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Royals’ biggest off-season move could be hiring of new trainer

By Michael S. Ruggles

Nov. 5 – Now that the World Series has ended, fire up the hot stove!
While teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves, Mets, Dodgers, Cubs, and Angels (the big market teams for the most part) talk about big name free agent signings or potential trades, Royals fans have already been warned that there isn’t much money available for big dollar acquisitions.

Kansas City has plenty of holes to fill, but there isn’t much free money available even though the payroll will be 70 million plus next year. It’s been well documented how the Royals are burdened by big contracts to guys like Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth, and Juan Cruz. While the other teams in baseball make the big name trades and signings, it will at least be intriguing to see what decisions are made in regards to filling KC’s holes such as centerfield, catcher, the bullpen and the back-end of the starting rotation.

But the biggest moves of the off-season for the Royals might have already quietly happened. The Royals’ head athletic trainer for the past 33 years, Nick Swartz, announced he was retiring on Sept. 25. On Oct. 22, KC announced that they had promoted Kyle Turner from minor league medical coordinator to assistant trainer. That followed the hiring of Nick Kenney as new head athletic trainer. Kenney is coming over from Cleveland where he had served as assistant trainer. In 2007, Cleveland was named the best athletic training staff by their peers. KC also announced that 2009 assistant trainers Frank Kyte and Jeff Stevenson would not return, while strength and conditioning coach Ty Hill and Physical Therapist Jeff Blum will return.

Royals fans know why all of this talk of trainers is significant. While all of the blame can’t be placed on Swartz, it is astounding how much time Royals players have spent either on the D.L. or with some ailment that makes them miss games. While I’m sure other teams suffer through their share of injuries, it seems like the Royals have had an inordinate amount of injuries and not just this season but in seasons past as well. (Anyone remember Jose Rosado? A former all-star left handed pitcher, he seemed to have suffered only a minor elbow injury and yet he never recovered from it and he disappeared at an early age.)

It’s actually easier to list Royals who did not miss time in the 2009 season, as the list of those who did is considerable. Billy Butler, Alberto Callaspo, Zach Greinke, Willie Bloomquist, and Miguel Olivo all managed to stay healthy and it’s interesting that they were the teams’ most productive players. (The point being that if the Royals could ever keep their players healthy, the team could improve their overall production and win more games.) While there are obviously contributing factors to KC’s losing seasons these last 20 years, such as poor pitching and defense, a lack of speed and power, etc. simply staying healthy would improve the end results considerably.

For a quick recap of the 2009 Royals’ injury woes, it started early in the season with third baseman Alex Gordon going down to a hip-flexor injury that required surgery. The season was mostly a complete loss for Gordon, who the Royals desperately need to blossom into a big time run producer and fulfill his considerable potential. Next came shortstop Mike Aviles, who had sparked the team in the second half of ’08, providing hope that he could ignite the offense at the top of the order. But after an unproductive start, Aviles underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery. It didn’t take long for the Royals’s season to go belly up right from the start. The left side of the infield had been lost barely six weeks into the season. Add in the loss for the season due to bad shoulders for centerfielder Coco Crisp and things were destined to get real bad real quick.

While Mark Teahen played pretty well at third in the absence of Gordon, Royals fans know that shortstop became a void filled by Tony Pena and Luis Hernandez, two of the weaker hitters in all of baseball, until a trade for Yuniesky Betancourt. Bloomquist filled in well be it at short, second or the outfield. But while bigger market teams have the luxury of depth, all of the injuries exposed KC’s lack of depth and frustrating lack of minor league prospects that could step up and contribute.

Back to the list of injuries - leftfielder David DeJesus missed games, as did catcher John Buck who spent time on the DL with a bad disk in his back in the first half of the season. Guillen went down early on and spent most of the season sidelined with sore legs. (Guillen makes $11 million next season in the final year of a three-year deal. Hopefully he can stay healthy and produce at least something- possibly as DH?) That leaves a question mark as to who will play right field- Teahen?

So that covers how the starting lineup was decimated by injuries from the very beginning of the season. The pitching staff was also beset by injuries. All-star closer Joacim Soria went on the DL in the first half and when he returned, KC manager Trey Hillman seemed reluctant to use him. Kyle Farnsworth missed time with a groin injury and after a few months of ineffectiveness, Juan Cruz also went down for most of the season. Lefty reliever John Bale and reliever Doug Waechter also missed considerable time, with Waechter missing most of the season as well.

Late in the season, the starters started to drop like flies. Gil Meche and Brian Bannister went down and missed the last month of the season. Rookie Dusty Hughes made a couple of impressive starts before missing his last potential start with a tender elbow.

Hillman has been criticized in his first two seasons as Royals manager, but all he could do this season was damage control in dealing with an absolutely astounding number of injuries that plagued the team all season. How much better could the Royals be if they could simply stay healthy? Will the new trainers be able to make an impact and help keep KC players healthy? The answer to those questions will go a long ways towards determining the fate of the Royals in 2010.

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