29 March 2007

Royal legacy #15 -- the 1988 Royals (84-77)

Pesky, pesky work, always getting in the way of baseball and other great things. The countdown resumes and enters the top 15 with 1988, the Year of the Gubicza in KC as Mark had a career year and two tough months combined with an Oakland juggernaut cost the Royals a chance at an eighth divisional crown that eludes them to this day. The Royals were still riding the high of their early-to-mid '80s success in '88, and, fueled by good pitching and a few offensive stalwarts, the '88 team would continue the franchise's winning tradition.

Royals Stadium was again hard on the longball in 1988 as the pitching staff gave up an AL-low 102 HR and the hitters combined for 121 HR (12th in the AL). The pitching staff had nine pitchers go over 25 IP with a sub-4 ERA en route to a 3.65 team ERA mark that was good for third in the AL. The staff was also top-five in the AL in complete games (29 for fifth), shutouts (12 for third), runs allowed (648 for third) and walks allowed (465 for fourth) and was middle-of-the-pack in hits allowed (seventh) and Ks (eighth). Meanwhile the hitters weren't quite as proficient in most positive stats -- the highest finishes were in doubles (275 for third), triples (40 for second) and steals (137 for third). Other than that, the team's .259 BA was eighth, the .320 OBP and .391 SLG were seventh, the 704 runs scored were seventh, th
e 486 walks were ninth and the whopping 944 Ks (thanks again, Bo and Danny) were second only to the Rangers' total of over 1,000 Ks.

Coming off the decent but frustrating season that was '87 (as detailed in 3/22's #16 post), GM John Schuerholz started off the off-season with a bang -- jettisoning SP Danny Jackson and no-hit SS Angel Salazar to Cincinnati for P Ted Power and better-bat, worse-glove SS Kurt Stillwell in November '87. KC could have used Jackson's career year in '88, but even with him in the #3 starting slot, I doubt they would have caught Oakland. A package of four players, including pitchers Melido Perez and Greg Hibbard, went to Chicago in December for SP Floyd Bannister and another player. OF Lonnie "Skates" Smith left via free agency for Atlanta, where he would enjoy a resurgence as part of the "worst to first" Braves. In February '88, another trade with the Reds brought in RP Jeff Montgomery, who racked up the first of 304 career saves in 1988 as the small start to his closing job with the Royals. Schuerholz made a questionable move in May to bring in FA 1B Bill Buckner, who had gone from the '86 "hobbled" version to the '88 "nearly decrepit" version but could still field balls hit right at him. He also couldn't run and the potency was gone from his bat at the plate. Hefty 1B Steve Balboni was the victim of the move as KC released him after 20 Ks in 63 AB but a solid place in the hearts of Royals fans who liked bald, overweight slugging first basemen that looked like slo-pitch softball players and played on the franchise's lone world champion team. The 1988 draft wasn't exactly a highlight moment for Schuerholz as the most productive player the Royals got, other than Bob "The Hammer" Hamelin (one year '94 ROY flameout) in round 2, was RP Mike Magnante in round 11. '88 was the year the Royals and every other team passed on Mike Piazza at least 61 times before Tommy Lasorda took him as a favor in round 62. Other notable Royal misses were OF Marquis Grissom in round 3 (one pick after KC picked once upon a time hot prospect P Joel Johnston), Luis Gonzalez, 1B Eric Karros, OF Jim Edmonds, P Tim Wakefield (then a 1B) and OF Kenny Lofton. Another key move came two days after the draft when Schuerholz flipped P Bud Black to the Indians for OF Pat Tabler (he of the .489 lifetime BA with the bases loaded), who had a productive '88 and not as productive '89 for KC. Black gave Cleveland and San Francisco a couple nice seasons each after the trade. The Fourth of July was a tough day for Royals fans as Schuerholz let RP Dan Quisenberry go after a great relief career -- Quiz had a 3.55 ERA in 25 IP at the time and probably deserved better.

The Royals offense was the Brett and Tartabull show with the Seitzer and Bo side acts in '88. George Brett settled in at first and hit .306 with an .898 OPS for a 149 OPS+ that ranks in the franchise's top 10 a
ll time. Brett also smacked 42 doubles, 24 HR, drove home 103 runs, scored 90 times and was walked 82 times with only 15 Ks -- and then threw in 14 SBs at age 35 for the most he'd had in that stat since '81. Danny Tartabull was in the same realm in most categories by hitting .274 with an .884 OPS (145 OPS+), 38 doubles, 26 HR, 102 RBI and 80 RS but also K'd 119 times and made 9 errors in RF for the worst OF mark on the team. Kevin Seitzer left something to be desired at third (26 errors) but made it up at the plate by hitting .304 with a .794 OPS, 32 doubles, 90 RS, 10 SB and 60 RBI; Bo Jackson again proved his athleticism but poor batting eye by hitting .246 with a .759 OPS (only a .287 OBP), 16 doubles, 25 HR, 25 BB, 146 K, 27 SB, 7 errors in mostly LF and 11 outfield assists. He was an adventure in the field but had the equal chance to do something ticket holders had never seen before with the plays he could make -- a once-in-a-generation kind of guy. Stillwell showed some production and solid D in his first season in KC as he hit .251 with a .721 OPS, 28 doubles, 10 HR, but only 53 RBI. There was a paucity of RBI ability on the team that proved fatal as, after Brett and Tartabull's totals, the next best RBI producer was Bo at 68. Among other regulars, the C position was split adequately between Jamie Quirk and rookie Mike Macfarlane, who hit for OPS of .741 and .725, respectively, and combined for 22 doubles and 51 RBI. The not-so-great among regulars came from 2B Frank White (.266 OBP, .596 OPS but 25 doubles, usual great D at 2B), OF Willie Wilson (.289 OBP, .622 OPS, co-league leader with 11 triples, 106 Ks, 35 SB, still good D) and DH/1B Buckner (.290 OBP, .641 OPS, 17 XBH in 89 games). The bench was led by Macfarlane and Tabler, who hit for a .309 BA and .747 OPS, 17 doubles and 49 RBI in 89 games after the Black trade. The pickings were slim thereafter as Bill Pecota and 11 other guys failed to produce an OPS+ number higher than 82.

