07 March 2007

Royal legacy #22 -- the 1974 Royals (77-85)

1974 was another season of high hopes ending in disappointment after the team gave eventual world champion Oakland all it could handle in 1973 only to fall six games short. 43-year-old manager Jack McKeon was entering the second season of his first MLB managerial stint in '74 and young 3B George Brett would play his first full season in the majors and finish third in the RoY voting. Other pieces of the puzzle that made the late '70s Royals great like OF Amos Otis, 1B John Mayberry and DH Hal McRae were already in place but things didn't go right from opening day as the team stumbled to an 8-11 April record, original GM Cedric Tallis was fired in June in a controversial move by owner Ewing Kaufmann, and despite righting the ship somewhat in the mid-season, a late swoon would drop KC out of contention. Within a season, McKeon would join Tallis outside the organization and land in Oakland while Tallis took over the Yankees in 1980. The numbers were there team-wise for KC, for the most part, but inconsistency would doom the team's pennant chances. KC hit .259 as a team in '74 for sixth in the AL while posting an OBP of .326 for fifth and a subpar .364 slugging average for 11th. Once again the team had doubles power and triples speed but no longball pop as the team was second in the league in two- and three-baggers but last in homers with 89 as a team (four members of the A's combined for more than the Royals team). The team was second in steals in the AL and third in walks but scored only 667 runs for 7th in the AL. Pitching was the same way as the team posted a 3.51 ERA for fourth in the AL and allowed only 91 HR (second to Oakland) with 13 shutouts (third) but gave up a league-high 1,477 hits while finishing in the bottom half of the league in Ks, runs allowed and saves.

Tallis made some moves to try and carry the momentum of an 88-win '73 into '74 but few worked out too well. 1B/DH Tony Solaita came in via the Rule V draft and gave KC two good seasons; original Royal Ed Kirkpatrick joined Kurt Bevacqua in a trade to Pittsburgh for P Nelson Briles, who didn't dazzle much in two seasons; Lou Piniella was sent to New York after a disappointing 1973 and revived his care
er in exchange for two seasons of aging reliever Lindy McDaniel; and a February trade brought in a past-his-prime OF Vada Pinson, who also didn't step up. Tallis' final draft in June didn't pan out in much other than first-rounder OF Willie Wilson. P Sammy Stewart was picked up in round 28 but didn't sign and would end up with a world champion in Baltimore, and the team missed out on pitchers Ed Whitson and Jim Clancy in the early rounds. Tallis got his walking papers in mid-June and the GM reins were handed to Joe Burke, who within a month had traded to return Bevacqua to KC and sold closer Gene Garber to the Phillies. Burke tried to pull 1B Orlando Cepeda off the scrap heap for an August shot of power but that move didn't work as Cepeda slugged only .290. After the season, Burke would bring in washed-up Harmon Killebrew and sell Bevacqua to Milwaukee as none of his moves would bring any guys in for the AL West run in '75.

The '74 Royals lineup was sprinkled with talent and mediocrity as McRae led the way in his first season as a primary DH. He finished third in the AL with a .310 BA while getting on base at a .375 clip and slugging .475 for an .850 OPS. He took another piece of the team triple crown with 88 RBI and slugged 36 dou
bles along with 15 HR while throwing in 11 stolen bases. AO hit .284 with a .348 OBP and .438 SLG for a .786 OPS while hitting 12 HR and driving home 73 runs with 31 doubles and 9 triples. Otis chipped in 18 steals. Mayberry also stepped up with power if not consistent hitting as he batted only .234 but got on-base at a .358 percentage and slugged .424 for a .782 OPS. He led the team in homers with 22 and drove home 69 runs while drawing 77 walks and striking out 72 times. Fran Healy was OK as starting C with a .252 BA and .718 OPS with 24 doubles and 16 steals but played not-so-good D with 21 passed balls and 16 errors. George Brett had a nice but still in development first complete season by hitting .282 with a .675 OPS along with 21 doubles but only 2 HR. He also made 21 errors at third. Solaita came off the bench for a .767 OPS in 96 games but was a lone good bat off the pine for McKeon. SS Freddie Patek slugged under .300 with a .622 OPS and made 25 errors at short; 2B Cookie Rojas played somewhat more solid defense up the middle but posted only a .648 OPS; and OF Jim Wohlford was mediocre with decent D in the corner OF spots and a .670 OPS. Rookie OF Al Cowens also struggled in his rookie season to a .589 OPS, as did second-year 2B Frank White, who posted a .533 OPS in 99 games.

