Royals’ Top 5 first basemen: Flanagan's take

March 30th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only.

Here is Jeffrey Flanagan’s ranking of the top 5 first basemen in Royals history. Next week: Second basemen.

1) Mike Sweeney, 1995-2007

Key facts: Five All-Star Games, second all-time Royals HR leader (197)

Sweeney’s tremendous career as a Royal included a .299 average over 13 seasons with an .861 OPS. And his career might never have unfolded as it did until manager Tony Muser pulled him aside in Spring Training of 1999 and essentially advised him to learn a new position other than catcher.

"He looked me in the eye and said, 'You want the truth, kid? Well, you've got a zero percent chance of being a Kansas City Royal this year,'" Sweeney said. "I said, 'Zero?' And he said, 'I was just at a meeting earlier today and they like you as a person, but they said you'll never catch another day as a Royal.'"

Muser, though, was intrigued by Sweeney as a hitter. That spring, Muser told Sweeney, “Get a first baseman's glove.”

Sweeney’s life soon changed. As a first baseman/DH, he could focus mostly on offense rather than trying to manage a game as a catcher would. In 1999, Sweeney posted a .907 OPS with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs. And in 583 games as a first baseman with the Royals, Sweeney hit 155 doubles and 111 home runs while driving in 441 runs. He averaged .322 with a .938 OPS.

Sweeney, a Royals Hall of Famer, also was a fierce competitor, much more so than his thoughtful, caring persona would make people assume. That was evidenced one night in 2001 when Sweeney charged the mound and tackled Tigers pitcher Jeff Weaver.

“One of the most unlikely characters to go out and open a can of whoop-up on a guy,” Royals closer and current broadcaster Jeff Montgomery recalled, “but he sure did.”

2) John Mayberry, 1972-1977

Key fact: Led the American League in on-base percentage in 1973 at .417

“Big John,” as he was affectionately known, was probably way ahead of his time as an offensive force. Mayberry had a tremendous eye at the plate and possessed unwavering discipline -- he led the AL in walks in 1973 (122) and 1975 (119).

And Mayberry did this while still being a major power threat. He hit 143 home runs in six seasons with the Royals and slugged .448. He drove in 100 or more runs three times.

Mayberry’s best season came in 1975 when he posted a .963 OPS, hit 38 doubles, 34 home runs and drove in 106 runs. Big John was a big part of the Royals’ rise from an expansion team to a perennial contender in the 1970s.

Mayberry also is a Royals Hall of Famer.

3) Eric Hosmer, 2011-2017

Key facts: One All-Star Game (MVP of that game), four Gold Gloves

Hosmer will always hold a special place in the hearts of Royals fans, not just for his postseason heroics -- author of the “Mad Dash” in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series -- but also for his love of the fans. Remember when Hosmer and his teammates picked up a $15,000 bar tab (Hoz reportedly paid $3,000) at a party with fans at Kansas City’s Power and Light District after clinching the AL Division Series in '14?

Hosmer had many other huge moments in the postseason, including during the famous 2014 AL Wild Card Game victory when he tripled in the 12th to launch the rally to beat Oakland. His RBI double in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series that preceded the Mad Dash triggered that rally.

In seven seasons with Kansas City, Hosmer posted a .781 OPS and hit 127 home runs. His best season was his last with the Royals -- .318 average with an .882 OPS, 25 home runs and 94 RBIs. His 17 postseason RBIs in 2015 are a club record.

4) Willie Aikens, 1980-1983

Key facts: Four home runs, 1.638 OPS in 1980 World Series

Aikens had four outstanding seasons in Kansas City, posting an .830 OPS with 77 home runs and 297 RBIs. His best season with the Royals came in 1983 when he hit .302 with a .912 OPS along with 23 home runs and 72 RBIs.

But longtime Royals fans will point to the fact that Aikens likely would have been the World Series Most Valuable Player in 1980 had Kansas City not lost to the Phillies that year. He had four home runs, a triple and eight RBIs, slugging 1.100 in that Fall Classic.

5) Billy Butler, 2007-2014

Key facts: One All-Star Game, one Silver Slugger

Butler was mostly a DH during his time in the Majors, but he did log 417 games at first base while in Kansas City so we’ll give him some love here. During his prime, Butler certainly could hit -- he had a .295 average with the Royals with a .359 on-base percentage and 127 home runs.

Butler’s best season came in 2012, his All-Star season and his Silver Slugger year, when he compiled a .313 average and an .882 OPS with 29 home runs and 107 RBIs.

Honorable mention: Steve Balboni

“Bye-bye Balboni” held the club single-season home run record for more than two decades with 36 until Mike Moustakas broke it in 2017 with 38 (Jorge Soler hit 48 last season to shatter it). Balboni would have fit well into the all-or-nothing modern game -- he led the Majors in strikeouts with 166 in 1985 when he hit his 36 homers.