Posted on 30 December 2010.
If newly acquired Alcides Escobar becomes the greatest shortstop in Royals history, it will be a major coup for Dayton Moore, who recently dealt Zack Greinke to get Escobar and other prospects. However, it won’t be like the bar was set that high to begin with.
The Royals have swung and missed on a series of shortstops during this long rebuilding phase. But a look back at the entire team’s history reveals that the shortstop position has never been a strength for the team, particularly on the offensive side.
Now that may sound sacrilegious to those old enough to remember Freddie Patek, and I certainly don’t want to dishonor those memories. Patek played in a day when light-hitting shortstops were commonplace and solid defense was the only job requirement. How else can you explain Luis Aparicio finishing second in the MVP Award in 1959 while hitting .257? How else could Mark Belanger keep his job as the Orioles shortstop for nearly 15 years while only hitting .228?
How else could Patek be voted an All-Star in 1972 while hitting a measly .212 while Yuniesky Betancourt was reviled as the “worst player in baseball” for hitting .259 and leading the team with 16 homers last season?
Patek fit the old shortstop mold perfectly, giving the team great leadership and personality while doing the things at the plate that don’t make the highlight reel – bunting, moving runners, drawing walks, etc. He never won a Gold Glove, but the grit and stability he provided in the middle of the infield in their glory days of 1975 to 1979 have made him a KC legend.
After Patek was dealt away, the Royals moved on with probably the second-best shortstop in team history – UL Washington. Washington played well enough behind Patek from 1977 to 1979 that the Royals handed him the position just before the magical AL championship season of 1980. While overshadowed by the unforgettable exploits of George Brett, Washington played a huge role in the playoff run, often providing a spark at the bottom of the batting order. Washington batted .273 with 6 homers and 53 RBIs.
Teaming with Frank White could make any shortstop look good, but a list compiled by The Bleacher Roprt of great up-the-middle combos is at least interesting. While Patek is renowned for defense, Washington actually ranked higher on the Bleacher Report list, coming in at #38 to Patek’s #39.
To see the whole list of the top 50 middle infield duos, go to: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/544779-mlb-ground-ball-up-the-middle-the-top-50-ss-2b-combos-since-1960.
Washington’s best season came in 1982. He batted .286, with 10 homers and 60RBI’s in just 119 games. Unfortunately, Washingtong couldn’t prolong that kind of output and was fazed out in the 1984 season in favor of Onix Concepcion and Buddy Biancalana.
Incredibly, in the World Series season of 1985, the Royals got absolutely no offensive production from the shortstop position. Concepcion and Biancalana accounted for just 3 home runs and 26 RBIs in 509 combined at-bats. Biancalana “hit” .188, while Concepcion batted a whopping .204.
Bianacalana started all the playoff games of 1985 and played error-free defense throughout, but he was such a terrible hitter David Letterman actually installed a nightly segment of his show in which he counted down the number of hits Biancalana needed to reach Pete Rose on the all-time hit list. (For the record, Biancalana came up 4,143 hits short of Rose.)
In 1986 and 19987, the Royals installed possibly the best fielding shortstop they’ve ever had – Angel Salazar. He fielded .978 and .981 in his two seasons in KC, good enough to be ranked with White at #24 on the Bleacher Report list of middle infield tandems. But Salazar didn’t hit much better than his predecessors, and the way the position was viewed began to change.
The expectation that shortstops had to be small, wiry fielders who couldn’t hit was already being challenged by the likes of Robin Yount and Garry Templeton. But in the 1980s along came Cal Ripken, Jr., and suddenly a big, tall hard-hitting athlete showed a new way to play the position.
Trying to find more pop from the shortstop, Kurt Stillwell was imported for the price of Danny Jackson and Salazar. Stillwell had four mildly productive seasons at the plate, hitting .251, .261, .249 and .265 from 1988 to 1991. He was even an all-star in 1988 when he added 10 homers and 53 RBIs. But as would become the norm for good players during the era, Stillwell departed KC via free agency before the 1992 season.
