The Kansas City Royals or Long-term Strategic Thinking in a Buyer’s Market

So you're saying there's a chance.

So you’re saying there’s a chance.

The Kansas City Royals perfectly illustrate the difficulties of winning in the steroid era with a small-market team. Consider that between 1975 and 1990, the Royals had 12 winning seasons in which they won two AL pennants and one world series. In the fifteen-year period from 1997 to 2012, the team managed only one winning season, in 2003, finishing 83-79. The reason, to a large degree, can be traced to an economic disparity in baseball that began, coincidentally, about 15 years ago.

In 1985, the year the Royals won the world series, their payroll was a little over $11 million, just slightly above the league average. Only 8 teams will have a lower payroll than the Royals in 2013, including the Houston Astros, who will spend less on their entire opening-day team than the Yankees will spend on what remains of Alex Rodriguez. In the American League, the Yankees will spend almost $150 million more than the Royals this year. To steal/mangle a line from King Theoden in The Two Towers, “So much money. What can men do against such reckless spending?”

The Rays and A’s have succeeded for years with low payrolls, and this is the year the Royals will put into action the plan they implemented about seven years ago, an eternity in professional sports. The Royals decided to build with youth, paying top draft picks big signing bonuses to ensure they wouldn’t lose out on them, and slowly ammassing one of the best farm systems in baseball. No long-term contracts were given, and top players like Zack Greinke were traded for prospects rather than extending their deals at market value. In 2013, for the first time in a long time, they deviated from this plan and traded top prospects for one of the better starting pitchers in baseball for the last few years, James Shields. This signals the Royals are no longer building for the future. They want to win now. Will they?

The AL Central is very weak. The Royals trot out this rotation (stats from 2012):

James Shields – 2.7 WAR
Wade Davis – 1.6 WAR (as a reliever)
Luis Mendoza – 1.6 WAR
Ervin Santana – minus 1.3 WAR
Jeremy Guthrie – 1.6

They also have a passable starting pitcher in the pen, Bruce Chen, who can slot in if anybody goes down with an injury or performs poorly. None of this is blowing anyone away, but if you toss in the performance from 2011, you get a sense of what Shields and Santana are capable of at the top of a rotation.

Shields – 5.1 WAR
Davis – minus .4 WAR (as a starter)
Mendoza – N/A
Santana – 3.0 WAR
Guthrie – 1.8 WAR

If Davis can put together a quality season, which is a big question mark, and everyone else produces something between their 2011 and 2012 numbers, this is a suddenly solid rotation. Maybe even above average, capable of putting up a combined 11 WAR if everything goes reasonably well (the phrasing of which is a death knell, I know). How does it compare with the Tigers likely rotation, the Royals erstwhile competiton in the division?

Verlander – 7.5 (wow) (Wow is not a stat, by the way, just an exclamation in place of holy s@&t!)
Sherzer – 4.0
Fister – 3.1
Porcello – 1.3
Sanchez – 1.2

The Tigers are clearly much better, likely to put up a combined 15 WAR. The Tigers are also stronger offensively, holding the best middle of the lineup punch in baseball, but not by much when you take the whole lineup into consideration. The bottom end of the batting order for the Tigers was borderline terrible last year, with the 6-9 hitters putting up a low of .603 OPS and topping out at .700 OPS for these four spots. The Tigers are also worse defensively. This translates to the Tigers winning the division more times than not, but it’s certainly not crazy to think they can be toppled, especially if they lose either Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander for any significant length of time.

The Royals brain trust knows this. They knew it when they made the trade to bring in Shields to anchor their rotation, sacrificing a measure of their future in the process. I can’t know, but my guess is they did it because even though they know the odds are against them, they believe they have, for the first time since the late 80’s/early 90’s, a real chance to compete with the big boys. Not even footing, of course, the Tigers outspend the Royals by $70 million, but a chance nonetheless.

George Brett was one of my favorite players growing up. I would check the box score most days to see how he fared in the previous night’s game. I even saw him play in his final season, in a game at Kauffman stadium against Seattle, which was also the first time I saw Ken Griffey, Jr. play. I remember watching as the Royals stuck around the pennant race in 2003, thanks to a 16-3 start out of the gate that year.

It’s been a while, I haven’t had a reason to be excited about a Royals season in a long time, and maybe Shields will collapse under the strain of so many innings in the last few years, and Santana won’t come close to his production in 2011, and the young kids at the corners, Moustakas and Hosmer, will only ever be great prospects, maybe it will all amount to nothing, a forgotten team amidst the insanity of spending in Los Angeles and New York, but there is something undeniably and profoundly likeable about the little guy who senses a glimmer of a chance and decides to go for it, despite knowing that the safer and more practical option is to wait for reinforcements.

Caution to the wind, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.


One thought on “The Kansas City Royals or Long-term Strategic Thinking in a Buyer’s Market

  1. Pingback: Ah, hope, it does spring training eternal | Summer of Baseball

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