November 6, 2001
Rany On The Royals
WelcomeAbout three years ago, ESPN.com baseball columnist Rob Neyer told me he was planning to start his own Web site, one on which he could write about things that didn't fit into his ESPN.com column. One of those things was our Kansas City Royals, which tended to occupy more space in his column than a team of their stature really should. Rob and I had been exchanging e-mails about our favorite team, and he was thinking about turning those discussions into a column for his site. Since it was no extra work for me, I naturally agreed. We figured there might be a few dozen lonely Royals fans who would find it interesting.
We were not at all prepared for the response the column received. We had no idea there were so many Royals fans out there. Actually, judging from the volume of e-mail, most of our readers weren't Royals fans at all. Why would so many otherwise sane baseball fans read a column that discussed, in excruciating detail, a team they didn't even follow?
I eventually came up with an answer, and it certainly wasn't that the quality of our writing was drawing crowds. No, the lesson is that failure is more fascinating than success, because failure is more educational than success.
A column about the Yankees, a team with unlimited resources and nearly as abundant front-office acumen, wouldn't be nearly so interesting. What are you going to do, analyze whether signing Mike Mussina was a good idea? Of course it was a good idea--it's just a question of whether it was a better idea than signing Manny Ramirez. Success makes the details irrelevant, because in sports, the ends justify the means--and if the end involves a celebration on the field to the sounds of Frank Sinatra, then it can be argued that every decision involved in reaching that point is an integral part of that success. How can you argue that Clay Bellinger is a waste of a roster spot when giving that spot to anyone else couldn't possibly have created a better final outcome?
The Royals, on the other hand, are an easy mark. It's not difficult to critique them; it's difficult not to be critical of a team that has finished below .500 every year since the strike. Decisions that are small on an organizational level, like which backup infielder to keep or whether rookie X should be in the bullpen or in the rotation, are interesting to examine, because those decisions are a window through which we see the team's thought process. If the Royals can't figure out that Luis Ordaz has no business backing up Rey Sanchez, or that Tony Cogan shouldn't be making his major-league debut against a series of right-handed hitters in a one-run game at Yankee Stadium, then how are they going to figure out the big things?
Plus, there's the added excitement of knowing that every couple of months the team is going to do something so illogical, like trading Johnny Damon for Roberto Hernandez, or Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez, that you could write an entire dissertation explaining just how stupid the move was.
But for all the readers we picked up over the years, three we didn't get are David Glass, Allard Baird, and Tony Muser. We enjoyed entertaining our readers, but we both cared too much about the team to settle for that; we wanted to make a difference. And after a while it became perfectly clear that we were not doing that, that we were spitting in the wind. We made a dent; we can both count several of the writers for the Kansas City Star among our readers and friends, and it was with great delight that we learned that pitching coach Brent Strom had become a reader as well.
He was fired not long after that.
So after three years of writing about the team, sometimes once a week, sometimes several times a day, we were both pretty burned out. David Glass's late-season comments that Muser's job might be in jeopardy gave us momentary pause, but the minute I read that Glass had changed his mind after talking with Baird, I knew the end was near. Rob signed off the next morning.
Unlike Rob, I don't have a daily column, so after some time away I've decided to give a new format a try. For the rest of the off-season, I plan to write a weekly column on the Royals here at Baseball Prospectus. I can't guarantee that it will always be entertaining; trying to find something interesting to say about this team every week is a chore in itself. But I've found that I still have things to say about this team, and that there might still be some people out there willing to listen. Rob says he might even drop by every now and then.
So enjoy. And if success really is a much duller subject than failure, know that I look forward to the day when a column about the Royals will become so boring and tedious that no one wants to read about them anymore.
While the good teams in baseball were battling it out in the postseason, the Royals were looking to next year. Already, they have backed up their commitment to improve for next year with a big (well, big for the Royals) free-agent signing.
Already, they have failed.
This is not surprising, certainly. The Royals have an uncanny knack for making bad decisions, like the kid in high school who would miss all ten true-false questions on a science test. But it is disappointing.
The Royals had a decision to make at catcher, the team's least stable position over the past year. No less than four different catchers held the first-string job in 2001: A.J. Hinch, Hector Ortiz, Brent Mayne, and Gregg Zaun. Hinch and Ortiz were slated to be backups before Zaun tore up his knee in a spring training game, and they played like backups--Triple-A backups--through June, when Allard Baird finally couldn't take it any more and traded for Mayne, adding a million dollars or two to the payroll.