Steve Busby was the pitcher to watch for KC in '74 as he followed up his '73 no-hitter vs. Detroit with a '74 no-no versus Milwaukee in June. He went 22-14 in '74 with a 3.39 ERA and 198 Ks in 292 IP but the heavy workload (20 complete games! Guess McKeon never thought much of pitch count) combined with 260 IP in 1975 at only 25 would kill his career. He didn't pitch 100 innings in a season after '75 and was out of the league by '81. 1974 was the start of Busby's two-year pinnacle and he was joined in the rotation by Al Fitzmorris (2.79 ERA, 13-6 record, 9 CG in his first season over 20 starts), Bruce Dal Canton (3.13 ERA, 8-10 record, 9 CG in 22 starts), and Paul Splittorff (4.10 ERA, 13-19 record, 8 CG in 36 starts coming off his only 20-win season). Briles came in and made 17 starts for a 5-7 record and 4.02 ERA after his addition and Marty Pattin, who came in from Boston pre-season in a trade involving Dick Drago, also made 11 starts with a 3.99 ERA and 3-7 record. The bullpen was rock solid with Doug Bird taking over what could be called the closer role from Garber and posting a 2.73 ERA, 7-6 record and 10 saves in 55 appearances. RP Steve Mingori nearly matched that with a 2.81 ERA and 2 saves in 67 IP while McDaniel posted a nice 3.46 ERA in 106 IP and Joe Hoerner had a 3.82 ERA in 30 games. Garber had a down season prior to his sale to the Phils with a 4.82 ERA in 28 IP but would bounce back in Philly. Also notable was the debut of P Dennis Leonard, who went 0-4 in 4 starts with a 5.32 ERA in 22 IP. He would take over Busby's role as rubber arm starter for Whitey Herzog in the future.

As mentioned earlier, the season didn't get off to a great start in April and the team would end up neither a winner at home or away with a 1-game under .500 record in the stadium and 7 games under .500 road mark. The Royals ended April in last place but bounced back in May with one of two 5-game win streaks to get within a game and a half of first by June 1. The momentum didn't last as the team went 2 games below .500 in June and July combined to drop back to 8 1/2 games out. The team recovered in August to go 18-10 through August 27 to take solid hold of second place, 4 1/2 games back of the A's. Then the season took a sudden downturn as an 8-game skid ensued to drop the Royals to 10 1/2 out by Sept. 6. KC went 8-22 in September and October to finish in a franchise-low to that point fifth place in the division. McKeon watched over a team that was 23-30 in 1-run games and finished 5 games worse than expected via pythagorean W-L. Despite shutting opponents out 13 times, the Royals themselves were shut out 11 times. A year later, the fun would begin for Royals fans as the emergence of Brett combined with the play of Mayberry, McRae and a great starting rotation along with some guidance from replacement manager Whitey Herzog would start a great run for the franchise.

1974 Pipeline Royals MVP -- Steve Busby. Perhaps the first Royals pitching great. Gave his right arm for the organization.

1974 Pipeline Royals LVP -- Another toughie. I guess I'll go with Jack McKeon, who helped lead to the short career of Busby but couldn't have done a whole lot more with what he had in his much younger pre-somewhat-loveable-curmudgeon days.

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