After a dismal season of David Howard and Rico Rossy at short, The Royals entered the free agent market themselves to sign Greg Gagne, making him their second-highest-paid position player. Gagne had never been especially productive in eight years with the Twins, but he actually produced relatively well for the Royals between 1993 and 1995. His best season in KC was his first, when he hit .280 with 10 homers and 57 RBIs.
After another season with Howard as the primary shortstop, the Royals went after their own version of Ripken, bringing in Jay Bell for one season in a blockbuster trade. Bell gave the Royals their best offensive season ever for a shortstop. He batted .291 with 21 homers and 92 RBIs – numbers from a shortstop that are otherwise unheard of in KC – and posted a WAR of 5.3. Like Stillwell, Bell went the route of the free agent following the season.
Rey Sanchez was the next shortstop of significance, holding the spot from 1999 to 2001 and batting for decent average with no power.
It was in 2001, however, that the Royals fell for the Neifi Perez mirage. They dealt Sanchez for next to nothing, then traded Jermaine Dye for Perez even up. Perez had won a gold glove and hit well for Colorado, but he proved to be a complete disaster in KC. For 4 million dollars he accounted for a -1.9 WAR in 2002. (That’s right – that’s a negative 1.9!) He was released following the season.
A rookie, Angel Berroa, provided one of the best offensive seasons any Royal shortstop has ever had in 2003. Berroa won the Rookie of the Year award by hitting .287 with 17 homers and 73 RBIs and posted a 4.0 WAR that year. But unfortunately Berroa couldn’t duplicate that performance, which proved to be a huge setback to the Royals. They had to look elsewhere once again for a shortstop in 2007.
A trend was definitely developing – shortstops would come in for one good season only to disappoint thereafter, and Tony Pena, Jr. kept to the script. He batted .267 in 2007 and appeared to be solid defensively. But like Perez and Berroa before him, that proved be fool’s gold.
Mike Aviles had his one season in the sun in 2008, only this time the numbers were off the charts. In barely half a season, Aviles slugged .325 with 10 homers and 51 RBIs. But Aviles didn’t look like a true shortstop and was plagued by injuries – causing the Royals to view him as a second/third-baseman or utility player. There are still some high hopes for Aviles in KC.
And that brings us to Betancourt – reviled for poor fundamentals, poor effort and erratic offense. Betancourt was expensive and posted low WAR numbers, but was he really as bad as he was made out to be? He did lead the team with 16 homers last season, when the team had almost no spark offensively. His horrible on base percentages and poor fielding finally wore out his welcome in KC.
Looking back, the best shortstop in KC history is still probably Patek, followed by Washington, Stillwell, and Gagne, for longevity if nothing else.
Thus we enter the Escobar era. Can he finally bring some stability to the shortstop position that’s been lacking for more than 20 years? He’s under the Royals’ control through 2015. No player since UL Washington has manned the shortstop position in KC for five seasons. So if Escobar is in the lineup for five years he’ll already have exceeded his predecessors in that respect.
To be a success, Escobar must first play excellent defense – something the Royals had in Patek, Washington and Salazar. Leadership and maturity would be nice – intangibles go a long way when it comes to the team’s success.
And offensively? KC has never been the place for great offensive production from the position. The best offensive seasons from KC shortstops are probably:
1) Bell in 1997
2) Aviles in an abbreviated 2008
3) Berroa in 2003
4) Washington in an abbreviated 1982
5) Gagne in 1993
With the proper expectations, Escobar has a great chance of being one of the best in team history. If Escobar could hit .250 with 10 homers and 30-plus stolen bases in a season, he’d fall right in with the best offensive shortstops the Royals have ever had. If he plays excellent defense, it would be first time in a decade the team had that at short.
If he performs any better than that, he could go down as the greatest shortstop in Royals history. Of course then he’d also have to be traded or lost in free agency, right?