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December 13, 2001

Rany On The Royals

Winter Meetings Edition

by Rany Jazayerli

All you ever hear about small-market teams is that they can't afford to sign their good players when they become free agents. Well, look at the bright side, Royals fans: your team goes to great lengths to ensure they won't have any free agents to lose. The Royals aren't losing Johnny Damon to free agency; he was traded for Roberto Hernandez. Rey Sanchez won't be departing Kansas City; he already left to Atlanta, and all it cost to find his replacement was Jermaine Dye, who now won't have to leave K.C. as a free agent next season...because he's an Athletic. See? There's a method to the Royals' madness.

The Royals finished the season with just three potential free agents, and already had the foresight to re-sign the least enticing one, Brent Mayne. With a midnight deadline looming on December 7, the Royals were able to come to terms with Luis Alicea, for essentially the same money as last year: $800,000 with incentives.

Alicea is not much of a player any more. Never a good defensive second baseman, he was downright abysmal at times last year. After ten straight seasons of drawing at least one walk per 10 at-bats, he took just 23 walks in 387 at-bats last season. (What was that about plate discipline, Allard?) He is not completely bereft of value: he switch-hits, which gives the pitcher a different look from the team's entirely right-handed infield, and Carlos Febles's fragility means the Royals need a reliable backup at second base.

The most important reason to bring back Alicea has nothing to do with his ability. Alicea's real position isn't second base; it's player-coach. His mentoring relationship with Carlos Beltran has been cited as the key reason for Beltran's second-half explosion. Beltran himself credits a drill that Alicea taught him, in which he practices swinging the bat with just one hand, as helping him learn to keep his hands back and wait on the ball. (Gee, that's funny. I thought Johnny Damon was the guru of the one-handed swing.)

Look, I have no idea if Alicea really keyed Beltran's breakout or not. All I know is that the center fielder's walk rate did jump, from 6.9 per 100 at-bats before the All-Star break to 10.3 per 100 ABs afterwards, that his OPS soared from 737 to 1041, and that he gives the credit to Alicea Beltran is the single most important player in the organization; if he says that Alicea was a positive influence on him, and the evidence backs him up, then I'd happily pay Alicea $800,000 to chair the Royals' Big Brother/Big Sister program and spit sunflower seeds all season.

The week's news isn't all rosy, though. The Royals failed to sign their third free agent, Gregg Zaun. This comes as no surprise; what is a surprise is that, when the December 7 deadline to offer arbitration had passed, the Royals decided not to offer Zaun arbitration, which means that not only could they not re-sign him, but that they would not receive any draft-pick compensation from his new team.

The decision to not offer arbitration to any player with value is just ridiculous. There was exactly zero risk to offering Zaun arbitration. If he rejects, you get compensation; if he accepts, well, you have a marketable player signed to a one-year deal.

The "no-risk" part is that almost no player will take a one-year deal when he could get a long-term contract. Zaun is no dummy; he signed a two-year contract with the Astros--a heavily right-handed hitting team that is perfectly suited for Zaun's talents--the day after the deadline passed. The Astros were hot and heavy for Zaun for weeks before he was signed; it's obvious that they had already negotiated the contract, and were just waiting for the Royals to decline arbitration. Because Zaun was a Type B free agent, the Astros would have owed the Royals their first-round draft pick. Instead, they don't owe jack. Nice move, Allard.

I'd be more upset, but I'll chalk this mistake up to the epidemic of Bovine Spongiform Stupidity that was going around major-league front offices. I mean, it's hard to get riled up against Baird for not offering Gregg Zaun arbitration when the Astros made the same mistake with MOISES ALOU. Uh-huh. Gerry Hunsicker is one of the best GMs in baseball, and he was afraid that Alou would accept a one-year, $12-million contract instead of a multi-year contract for three or four times the money?

It's not just the Astros and Alou: the Braves didn't offer arbitration to John Burkett; the Diamondbacks let Reggie Sanders go without a fight; the Cubs were afraid Ricky Gutierrez might accept a one-year deal. The Mariners didn't offer Aaron Sele arbitration, but rumor has it that they weren't allowed to per terms of the contract he signed two years ago.

Just because everyone else is doing it doesn't mean Baird gets away scot-free. This isn't high school; you can't blame peer pressure. The Royals are handicapped by their small market, and the only way to win is to be a step ahead of everyone else. Baird has enough trouble just keeping up.

