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U.L.’s Toothpick: What If…The Royals Had Switched Leagues?

Twenty years ago this summer, the Royals had a chance to move to the National League. The addition of expansion teams in Arizona and Tampa Bay meant one league needed 16 teams, as interleague play was so new no one knew if it would have staying power, and as we see today, two 15-team leagues mean interleague games all season long.

Obviously the Royals, who were still recovering from the death of Ewing Kauffman and were being run by a committee at the time, decided not to make the move. But every year when the Royals face off against the Cardinals, I wonder what might have been. See, more games against the Cardinals (and Cubs) were one of the main arguments for the move. Personally, I’m glad the Royals stayed. Kansas City has always been an American League city, and I wouldn’t want to lose that history, even if a lot of it (the entire existence of the Kansas City A’s; the first 13 years of this century for the Royals) has been bad.

An exercise like this is fun, because there are no wrong answers. However, it can get a little ridiculous, because everything changes everything. The butterfly effect of trading Player A might mean Player B was never a Royal. But there are a few situations in the past 20 years that would have been completely different if the Royals had switched leagues.

Although I said there are no wrong answers, I suppose there is one here: the Royals would not have been transformed into a good team for the 2000s. The 2004-2006 teams were so awful they probably would have been challenged in the Pacific Coast League, let alone the National League. But on an individual level, Royals history could be quite different. Here are some ways I think Royals history would have changed.

The Overworked Lefty

Right off the bat, one player I think could have been helped by the move is Jose Rosado. He was a promising young left-handed pitcher who had his career cut short by a torn rotator cuff suffered in 2000 when he was still just 24. Rosado had thrown 106 2/3, 203 1/3, 174 2/3, and 208 innings respectively in his first four seasons, and had suffered a tired arm in the 1997 season (his second year). He would pitch in five games in that 2000 season and never appear in another regular-season game. Managers Bob Boone and Tony Muser almost criminally overworked Rosado. With National League rules, on a team that was losing more often than not, Rosado would have been pinch-hit for often. That would have limited his innings and pitches. Maybe his rotator cuff just wasn’t meant to withstand the strain of a major league career, but maybe a move could have saved him from being overworked.

The Designated Hitters

For many AL teams, the DH spot has evolved to become a way to give position players a partial day off. The Royals, though, have seemingly had a long string of more or less regular DHs. From Hal McRae to Bob Hamelin to Chili Davis and on to Mike Sweeney, Billy Butler, and Kendrys Morales, it feels like the Royals have always had that one guy who was there solely to hit.

Sweeney’s case is interesting. When he came up to the majors, he was a catcher, albeit one who was not really up to par defensively. When he first got a chance to play every day, in 1999, it was mostly as a DH until Jeff King retired in mid-May and Sweeney began playing first base more. Going into that 1999 season, not knowing King was about to retire, would the Royals have sought to trade Sweeney for some of the pitching they desperately needed? Or would they have let him play more behind the plate? One hopes for the latter, but the former would have been tempting. Then, assuming they kept Sweeney, I wonder if they would have traded him later on, in the 2004-2006 period when injuries forced him to be a DH more often. Either way, in this case, Royals history would be changed for the worse, I think.

As for Butler, you may remember the Royals briefly tried to make him an outfielder. Then they decided they could live with his defense at first base, but mostly he served as DH. I suppose on the bright side, in this scenario, the Royals never would have brought in Jose Guillen. But once Eric Hosmer was knocking on the door of the major leagues, Butler probably would have been trade bait. I’d like to think he would have brought back a nice return, possibly hastening the rebuilding process. On the other hand, what if that trade brought back a quality starting pitcher or two and the Royals never felt the need to trade for James Shields and Wade Davis?

And simply put, if there’s no DH spot, Morales is never a Royal. That would be sad. It also makes me wonder how good the 2015 team would have been, especially in the postseason. He’s not there to hit a grounder to Carlos Correa. He’s not there to put the final nail in Houston’s coffin with a three-run homer in the eighth inning of Game Five of the ALDS.

The Postseasons

OK, let’s stipulate that not much changed and the Royals still had very good teams in 2014 and 2015. In 2014, the Royals’ 89-73 record would have done just what it did in reality: entitle them to host the wild-card game against an 88-74 team from the Bay Area. Unfortunately, in this case, that team would have been the Giants. And do you know who started the wild-card game for San Francisco that year? Yep, Royal-killer Madison Bumgarner. In reality, he struck out 10 Pirates and pitched a complete-game shutout. Frankly, I expect nothing else in this alternate reality.

Oh, but it gets worse. The real 2015 Royals earned home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs by going a league-best 95-67. That wouldn’t have even won the NL Central, as the Cardinals went 100-62. In fact, that wouldn’t have even qualified them for a wild-card, as the Pirates won 98 games and the Cubs won 97. Now, if the Royals had been in that division, those teams almost certainly would have won fewer games, but the Royals probably would have too. The best-case scenario there is a four-team dogfight for three playoff spots. First place is a division title. Second place and third place is a coin-flip game to advance in the playoffs. Fourth place is you’re fired.

There’s a great chance the Royals don’t even make the playoffs, then another great chance that they go home after one game. Now, if they survived that, I would have liked their chances against anyone left in the playoffs: we know they could handle the Astros, Blue Jays, and Mets. But I think their road to a title would have been tougher.

That is perhaps the darkest timeline. Nothing against the National League, but I’m glad the Royals passed on their chance to switch leagues.

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