1995-2003 was a dark ages of sorts for the Kansas City Royals. The Royals had an average winning percentage of .473 during the eight-year span, and lost 90-plus games four times, including a 100-loss campaign in 2002 which was a franchise high at the time (that would be surpassed in 2006, as the Royals lost 106 games which still stands as a Royals season record). The only bright spot was the 83-79 campaign in 2003, but even that was short-lived, as it would be another 10 years before the Royals would have another winning season (2013).
With the exception of that rare “Easter” season, there wasn’t much to celebrate in Kansas City during that span, especially considering Kansas City fans were used to the Royals being a powerhouse in the 1980’s and the late 1970’s. However, with George Brett retired, in addition to frugal ownership, and some lackluster player development, the Royals ended up being one of the bottom feeders of not just the American League Central, but the American League in general.
That being said, I like to think of myself as an “optimistic” Royals fan. Even during the challenges of the past two years (back to back 100-plus loss seasons), I still remain hopeful about the Royals chances in 2020, and enjoyed many aspects and players during the past two seasons. I relished Jorge Soler’s home run chase of 2019. I enjoyed seeing Whit Merrifield become one of the league’s most underrated players. I liked seeing Alex Gordon turn it around somewhat, with the hope that he would end his career not just as a Royal, but in a positive fashion both in the field and at the plate. And I am excited about the future of Adalberto Mondesi, hoping that he can have a similar impact in Kansas City like Javier Baez has had in Chicago.
So what about 1995-2002? What were the highlights or players worth remembering from that “rough period” in Royals history? Well, I pinpointed six position players during that time span, and identified the three-year stretches which stood out in comparison to other players who donned the Royals blue and white during that time period. I only focused on six with the following caveats:
- I was looking solely for their best consecutive three-year stretches. Some Royals players played more than that, including those on this list. However, I only evaluated them by their three year stretches, even if all three years were not similar.
- I did not include Mike Sweeney or Carlos Beltran. Both players are undoubtedly the best players during this stretch, and WAR backs that up. However, I wanted to focus on players’ whose three-year stretches are either overshadowed or not remembered as fondly by Royals or baseball fans in general.
So let’s take a look at six Royals players who had some of their best three-year stretches offensively in Kansas City in between 1995-2003. Also as a disclaimer, all the WAR and other data I used from Baseball-Reference (not Fangraphs), and can be found in the Google Sheet here, as well as below:
6. Tom Goodwin, OF (1995-1997; 3 yr WAR: 3.6)
I understand Goodwin may not be the sixth-best Royals player during this span. One could argue that shortstop Rey Sanchez or first baseman Jeff King would be more deserving. However, Goodwin was a microcosm of the “Royals Way” as he was a speed demon on the basepaths even though many other aspects of his game were flawed. And yet despite those inadequacies in Kansas City, Goodwin probably proved to be one of the more enjoyable Royals to watch and follow from 1995 until he was traded to Texas in the middle of the 1997 season.
Goodwin was pretty much a one-tool guy as he stole 166 bases over the three-year span. That being said, he had a sub.-700 OPS, a 74 OPS+, and even his defensive ratings at the time was average at best. But when Goodwin got on base, things happened. Goodwin got Royals fans to pay attention from their hot dogs and beers at Kauffman on a hot and humid July and August day, as he could run with the best of them in the league. And what was even more amazing about Goodwin? He actually led the league twice in sacrifice bunts in 1995 and 1996 as a Royal.
Yes, Goodwin truly was the epitome of the Royals’ “imperfect understanding” of baseball at this time. And he should be remembered for his contribution to that mixed Royals legacy in a positive way.
5. Raul Ibanez, OF/DH (2001-2003; 3 yr WAR: 5.0)
Ibanez is one of the more polarizing and interesting players in Royals recent history, especially between the 1995-2003 time period. He was often overshadowed by Sweeney and Beltran in Kansas City, but there’s no question that offensively, he was one of the biggest producers at the plate for the Royals, especially during their 2003 season. Ibanez’s story is a classic “Kansas City Underdog” success story: he was a pretty hyped up prospect in the Seattle Mariners system, but he never could get playing time with a loaded outfield in Seattle at the time that consisted of Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner. Thus, he ended up declaring free agency after the 2000 season, and Ibanez took advantage of playing everyday in Kansas City. During his 3-yr stretch with the Royals, he posted a 5 WAR and OPS + of 112, which was tied for second of players on this list. Furthermore, Ibanez earned rave reviews for his leadership in the KC clubhouse, as well as his ability to prove his naysayers in Seattle wrong.
