is in the starting lineup. Any offense is just an addition to his amazing play on the diamond.

EskySo is Escobar the one to break the curse? Time will only tell, but if Alcides can hit even in the .260 range, he seems like a good fit for the position for many a year. He was a .300 hitter in the minors, so it is possible. One thing is for certain; luck has not been on the Royals side when finding a Shortstop all these years. For them to break the curse, they need both good judgement and good luck…and maybe a guy who stands only 5’5″. Hey, it worked before!

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