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September 13, 2010

Contractual Matters

Opening Act

by Jeff Euston

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You’d be forgiven for missing it, but one afternoon game graces today’s baseball schedule, with Oakland left-hander Bobby Cramer making his major-league debut against the Royals in Kansas City.

Originally scheduled as a night game, the Royals and Athletics agreed to move up the first pitch to accommodate the Monday Night Football appearance of the Kansas City Chiefs, who share the Truman Sports Complex with the Royals.

The baseball-football doubleheader is not a first for Kansas City. When the Royals played primetime host for Game Two and Game Seven of the 1985 World Series, the Chiefs played home games earlier in the afternoon on both days. Tell a young fan that in anticipation of the seventh game, 68,000 fans at Arrowhead sang Royals chants during a noon Chiefs-Broncos game, and you get looks of disbelief.

It’s a long way from Bret Saberhagen facing John Tudor in Game Seven to Luke Hochevar squaring off with Bobby Cramer as two teams play out the string in September. Twenty-five years after their only title, the Royals are not the headliners, but the opening band, providing fans with a small pre-party as a day-long tailgate festival kicks off in the parking lot.

Judging by the product on the field today at Kauffman Stadium, a fan would be excused for having little hope. The Royals reside just a half-game out of last place in the American League Central and are now within hailing distance of the Orioles for the AL’s worst run differential. Not coincidentally, the Royals also rank among the league’s worst in a variety of advanced metrics such as defensive efficiency and team defensive runs saved. If you’re not into that sort of thing, the Royals’ defense grades just as poorly by yardsticks like errors, fielding percentage, the eye test or the old-fashioned smell test.

The first four full seasons for Royals general manager Dayton Moore have followed a pattern similar to the tenure of his predecessor, Allard Baird. Within two years after his promotion to GM in June 2000, Baird had replaced the scouting director and manager he had inherited, Terry Wetzel and Tony Muser, respectively. He eventually replaced his first managerial hire, switching out Tony Pena for Buddy Bell. The first four major-league rosters Baird constructed (2001-04) came at a cost of $167 million, with the Royals amassing a .419 winning percentage during that stretch.

Moore has traversed a similar path, replacing scouting director Deric Ladnier with J.J. Piccolo and Bell with Trey Hillman as manager. In May, Moore fired his first managerial hire and replaced him with Ned Yost, a former colleague from the Atlanta front office. Moore’s first four rosters (2007-10) carried a total price tag of $269 million, with the Royals winning at a .430 clip.

So Moore has spent $102 million more—an average of $25 million a year—to jump from winning 68 games a year to 70. That doesn’t move the needle much for fans looking for some excitement before tonight’s kickoff. But the difference lies in the resources the Royals are devoting to a number of long-neglected areas: scouting, development, front office staff, a seventh minor-league affiliate, international talent, and above-slot signing bonuses for amateur draftees. Moore has spent more than $10 million more than Baird on his first four drafts, and Kansas City has now used its first pick in the amateur draft to select Scott Boras clients four of the last five years. And where Baird’s budget for international amateurs was nominal, the Royals have invested significantly in Latin America under Moore.

Although it might be apparent only in Omaha or Northwest Arkansas, the Royals have taken the first steps down the road back to relevance. Moore has made it his goal to have homegrown players making up a majority of the 2012 or 2013 roster, and as Kevin Goldstein wrote last month, Kansas City’s farm system is stocked. Led by Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers, and John Lamb, Royals prospects are popping up everywhere on season-ending minor-league all-star teams.

Moore’s next task might be making a decision on his most talented player at the big-league level, Zack Greinke. Moore timed the market perfectly when he signed the pitcher to a four-year extension in the winter of 2008-09. His ace rewarded him with a Cy Young performance in the first year of the deal. Without the long-term contract, Greinke would be hitting the free-agent market in a matter of weeks. Instead, he’s a bargain at $13.5 million a year for 2011 and 2012. However, Greinke already has wondered aloud whether he’ll still be around when Moore’s first wave of minor-league talent hits Kansas City.

Still just 26 years old, Greinke could bring a significant package of talent in a trade and his value to the Royals is not likely to be any higher than it will be this winter. Allard Baird faced a similar quandary with Carlos Beltran after the 2002 season. Multiple clubs came calling two years before the center fielder became a free agent, but Baird instead made futile attempts to try to sign him to a long-term deal. A year and a half later, when Beltran had become a three-month rental, Baird finally relented and dealt his best trade chip for the less-than-inspiring package of third baseman Mark Teahen, catcher John Buck, and reliever Mike Wood.

In theory, Greinke might be more open to staying in Kansas City than a Boras client like Beltran. But Greinke already has signed one multi-year deal, delaying his free agency by two years to do it. If the Royals’ next young core won’t be in Kansas City and ready to win a division by 2012, the right play for Moore would be to deal Greinke this winter. Add two or three premium pieces to the high-ceiling talent in the organization now, and the Royals might finally find themselves headlining again.

Jeff Euston is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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