However, though Ibanez offensively was a major producer as a Royal, he struggled to find a spot defensively in the outfield due to his fielding struggles. And with Sweeney the primary designated hitter, Ibanez’s defensive inadequacies prevented him from not just finding a fitting spot, but also being a more beloved player in Kansas City. According to Fangraphs’ Def, Ibanez was the third-worst player defensively from 1995-2002 of qualified players, with only Michael Tucker and Mike Sweeney being worse. Ibanez certainly has his share of fans in Kansas City who loved his bat, but he went back to Seattle when he was free agent after the 2003 season ended without much fuss because he was such a sunk value in the field. It’s interesting to see what Ibanez’s legacy would have been had he just been average in the field. If that was the case, it’s possible he could have had a longer or more substantial tenure as a Royal.
4. Joe Randa, 3B (1999-2001; 3 yr WAR: 6.5)
The “Joker” Joe Randa had unfortunate timing as a Royal. He basically was sandwiched between the George Brett era and the Mike Moustakas era, and considering the Royals didn’t have much team success when Randa was a Royal, it’s not surprising that Randa’s legacy gets underappreciated by many Royals fans today. Randa famously replaced third-baseman Dean Palmer, who ended up replacing Randa in Detroit (it was one of those weird, looks-like-a-trade transactions, but actually was just a coincidental two way free agent signing). The move did outrage some Royals fans at the time considering Palmer was an All-Star and hit 34 home runs in his last season in Kansas City in 1998. In the eyes of many in Kansas City, it was another sign of owner David Glass being cheap and not willing to keep their best players in KC.
However, the Royals’ decision to let Palmer walk and replace him with the former Tigers third-baseman ended up being the right decision in the end. Randa ended up playing 1,019 games as a Royal while Palmer ended up only playing 382 games in Detroit before prematurely retiring due to injuries. Thus, the Royals made out well in that trade, even if it wasn’t the most popular deal in Kansas City at the time.
Randa’s best 3-yr stretch was tough to identify in KC as he had two great two-year stretches: 99-00 and 02-03. However, he never had a great “three-year” stretch, which is why he ranks 5th on this list. That being said, the best stretch Randa did have came from 99-01, as he posted a 6.5 WAR and an OPS+ of 95 during those three seasons with the Royals. Of the ones on the list, Randa actually finished second in RBI, and was one of the more solid defensive players, as he had the fourth-highest Def of qualified Royals players from 1995-2003, according to Fangraphs.
3. Jose Offerman, 1B/2B (1996-1998; 3 yr WAR: 9.7)
Much like Ibanez, Offerman was legendary for his “subpar” glove. I remembered seeing a Sports Illustrated baseball preview in 1998 and they rated every starting players’ defense with a “gold, bronze, or iron” glove as a symbol of how good they were defensively. Offerman was clearly an “iron” rating and SI made it seem like it wasn’t even debatable.
Despite Offerman’s shortcomings as a defensive player, offensively Offerman probably enjoyed his best seasons as a Royal, especially from 1996-1998. Offerman flipped between first and second, mostly due to his mediocre fielding (Offerman ranked 9th of qualified Royals in Def, according to Fangraphs, during that 1995-2003 span). However, offensively, Offerman was a beast, as he posted a 9.7 WAR, 108 OPS+, and also accumulated 246 runs and 78 stolen bases, third highest on this list in both categories. While he never hit for much home run power (only 14 home runs during the 3 yr span), he knew how to find the gaps in Kauffman Stadium. In 1998, Offerman led the league in triples with 13, and also hit 84 doubles over his three-year tenure with the Royals.
Offerman probably won’t be remembered as a Royal, as he most likely will be remembered for his stints in higher-profile markets like Los Angeles and Boston (which sandwiched his tenure as a Royal). However, while Offerman is no Frank White, he was one of the better producing Royals second-basemen in club history, even if his defense was lacking, to put it nicely.
