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AROUND THE HORN / ROSS NEWHAN

Royals' Promising Season Turned Out to Be a Mirage

August 15, 2004|ROSS NEWHAN

They were the surprise team last season, chasing a division title into mid-September before finishing third in the American League Central at 83-79, seven games behind the victorious Minnesota Twins.

The promising play of the Kansas City Royals under manager of the year Tony Pena even prompted some pundits -- better left unidentified -- to pick them to unseat the Twins as division champs this year.

Now, 2003 appears to have been a mirage.

The Royals are headed for more than 100 losses, their roster is a revolving door ushering in (and out) 43 players, they frequently have five rookies in their lineup and a sixth on the mound, and they more often resemble, in performance and personnel, the Omaha Royals, their triple-A team.

The Cleveland Indians have supplanted the Royals as the surprise team in the Central, and if the June trade of Carlos Beltran to the Houston Astros wasn't an early indication that Kansas City was waving a white flag, the demotion Tuesday of shortstop Angel Berroa characterized the collapse.

Berroa was the AL rookie of the year in 2003, but now he is a Wichita lineman, demoted clear to double A, where he is a teammate of the equally dishonored Mike MacDougal, who was Kansas City's All-Star closer last year.

After batting .287 with 17 homers and 73 runs batted in as the AL's top rookie, Berroa was batting .249 with five homers and 30 RBIs. However, it was his defense that most alarmed the Royals. He had made 22 errors in 96 games after making only 24 in 158 games last year.

"We just want Angel to go down and regroup," Pena said. "He has not played defensively the way he can. We needed to get him out of the spotlight so that he can relax and refresh his mind."

Veteran Mike Sweeney disagreed with the move.

"We need a solution to our problems, and sending Angel to double A is not the solution," Sweeney said. "He's a cure."

Of course, he admitted, the Royals may be beyond cure.

"We're playing brutal baseball in all aspects of the game," Sweeney said. "We've hit rock bottom."

*

How much more evidence does Ken Griffey Jr., or anyone else, need before concluding that his next assignment should be as a designated hitter in the American League?

Undoubtedly, Griffey still has too much pride to admit that he should reduce the injury risk by giving up center field and focusing on the batter's box. Soon to turn 35, he might have another eight to 10 years of productive hitting.

Since going home to Cincinnati, however, he hasn't been able to avoid an annual breakdown -- hamstring, shoulder, ankle, hamstring again, and again.

The latest tear has put him out for the season -- again. The Reds, when the season ends, will have played 810 games since acquiring Griffey, who will have appeared in only 462.

In this case, the right hamstring has to be reattached to the bone surgically -- a major loss again for the Reds, who were still on the fringe of the wild-card race and were 43-34 in games Griffey started and 16-2 in games in which he homered. He had 20 homers and 60 RBIs in 300 at-bats.

*

The Angels remain in the heart of the division and wild-card battles, but giving up 56 hits to the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers in a four-game stretch through Friday is no way to reach October. It's mid-August and there is still no predicting what the Angel rotation will deliver, game to game, and there is still no convincing me -- management's cavalier attitude on the subject aside -- that the bullpen wouldn't benefit from a left-handed specialist.

*

Should the Hall of Fame start preparing a plaque for Edgar Martinez, who announced Monday that he would retire at the end of this dreadful Seattle Mariner season?

Tough call.

As a one-way player who spent nearly his entire major league career as a designated hitter, Martinez's totals for hits, homers and RBIs will fall short of Cooperstown.

However, no player has ever better defined a role that apparently is part of the game to stay, and the total package beyond those three categories is impressive.

Martinez, a two-time batting champion and seven-time All-Star, batted .320 or higher seven times and led the league with 145 RBIs in 2000. He will finish his career as only the sixth player to record at least 300 homers, 500 doubles, 1,000 walks, a .300 batting average and .400 on-base percentage. The five others who did it are all in the Hall of Fame: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial and Rogers Hornsby.

At this point, I'm inclined to support his candidacy.

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