Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Even Royalty Must Choose (Yes, that means you, KC Royals)

The great questions most of us face in life are obvious: Could I be making more money if I had started my own business?  Why do the pockets on my shorts always come out of the wash inside out if I don’t put them in that way? Is three kids too many? If the best parts of any talent show on TV are the discoveries of weird people with amazing voices, why does the show need to be anything other than just a series of auditions?  And how the hell is Survivor still a show?

For a general manager of a major sports franchise, these are easily answered (no, I don’t wear shorts, with my first wife, I think we can all agree this is the case, and because seeing people starve and fight at the same time is some sort of weird human-impulse turn-on).  The real question is: Do I build a team to have success in the future (potentially sacrificing success in the present), or do I do what I can to put my team in a position to succeed every single year?

(Perhaps the actual question is: Is my fan base willing to let me build a franchise that will succeed in the future – and not fire me before it gets there?)

It’s a tough line to walk, and admittedly it’s a line that is easier to walk with more cash on-hand.  In LA, for example, after a convincing 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Thunder, the Lakers looked like they were getting older and were likely to be no better than the 3rd team in the West for the coming few years falling from contention in a hurry Kobe's chances at any more rings seemed gone.  In response to this slip (in both competitiveness and in their ability to please Kobe) the organization spent money to pull in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.  So far this hasn’t paid off all that well (ok…so far it hasn’t paid off at all), but Nash has only played two games, Pau’s leg is ailing, and Kobe has been relentless on his teammates.  At least two of these three things will change in the coming months.

In baseball there’s a similar phenomenon.  Starting in 1999, the Yankees have had the highest opening day payroll every single year, and they have made the playoffs every year except 2008.  Over this stretch, the Yankees’ 3 championships are the most; there are 3 teams that have two during this time period: Boston (2nd highest opening day payroll in both ’04 and ’07), St. Louis (11th in opening day payroll in ’06 and ’11), and San Fran (10th in ’10 and 8th in ‘12).  This is not meant to say spending translates to championships, just ask any Mets or Cubs fan.  But spending certainly helps keep a team competitive – keeping a team competitive keeps the fan base excited – keeping the fan base excited retains a GM’s job.  (The Florida Marlins are the big outlier in this time period, as their opening day payroll was 25th in the league.)

Thus, GMs in smaller markets with less access to capital are constantly fighting the “pay for now, play for the future” battle.  This weekend, after 27 years of not making the playoffs, and coming upon the 10-year anniversary of their last above-.500 season, the Kansas City Royals, led by general manager Dayton Moore, officially made the financial commitment to try and compete in 2013.  After spending the last 6 years building the best farm system in the majors, Moore elected to sell off the upper echelons of this system to fix a rotation that had been somewhere between Lindsay-Lohan-in-Mean-Girls bad and Lindsay-Lohan’s-regular-life bad.

Much has been said about how poor this trade was for the Royals.  Grantland published a piece entitled A Royal Blunder, which points to both talent and financial reasons why the Royals should have said no. My Facebook news feed exploded with rants from fellow Kansas Citians about how this has ruined the franchise (a dubious claim, to say the least).
And yet, in 2013, the Royals are much more likely to make the playoffs due to this trade.

For starters, the AL Central is bad. I mean, not that bad. Worse than Lindsay-Lohan-in-the-Parent-Trap for sure, but better than pretty much anything else that includes the words Lindsay Lohan.  But if there’s a division in which a team could make a trade and suddenly become a co-favorite to win their division (a three-way tie with Detroit and Chicago), it’s the AL central.  Don’t believe me? The AL Central was the only division in 2012 in which the winner (Detroit) failed to reach 90 wins.  There were 6 teams in the AL that had more wins than Detroit, which means Tampa Bay and the LA Angels both missed the playoffs despite having better seasons in much better divisions.

This much is clear: the Royals upgraded their rotation.  It was the one area the farm system had struggled to remedy, and Moore finally went out and did something about it.  Here’s the thought process I had as a Kansas City native and Royals fan in the immediate 10 seconds after the trade:

1.      Why is there a headline on ESPN about baseball in December?

2.      Oh it’s about the Royals. This is going to be really bad.

3.      (…reading…) Cool we got a pitcher! (…still reading…) And another one!

4.      Briefly look away from the screen because, again, it’s December and baseball and who cares.

5.      (…reading some more…) WE TRADED WIL MYERS??? Wil Myers is probably the greatest prospect the Royals have had, and we’ve had quite a few turn out pretty well over the last couple years (Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Alex Gordon come to mind).  But Wil is likely going to be the best of all of these, and is equally likely to be the best prospect in baseball this year, period.  I got to see him play at the All-Star Weekend Futures Game, a game that sold out in KC, and let me tell you, the crowd was beyond excited every time this young man came up to bat.  Not to mention when he scored and drove in runs. That Grantland piece I mentioned listed the last 14 position players to win Minor League Player of the Year.  On that list? Names like Jeter, Andruw Jones, Joe Mauer, Alex Gordon, and Mike Trout. JETER!?

6.      There has to be a joke about how mis-managed KC sports are.

7.      I can’t think of one.

8.      Remember that time the Chiefs were favorites, or at least co-favorites, or at least discussed being in the picture, for AFC West champion this year?

9.      Ok ok ok what if: Jeff Francoeur reverts to his 2011 or 2009 self (this makes sense since 2013 is an odd year and that’s how these things work) and bats in the .280s with a slugging percentage above the .430s? He would at least be serviceable, and the press wouldn’t have been on quite as much to replace him with Wil quicker than Lindsay can crush up a line. And what if Shields and Davis both give us basically what we expect out of them: for Shields that’s something like a 16-9 or 15-10 season, and for Davis that’s either being the best bullpen reliever on the team or a 12-10 late-rotation starter. And what if all those other prospects, especially Hosmer, Perez, Gordon, and Butler, continue to improve, especially on offense (and stay healthy *cough Perez cough*).  And finally, what if behind this better rotation, the bullpen stays just as dominant while the offense scores a few more runs, and the Royals stay above .500 for longer than 20 games. If all of those things end up happening, the Royals have a chance to make the playoffs.  And if they do, then wouldn’t that make this trade worth it? I realize this is a high price to ask for a single trade, but when you give up a player like Myers, a trade you will almost certainly regret in two years (much like agreeing to be in a film with Lindsay Lohan), not to mention three other decent prospects, there has to be a high level of immediate return.  And as a Kansas City fan, I think I appreciate management taking a step and displaying their desire to be competitive now.  Yes…maybe KC was just now buying into the “give us two years” line (that we’ve been falsely hearing for six years), but before we cry wolf I think we have to give this a chance.  There’s a lot of pressure, but the players should know it isn’t on them. Because the answer to the question what if we still suck? is “we fire Dayton Moore, barricade his house, and chase him all the way to Tampa Bay where he has to beg for Wil Myers back until either they return Wil or until we feel sufficiently tan (at which point Moore will still have to give us piggy-back rides whenever we want).  But KC fans: trying to pretend you’re super upset that Moore has “thrown away our future” when we haven’t made the playoffs in 27 years is…irresponsible at best.  He made the decision to try and compete (in a weak division) now rather than continue looking down the road (which also may prevent him from losing his job of looking down said road).  So why not hope for all these what ifs and see where we are in July or August? Because if we do end up being terrible, it won’t be a new feeling, and we’ll know who to fire.

10.  Who am I kidding. I’m just going to pop in Freaky Friday and hope some equally bizarre switch of identity happens to the Royals.

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