Itâ€™s no secret to anyone reading this that the Royals have had problems developing pitching over the last 25 years. You can pretty much count the useful pitchers whoâ€™ve been drafted by the Royals, made their major league debut with the Royals, and had a successful career. Thereâ€™s Kevin Appier, Zack Greinke, andâ€¦ umâ€¦ Jose Rosado? He had a couple of good years before his arm exploded.
Which brings us to David Cone. Technically, he falls outside that 25-year window, since his MLB debut was in 1986. But his history as a Royal is instructive; in it, we can find a microcosm of the troubles this franchise has brought upon itself since its last postseason appearance.
A Kansas City kid, Cone was drafted out of Rockhurst High School in the third round of the 1981 draft, one round after the Royals took Mark Gubicza.* Oddly enough, Rockhurst had no baseball program then, so Cone made do with Ban Johnson baseball and an open tryout at Royals Stadium. I imagine there is no shortage of 50-year-old men around town who claim that they got a hit off Cone, or struck out against him, whichever story sounds better.
*And one round before they took a shortstop named Shane Mack, who made the majors as an outfielder with the Twins but eventually made his way back to KC. Cone, Gubicza, and Mack combined for 114 bWAR in their careers, so even though first-round pick Dave Leeper didnâ€™t do much as a big-leaguer, the Royals had a pretty solid draft. Or would have if all 3 had spent their careers in Kansas City.
Cone wasted no time in signing, and pitched in 14 games in rookie ball before tearing up two different Class A leagues in 1982. Of course, prospects werenâ€™t covered as heavily then as they are now (ahem), but the Royals had to be excited. A knee injury cost him the 1983 season, however. When Cone pitched in AA ball in Memphis in 1984, he was wild and not nearly as effective.Â But he was still piling up strikeouts, and the Royals promoted him to Omaha for the 1985 season. Where he had more or less the same season: lots of walks (but not as many), lots of strikeouts (but more), lots of hits, a high ERA. This time, he didnâ€™t move up for the next season. Instead, he returned to Omaha, and this time around, he was excellent.
Cone made his major league debut in June of that 1986 season, hung around for a couple of weeks, went back to Omaha, and came back in September. He was used mostly as a mop-up man, and his overall numbers werenâ€™t that great. But he hadnâ€™t really bombed out at any level yet, so the Royals had to figure he was part of the future.
Enter Part I of the curse. The 1986 Royals were a team that seemed to get old in a hurry after the glory of 1985. Most of the position players were over 30, and catcher was a particularly bad spot. Jim Sundberg put up a .624 OPS in 140 games, and backup Jamie Quirk was only slightly better, with a .643 OPS in 80 games. The Royals needed a catcher badly. So in spring training of 1987, they shipped Cone off to the Mets for Ed Hearn, fresh off 151 plate appearances (and a .712 OPS) for the 1986 World Series champs.
In retrospect, of course, it was a terrible deal. But at the time, it sort of made sense. What the Royals didnâ€™t know, couldnâ€™t know, was that Hearn was already damaged goods. His arm was sore that spring, and a week into the season, he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. Hearn would play in 13 games for the Royals. Total.
That was bad enough, but it happens sometimes. The trade looked bad in 1987 as Cone was posting 103 ERA+ in 99 innings, but in 1988 it looked horrible. Because Cone went 20-3, with a 2.22 ERA and a 145 ERA+ for the NL East winners. Meanwhile, the Royals finished 19.5 games behind Oakland despite an 84-77 record.
But Part One of The Curse gets worse. The 1989 Royals narrowed the gap on Oakland considerably, finishing only 7 games behind the Aâ€™s. While Cone wasnâ€™t as dominant in 1989 as he was in 1988, he would have likely done better than Charlie Leibrandt did that year, or he would have helped the bullpen by allowing Luis Aquino and/or Tom Gordon to pitch there exclusively (each of them made 16 starts as the Royals really had a patchwork rotation behind Bret Saberhagen and Gubicza).
And then things really turned sour. The Royals signed Mark Davis and Storm Davis (no relation, if you didnâ€™t know) to bolster the pitching staff. Without Cone in the fold, the Royals saw Stormâ€™s 19 wins and their eyes lit up. They didnâ€™t see the 5.81 runs per game Oakland scored for him, or the 1.506 WHIP, or the 85 ERA+. To be fair, that sort of statistical analysis wasnâ€™t widespread like it is today. But still. Not having Cone probably cost the Royals a playoff spot in 1987 (finished two games behind Minnesota), may have cost them one in 1989, and led to one of the worst free-agent signings in team history, which certainly torpedoed their chances in 1990 and 1991.
Part Two of The Curse is, in my mind, far worse. To their credit, the Royals didnâ€™t let the Davis signings sour them on the free agent market. On December 8, 1992, they brought Cone back to the fold, signing him to a 3-year, $18 million contract. Which was a pretty big deal back then.*
*Jonathan Rand wrote an amazing column for the Kansas City Star that day (the Royals had also added shortstop Greg Gagne for three years and $10.7 million). He describes a franchise so far removed from what we now have that he might as well have been writing about an alternate universe. Yes, at one time, a columnist castigated the Royals for spending TOO MUCH money. He did actually have a pointâ€”spending that sort of money was irresponsible and showed that the farm system was lacking talent. And he was correct.
The Royals were desperately trying to get Ewing Kauffman one more title. But it didnâ€™t work. The 1993 team was hampered by the leagueâ€™s worst offense (an 88 team OPS+, and the team was actually outscored on the season). The rotation, anchored by Cone and Appier, was solid; Cone posted a 138 ERA+, and Appier posted a 179 ERA+.
And then came 1994. Cone gave the Royals their moneyâ€™s worth, winning the Cy Young in that strike-shortened season. Appier, Gordon, and Gubicza were all solid starters. The offense still wasnâ€™t great, but it averaged 5 runs per game, which was plenty with that rotation. A 14-game winning streak in late July and early August got the Royals within one game of the division lead. They were four out when the strike happened. I donâ€™t know if they would have won the division or even the wild card spot, but I like their chances in retrospect.
Of course, with Mr. Kauffman gone and the team in ownership limbo, the first order of business when baseball resumed in spring 1995 was cutting costs. The fact that Cone was KCâ€™s union rep and had been fairly outspoken during the strike didnâ€™t help. He was unceremoniously shipped to Toronto for the immortal Chris Stynes and two minor leaguers who never made it to the majors. From there, it was on to the Yankees, where he would win four World Series rings, throw a perfect game, and make two All-Star teams. On his way out of town, he offered up a quote that would be a template for future players on their way to greener pastures:
â€œThe Royals have a lot of good rookies, and I hope it works out.â€â€”David Cone, quoted in the Kansas City Star, April 7, 1995
I should stress that there is no indication Cone has ever said publicly that he wishes the Royals ill for trading him twice. And this is all somewhat tongue-in-cheek on my part. I donâ€™t believe in curses. Not in sports, anyway. But the Red Sox had the Curse of the Bambino. The Cubs have the Billy Goat Curse. So it occurred to me that the Royals need something to point to in order to deflect attention from bad drafts, bad trades, and bad free agent signings.
So what exactly is The Curse of David Cone? Draft picks, especially pitchers, not panning out. Or getting hurt. Trades completed primarily to cut payroll (to be fair, the Royals havenâ€™t done this in a while). And just the general malaise weâ€™ve seen surround this franchise for years. The sense that whatever can go wrong, will. And now you know.