January 9, 2002
Rany On The Royals
Nothing New Under the SunThe start of a new year is a time of reflection and renewal, a time for making resolutions and resolving to make this year a better one than last. In Kansas City, though, the new year looks depressingly like the old. There is no sense of renewal, only a sense of repetition.
Last year began with a feeling of hopelessness brought on by trading a 27-year-old outfielder for a 36-year-old reliever. The Royals haven't done anything nearly so stupid this during this off-season--not yet--but they haven't done anything to change the impression that they have become completely irrelevant as a franchise. They're not just a bad team, because some teams are bad as a necessary first step to becoming good. The Royals look like they're playing in the American League just as a favor to it for scheduling purposes.
Maybe the Royals wouldn't be a more viable contraction candidate than the Twins, as Rob Neyer put it, if they would stop collecting ex-teammates like they're holding a reunion tour. I've already gone on record as seeing the merits of acquiring Chuck Knoblauch, and I stand by those comments: the upside is high enough, and the cost is low enough, to warrant the gamble. But Michael Tucker? Adding Tucker to the Royals is like adding water to a grease fire: it might make sense in an emergency, but it's guaranteed to blow up in your face.
Look, I like Michael Tucker. I thought he could have become a star hitter, and I admit that I thought trading him for Jermaine Dye was a terrible idea. (I've never been so wrong about anything the Royals have ever done, or been happier to be wrong.) But let's be frank: he didn't become a star. He became a useful role player, with occasional teases that he could become something more than that.
Now, after trading him away five years ago, the Royals have brought him back. We've seen this show before, friends. In 1992, the Royals let a 26-year-old Jeff Conine depart through the expansion draft, watched him become a star in Florida, then traded to get him back when he was 31. Tucker was a few months shy of his 26th birthday when the Royals let him go, and he'll turn 31 this June. The only significant difference between the two is that Tucker is missing the good years in between.
If the Royals studied their own history, they would know that acquiring Conine was a completely irrelevant move (he hit .256 with eight homers in his one season in K.C.) that could have been much, much worse had they not dumped him on the Orioles the following March. In a classic case of addition by subtraction, getting rid of Conine when they did freed up a roster spot for a player the Royals were thinking about releasing, but decided to hold on to for a few more weeks... guy by the name of Mike Sweeney.
I doubt the Royals will be as lucky this time around. Dee Brown is in grave danger of losing his job, perhaps even his roster spot. Allard Baird recently attempted to quell fears that Tucker would be taking away too much playing time, saying "I don't see a problem with getting everyone their at-bats. Michael Tucker is very versatile. He's going to be bringing his first baseman's mitt and see some time there." He also stated that Mark Quinn would be the starter in right field and that he "is going to be a very important piece to the puzzle." He didn't mention Dee Brown.
Let's see. Allard Baird traded for Michael Tucker to be "versatile", play some first base, maybe fill in when one of the starting outfielders needs a day off or the Royals are facing a tough right-hander. Basically, Baird traded for Tucker to be his fourth outfielder.
There's just one problem with that: Raul Ibanez is already the team's fourth outfielder, and a pretty good one at that. Why the hell would you want another fourth outfielder, especially one who fits the exact same profile (left-handed hitter, mid-range power, decent plate discipline) as Ibanez?
Because the Royals no longer see Ibanez as a fourth outfielder, of course. In the grand Royals tradition of moving a player into a role where he will have the least possible value, the team now sees Ibanez as its DH. Business types call this the "Peter Principle"--employees who are successful at their job are promoted to a new, more challenging job, and promoted once again if they're competent at that, until they reach a level at which they're only marginally competent, which is where they stay. Ibanez did a great job, far better than anyone expected, as an extra outfielder and occasional fill in at the corners, so now the Royals have promoted him to a job that minimizes his main skill (his versatility) while maximizing the offensive demands placed on him.
We should expect nothing less from the Royals. This is the organization that made Mike Sweeney take off the tools of ignorance at the exact moment he started to show genuine hitting ability. The same team that turned Michael Tucker from a mediocre defensive second baseman with a great bat into a completely unremarkable left fielder. The same franchise that "promoted" Tom Gordon into the rotation after four amazing months of relief in 1989, and kept him in the rotation for the rest of his Royals career, even though his repertoire, his size, and his track record all screamed for him to be made into a reliever. After spending six years as a .500 starter for the Royals, Gordon left for Boston, where he eventually was put back in the bullpen and set a major-league record for consecutive save opportunities converted.
Meanwhile, Dee Brown is out of options, out of a job, and out of luck, at least until one of the Beane clan claims him on waivers in March. Then he may actually get the chance to be part of a winning team. Wish I could say the same for the rest of us.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.