--

The Winter Meetings are in full swing, and Baird let another team with more money than brains off the hook. The Neifi Perez-for-Luke-Prokopec rumors have died down, as the Dodgers are apparently trying to use Prokopec as part of a larger deal to ensnare Jermaine Dye and Billy Koch from the A's. No matter, though; the Cubs also need a shortstop, they declined arbitration on Gutierrez, and they have one of the deepest farm systems in the game. Baird could toss a pair of darts at the Cubs' organizational depth chart and come away with fair compensation for Perez.

Instead, he was beaten to the punch. J.P. Ricciardi, who has made as many good trades in his two weeks with the Blue Jays as Baird has in nearly two years with the Royals, sold the Cubs on Alex Gonzalez, who is getting paid $6 million a year even though he hasn't improved one whit as a player since he came up seven years ago.

Okay...well, the Reds were showing some interest in Perez, and they'd been peddling Dmitri Young everywhere. The last rumor had him going to the St. Paul Saints in exchange for that nun who doubles as a masseuse. Young would fit perfectly into the five slot, right behind Mike Sweeney, giving the Royals a switch-hitter who could play several positions, albeit badly.

But the Royals got greedy and asked for an additional player for Young, so Jim Bowden shipped him to Detroit for Juan Encarnacion, who the Tigers were going to release if he wasn't traded, and Luis Pineda, who has already been released twice in his career. I hope Allard Baird is taking notes, because he was just taught a lesson: he who hesitates loses out to one who doesn't.

The Tigers, like the Blue Jays, have a new sheriff in charge who's light-years ahead of his predecessor. Ricciardi and Dave Dombrowski replace Gord Ash and (essentially) Randy Smith, two of the few GMs in baseball that were demonstrably worse than Allard Baird. This is not good news.

--

The Royals are widely rumored to be hammering out a contract with Chuck Knoblauch, which if nothing else allows them to unfurl a name big enough for even casual a Royal fan to recognize. Of course, most casual fans are familiar with Knoblauch because his throwing maladies at second base attracted coverage from the likes of Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, but these are the Royals: they'll accept fame however they can find it.

I am of two minds about this. It is true that Knoblauch's career path bears an uncanny resemblance to Enron's stock price. His OBP has dropped from .393 to .366 to .339 the past two years, for which he has compensated by morphing from a good defensive second baseman to an atrocious left fielder. He is 33 years old, exactly the age at which most "solid" players--guys who were good everyday players in their late 20s--dive off a cliff.

Of course, Knoblauch wasn't a "solid" player--he was a star, a borderline superstar. A compelling case can be made that from 1994 to 1997, he was the best second baseman in baseball. When he left the Twins after the 1997 season, having "slumped" to a 117-run, 62-steal season after hitting .341 and scoring 140 runs in 1996, he looked like he was on his way to Cooperstown.

His descent into irrelevance has been unnerving, and I wonder if nerves may have something to do with it. I don't have any inside information here, but it's been reported on multiple occasions that Knoblauch has gone through some rather unpleasant marital problems. He wouldn't be the first player whose personal life spilled onto the field, and it would explain the bad case of Steve Sax disease that forced him away from second base. Who's to say that, freed from the big-city glare of New York City, playing for a team with no pressure and no expectations, that Knoblauch might not find his stroke again? It wouldn't be the first time a poor-fielding middle-infielder enjoyed a renaissance after fleeing the coast for Kansas City. Just ask Jose Offerman.

If the Royals are able to ink Knoblauch for a heavily-incentivized contract, it wouldn't be a terrible risk. The only downside, with Knoblauch slated to play left field and Mark Quinn in right field, is that the Royals would be tempted to give up on Dee Brown after just one season. Brown is still just 23, and abandoning him now after investing six years of effort to develop the former #1 pick would be an incredibly short-sighted decision, a.k.a. business as usual.

Finally, because I am an optimist, I want to end on this trade rumor, buried in one of Bob Dutton's columns in yesterday's Kansas City Star.

Jeff Suppan to the Rangers for Carlos Pena.

It won't happen. It's not going to happen because I can't see John Hart, who traded Jeromy Burnitz for Kevin Seitzer and Brian Giles for Ricardo Rincon, making the same mistake thrice (and even if he wanted to, I can't see Grady Fuson letting him). It's not enough to make it happen because some members of the Royals braintrust--I use that term loosely--are worried that Pena still "needs more seasoning."

Excuse me? Carlos Pena is absolutely one of the ten best prospects in baseball, and he's absolutely ready to contribute to the Royals in 2002. He hit .339 with 14 home runs in his last two months in Triple-A, then slugged .500 for the Rangers in September. He's a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honors. He "needs more seasoning"? Who the hell is running this franchise, Emeril?

If it does come to fruition, though, I'll take back every bad thing I've said about Allard Baird. At least in the past few weeks, anyway.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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