Pitching was a tale of Gubicza, Leibrandt, a "down" year from Sabes (read -- still better than most guys) and closer by committee employed by manager John Wathan in his first full year as manager. Gubes put up a top-10 all-time Royals season with a 2.70 ERA (149 ERA+, both marks
sixth all-time for KC), 20-8 record (one of only eight 20-win Royals seasons), 8 CG, 4 shutouts and 183 Ks in 35 starts and 269 IP. Leibrandt provided another low-key, rock solid season by going 13-12 with a 3.19 ERA and 7 CG in 35 starts and 243 IP and Sabes was 14-16 with a 3.80 ERA, 9 CG and 171 Ks in 35 starts and 260 IP. The dropoff went from there to Bannister's 12-13 record, 4.33 ERA and 22 HRA in 31 starts and 189 IP and Power's 5-6 record and 5.94 ERA in 22 games (12 starts) and 80 IP. The KSU product would also be gone in a mid-season deal with Detroit and Luis Aquino stepped in and pitched nicely in 7 games (5 starts) for a 1-0 record and 2.79 ERA in 29 IP. The bullpen was solid but not spectacular overall with a cadre of five guys with ERA+ numbers over 110. Steve Farr got a shot as closer and went 5-4 with 20 saves and 72 Ks in 62 games and 82 IP; Monty was 7-2 with a 3.45 ERA and a save in 45 games and 62 IP (but led the team oddly with 6 balks); Quiz as listed earlier was decent in 20 games prior to his release; Jerry Don Gleaton went 0-4 with 3 saves and a 3.55 ERA in 42 games and 38 IP; and 40-year-old Gene Garber wrapped up his long career (and twisty delivery) by going 0-4 with 6 saves and a 3.58 ERA in 26 games and 32 IP. The other two main pitchers were rookie Israel Sanchez, who went 3-2 with a 4.54 ERA in 35 IP and Black, who had a 4.91 ERA in 17 games prior to his trade to Cleveland. Rookie Tom Gordon made an ignominious debut in Royal blue by posting a 5.17 ERA but 18 Ks in 5 games and 15 IP.

Wathan's team enjoyed home cooking in '88 by posting a 44-36 home record compared to a 40-41 road record. Three early 3- and 4-game losing streaks left the Royals 3 1/2 games back in second behind Oakland at the end of April but two 6-game losing streaks in May dropped KC 12 games out. A 7-game win streak in early June closed the gap to 8 1/2 games and a 6-game surge that made it 13 of 14 games (including taking 6 of 6 from Oakland) with a W for the Royals cut the A's lead to 4 1/2 games. The Royals entered July back at 8 games out thanks to an Oakland burst and a 6-game skid in that month dropped the deficit back to double digits at 11. A 4-game streak in late August helped the Royals hold the line on the deficit but the Athletics wouldn't falter. A 2-5 stretch versus Oakland in September pretty much did in the Royals' chances and the Royals ended up 19 1/2 games out and 6 1/2 games back of the defending champion Twins for second. Wathan guided the Royals to a mark three games worse than expected via pythagorean W-L and the stadium saw 2.35 million fans enter the turnstiles (fifth in the AL) for the fourth straight year
of plus 2-million attendance. The good times would culminate in '89 with a 92-win team but the success was due more to offensive performances and the pitching of Saberhagen than any further team building. Schuerholz's biggest moves after '88 would be to bring back a 39-year-old Buckner and sign 41-year-old C Bob Boone. The price of the '88 draft and holding pat entering '89 would begin to take a toll in 1990 as aging stars and Schuerholz's exit to Atlanta had bad times on the horizon in the City of Fountains.

1988 Pipeline Royals MVP -- George Brett. Gubicza was just the best of several good Royals pitchers, and due credit goes to him for a career year. Without Brett's production and leadership, however, the Royals wouldn't have been close to winners.

1988 Pipeline Royals LVP -- I think I gotta give this one to GM John Schuerholz, with his drafting in '88 and the absence of any out-and-out great moves. Willie Wilson didn't provide much other than triples and good defense for $1.38 million but Schuerholz hurt the team, in my opinion, in '88.

Here's the '88 Royals.

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