2. Jermaine Dye, OF (1999-2001; 3 yr WAR: 11.9)
Dye, who came from the Sacramento area, my hometown, was one of my favorite Royals players growing up. Even though Dye had tremendous size, power and potential, he got lost in the shuffle in Atlanta, which didn’t have the patience to develop a player like Dye while competing for NL Pennants and World Series titles. The Braves traded Dye in 1997, along with Jamie Walker for second baseman Keith Lockhart and outfielder Michael Tucker. While Lockhart and Tucker certainly contributed to the Braves’ string of dominance over the AL East during the 90’s, Dye probably ended up having the better overall career of the three.
That was evident from 1999-2001 as Dye became one of the most underrated slugging outfielders in the American League. From 1999 to 2001, Dye posted an 11.9 WAR, a 122 OPS+, 86 home runs, and 343 RBI in 473 games. Yes, he did have a 61-game stint in Oakland that is included in those numbers, but most of that extraordinary production came as a Royal, and he was rewarded for that production with an appearance in the 2000 All-Star game as well as a Gold Glove at the conclusion of the 2000 season.
Dye ended up having a solid, but largely forgotten career after he left Kansas City. He led the White Sox to a World Series Championship in 2005, their first title since 1917, and he made the All-Star game and was a Silver Slugger in 2006 with the White Sox. However, after his contract expired with the White Sox in 2009, no team made the notion to sign Dye, as his aging skill set and unwillingness to budge on a smaller financial deal (he wouldn’t accept a Minor League deal, apparently), ended up causing him to call it a career sooner than expected.
It’s debatable whether Dye should be remembered as a Royal or a White Sock. The World Series MVP honors in 2005 probably will make baseball fans recall his days in Chicago faster. That being said, Dye was one of the more underrated Royals in recent history, and it’s a shame that he was dealt so quickly to Oakland for practically nothing in return in 2000. It would have been nice to see Dye play at least one or two more seasons in Kansas City, and see if he could have helped the Royals get back to the winning column sooner than 2003.
1. Johnny Damon, OF (1998-2000; 3 yr WAR: 13.2)
Many Royals fans may say that Damon should be lumped in the same category as Sweeney and Beltran and remark that he’s too good in comparison to the others on this list. However, he only has a 1.3 run difference in WAR from Dye (while Beltran and Sweeney 22 and 17 WAR range, respectively), and Damon’s Royals days are often forgotten by most baseball fans. He is remembered for his beard and Jesus-looking hair when he helped the Red Sox end the “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004. He was known for selling out the Sox and joining the Evil Empire in New York in 2006. Heck, he was known for being the subject of “rebuttal” in the movie “Moneyball”, as Jonah Hill’s character (quoting Michael Lewis from his book) said that Johnny Damon represented an “imperfect understanding of where runs come from” and that the A’s wouldn’t miss him all that much when Damon signed with Boston after the 2001 season.
But Damon and his days as a Royal? It is often just seen as a footnote in Damon’s complex 18-year career in Major League Baseball.
Which is a shame, because Damon was the perfect Royal through and through. He was born in Fort Hays, Kansas (though he did play his high school ball in Orlando, Florida). He had that combination of speed on the basepaths as well as surprising power, as he hit 48 home runs and stole 108 bases over the three-year span from 1998-2000. Yes, his arm and defense were shaky. But he generated runs (his 341 runs scored leads this list), and he produced overall, as his 112 OPS+ is tied for second behind Dye (tied with Ibanez).
It would have been nice to see Damon have one last hurrah in Kansas City, even during his twilight years in 2011 and 2012 while he was limping into his late 30’s. It would have been cool to see the Kansas-born kid finish his Major League career in Kansas City. There was something special about Damon that went beyond his numbers, and fans just gravitated toward him, including myself. While Damon’s career in Kansas City won’t be remembered by national baseball fans as much as his time in Boston or New York, he certainly had a legacy as a Royal, and Royals faithful will remember him more positively than negatively, even if his departure seemed premature, as, like Dye, he was traded to Oakland for what essentially felt like a bag of balls in 2001.
Maybe his legacy is not Royals Hall of Fame worthy (though he was on the ballot in 2019). Yet it’s something close, and his production as a Royal, especially during that 1998-2000 span, backs that assertion up.