Zaun finally returned in early August, and shared the job with Mayne down the stretch. Mayne and Zaun were both light-years better than the guys they replaced, but both became free agents after the season ended. (Mayne had a "mutual option" year in his contract, which is one of those oxymorons, like "jumbo shrimp" or "German cuisine," that defies logic. If both sides can opt out of the deal, it's not much of a contract, is it?)
So what do you do? Do you re-sign Mayne, re-sign Zaun, or bring back Hinch and Ortiz? Realistically, there's no way the .157-hitting Hinch or the 15-homers-in-14-pro-seasons Ortiz would get another shot at a starting job. This leaves a simple decision: Mayne or Zaun? True or false?
Mayne made roughly $2.75 million in 2001, and would likely command a similar salary in a new deal. Zaun made $1.15 million in 2001, and because he missed the first four months of the season and only batted 120 times, he probably could be re-signed for a similar salary, maybe a little more.
Zaun hit an impressive .320/.377/.536 after coming back from his injury. His 913 OPS was higher than that of Jorge Posada or Ivan Rodriguez. Mayne hit .241/.283/.313 for the Royals this year. His 596 OPS was lower than that of Henry Blanco or John Flaherty.
Zaun hit .274/.390/.410 in 2000. Mayne hit .301/.381/.418, an essentially identical line, while playing half his games in the greatest hitters' environment that baseball has ever known.
Mayne is a left-handed hitter, a rare talent for a catcher. Zaun is a switch-hitter, an even more precious commodity at that position.
Perhaps most importantly, Mayne turns 34 next April. Most catchers--even Hall of Fame catchers--are washed up by their 34th birthday. Johnny Bench had his last good season behind the plate when he was 32, Yogi Berra when he was 34. Looking at players a little closer to Mayne's ability, we find that (according to baseball-reference.com) the most similar player in history to Brent Mayne, through age 33, is Clint Courtney. After age 33, Courtney played just 46 major-league games.
By contrast, Gregg Zaun turns 31 next April.
Add it up: Mayne is much older, a much poorer hitter, and twice as expensive. And now, he's also the Royals' starting catcher in 2002, after signing a two-year, $5.25-million contract (plus half a million he got as a buyout of his option). Meanwhile, Zaun will likely catch on somewhere else, providing his new team with terrific on-base ability and underrated power at half the price.
Here's where I'm supposed to say all the right things about how David Glass is willing to spend his money to support his team, and how this move proves his commitment to the fans of Kansas City. Unfortunately, all this move proves is his commitment to the current braintrust, come hell or high water. So what if he's willing to spend money on a veteran catcher? He's already proved he's willing to spend money on a veteran closer, and on a veteran shortstop. Mayne will make $2.5 million next year, on top of Roberto Hernandez's $6.1 million and Perez's arbitration-determined salary, which I would estimate to be around $5 million.
That's a shade under $14 million committed to a below-average catcher, a below-average closer, and a below-average shortstop. Fourteen million dollars is more than Mike Piazza will make next year. It's more than Roberto Alomar and Rich Aurilia will make in 2002--combined. It would be enough to be a player in the bidding war for Juan Gonzalez, or Chan Ho Park. It would certainly be enough to re-sign Mike Sweeney to a long-term deal.
But in the strange world of the Royals' front office, $14 million is better spent on a veteran catcher who hits the occasional long single, a closer who inspires "confidence" in his teammates even with an ERA above 4.00, and a shortstop that might actually be worse than Rey Sanchez.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite Shel Silverstein poems was about a kid who gets a dollar from his dad, then trades the dollar for two quarters, the quarters for three dimes, the dimes for four nickels, and the nickels for five pennies. He then victoriously returns to his father, who is red-faced and speechless, which the kid naturally interprets as a sign of how proud his father is.
The Royals are that kid. They think that three mediocrities are better than one star, and they're boasting about their accomplishments to their fans.
Memo to Messrs. Glass, Baird, and Muser: Royals fans aren't speechless because they're so proud of you. They have nothing to say because they just don't care anymore.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.