All the talk since the All Star break has been how the Kansas City Royals may actually be ready to hit the free agent market for some starting pitching.
Well, July 21st marks the 20th anniversary of just how wrong things can go when you go shopping.
For those of us who pine for the good old days of Royals baseball, we recall how the era came crashing down at the feet of one man – reliever Mark Davis.
Coming off a 92-win season, the Royals were ready to load up for another run at the pennant. And who would expect less, with a lineup of George Brett, Willie Wilson, Frank White, Bo Jackson, Danny Tartabull, Kevin Seitzer and youngsters Mike McFarlane and Brian McRae.
The rotation was equally stacked with Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza being joined by 22-year-olds Kevin Appier and Tom Gordon.
But the team had no established closer, and prior to the 1990 season, the best one in baseball became available.
With San Diego in 1989, Davis saved 44 games, made his second straight All Star appearance, and became just the seventh reliever to win the Cy Young award.
With a price tag of $3.25 million per year – at the time the highest contract ever award – Davis was just what the Royals needed to slam the door on all those games pitched by their young starters.
But what ensued was a free agency nightmare, the end of the Royals golden era, and a cautionary tale to any team going shopping in the off season.
Maybe it was the pressure of the big contract. Maybe it was the move to the American League. Maybe it was the Kansas City barbeque.
Something didn’t agree with Davis and he was taken out of the closer role before the season was over. He was still striking out guys, but he was walking them too, at an alarming rate of 6.8 per 9 innings. His WHIP ballooned to 1.791. And his miniscule 1.85 ERA from the year before suddenly shot to 5.11.
The Royals even tried shifting Davis to the starting rotation, trying to find anything that clicked. But when the curtain fell on a season that started with such great promise, the Royals record stood at 75-86, sixth in the Western Division.
Jeff Montgomery settled into the closer’s role for 1991, and Davis tried to right himself in middle relief and spot starts. KC’s record improved to 82-80, but tremendous turnover had taken place. This was no longer the Royals of Brett, Wilson and White.
Bad as things had been, the bottom fell out in 1992.
With a clownish 7.18 ERA and an unheard of strikeout to walk ratio of .068, the Royals finally had no choice but to dump Davis for whatever they could get. The ax finally fell on July 21, 1992, when the Royals traded Davis for Juan Berenguer.
Berenguer was hardly an improvement, and he was granted free agency following the season.
So for their $14 million investment, the Royals got 7 saves and a 10-17 record between Davis and Berenguer combined. The team finished 72-90.
There probably isn’t some sort of Mark Davis curse at play here, but there’s no question that the Royals have had little to no luck in free agency ever since. The team has just two winning seasons in the 20 years since the Davis experiment was mercifully cut short.
Strangely, that wasn’t the end of the story however.
From 2006 to 2010, Davis served as the pitching coach of the Arizona League Royals. Following the 2010 season, he was promoted by the Royals to Minor League Pitching Coordinator. For 2012, he returned to his former role in Arizona.
Is having someone who flamed out so famously instructing young pitchers really a good thing? Hard to say. Not much is going right for Royals’ pitching prospects at any level. Which is precisely why the Royals will be shoppers this off season.
But with the topic in KC turning to free agency, it’s worth looking back at the Mark Davis signing with a wary eye. The Royals need to sign some pitching, no doubt. But doing so isn’t always the fix you hope for.
Sometimes it turns into a franchise killer.