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January 24, 2002

Rany On The Royals

The Arms Race

by Rany Jazayerli

Let me start with a mea culpa. In my last column, I reported that the Royals' acquisition of Michael Tucker was potentially disastrous because it would take away playing time from Mark Quinn and Dee Brown. In particular, I was concerned about Brown's future with the club, as he is out of options and it appears there are no roster spots available for him.

I was wrong. The Kansas City Star's Bob Dutton informed me that Brown does, in fact, have an option left.

Options--like everything else in the Collective Bargaining Agreement--are a tricky thing to understand, as I have publicly demonstrated. The Royals used options on Brown to send him to the minors in 1999 and 2000, but last season's 10-game stint in Omaha was the product of a rehab assignment, leaving his third and final option intact.

My apologies for the error. The general point stands, however: the Royals are letting overpriced veterans take valuable playing time away from younger, cheaper, more promising players. Now, if the Royals let Brown find his stroke playing every day in Omaha, and if upon doing so he's given another chance in Kansas City, then perhaps Tucker's return to K.C. may have served some purpose. But the Royals' history of giving second chances to players who have stumbled isn't encouraging.

On to this week's column... Get your pencils ready for the following math question. Please note that calculators may be used.

The Kansas City Royals traded Johnny Damon last winter, claiming that they could not afford to sign him to a long-term deal, and six months later traded Jermaine Dye, once again citing their financial situation. Compare the following two columns, the first detailing a list of the players the Royals claim they can not afford, and the second a list of the players the Royals are currently paying:


         Column 1                        Column 2
Jermaine Dye:     $10.67M/yr   Roberto Hernandez: $6.10M/yr
Johnny Damon:      $7.75M/yr   Neifi Perez:       $4.55M/yr*
                               Brent Mayne:       $2.63M/yr
                               Michael Tucker:    $2.25M/yr
                               Chuck Knoblauch:   $2.00M/yr
TOTAL:            $18.42M/yr   TOTAL:            $17.53M/yr

*arbitration midpoint between the Royals' offer of $4.1 million and Perez's request for $5 million

Given the information above, are the Royals:

  • lying through their teeth

  • incompetent pinheads who wouldn't know a ballplayer from a nutcracker

  • going to finish in last place again this year

  • all of the above

Please take your time, and remember, there is no penalty for selecting a wrong answer. Actually, there aren't any wrong answers.

--

In a recent edition of the Star, Jeffrey Flanagan attempted to stir up some excitement for the upcoming season, talking up the Royals' collection of young pitching as a possible panacea for the team's ills. "We can all agree that Chad Durbin has a great future," Flanagan wrote, adding that "this is the season that a Mike MacDougal or a Chris George or a Dan Reichert better have a breakout season."

It's a nice thought. For a team that knew what it was doing, it might even be a realistic one. But for any of the pitchers Flanagan named (or Blake Stein, or Kris Wilson, or Darrell May) to break out, first they have to break in to the rotation. The Royals appear intent on not letting that happen. This is the dark secret that no one seems to be talking about: the Royals have amassed so much pitching that they don't have a spot for all of their young pitchers. They don't even have room for their most promising ones.

Now, ordinarily an excess of pitching depth wouldn't be a problem. No team has ever complained about having too much pitching. (No team has even admitted to having too much pitching.) But pitching depth is only an asset if you can make the right decisions about which pitchers are your front-line guys and which pitchers are to be used only when necessary. If there's one glaring inadequacy that has plagued this franchise for years, it is their inability to differentiate between the guys who should play and the guys who should sit.

Jeff Suppan remains the ace, by default. He's not great--he's not even very good--but he's the best the Royals have. In fairness, Suppan has thrown more than 200 innings in each of the last three seasons, he has excellent mechanics, and while he's entering his eighth major league season, he only recently turned 27. At $3.8 million this season, he's well compensated for the bulk innings he provides.

As a reward for not throwing a pitch in the last 18 months, Jose Rosado was re-signed to a $3.25 million deal. If he pitches as well as he did when the team's brass went down to see how his rehab was progressing, then maybe he'll earn his millions. It's a big gamble, obviously, although it's hard to fault the Royals for refusing to give up on the best pitcher they've developed since Kevin Appier.

Chad Durbin deserves a chance to build on his 2001 performance; he took a big step forward from his disastrous rookie season in 2000, and he just turned 24.

That's three-fifths of the starting rotation pretty much set in stone before spring training gets underway, leaving just two spots open for auditions. In a move that defies common sense--but typifies the Royals--the team has brought back Paul Byrd to occupy one of them. That leaves exactly one spot still available. It should go to Darrell May, who was brought over from Japan to be in the rotation, and whose credentials across the Pacific were impeccable, except that Blake Stein, who throws as hard as anyone on the staff and who had the best strikeout rate on the Royals last year, deserves it. Except that Dan Reichert probably has the nastiest stuff in the organization, so he should be the #5 starter. Except that Mike MacDougal has been clocked at 99 mph and was very impressive in his cup of coffee last year, so the Royals should break him in at the back of the rotation. Except that everyone seems to have forgotten about Kris Wilson, who made 15 starts last year and has better control than any of the other candidates. Except that I haven't even mentioned Chris George, who is widely considered to be the Royals' most promising young starter.

Well, you might think all that excess in the rotation simply means that some of these guys will break camp in relief, where they can ease their way into the pressures of a major-league job while providing the team with some bullpen depth.

Except that Roberto Hernandez is the undisputed closer, and Jason Grimsley is the undisputed set-up man, and Doug Henry has a guaranteed contract for this year, and Cory Bailey pitched as well as any of them in 2001. Except that the Royals have some fine young relievers as well, like Orber Moreno, and Jeff Austin, and Brad Voyles. Except that the Royals snagged the find of the Rule 5 draft in Miguel Ascencio, and they have to save a spot for him too, right?

There's nothing wrong with having a wealth of options. There's nothing wrong with having the luxury of sending George or MacDougal or Voyles back to the minors for some more seasoning, or trying to solve the enigma of Dan Reichert by putting him in the bullpen. There's nothing wrong with having the peace of mind that comes with knowing that if Jose Rosado's arm still isn't ready, or if one of your other starters feels something pop in his elbow, you're still covered.

However, there is something wrong when your Triple-A rotation can out-pitch your major-league squad. There's definitely something wrong when the best thing that can happen to your pitching staff is for one of your projected starters to go down with an injury so that a better pitcher can take his place.

That's what the Royals have brought on themselves. Faced with a choice between gambling on one of their many unproven but highly-touted young pitchers, and a proven veteran--proven only in the sense that he's provably mediocre--the Royals have again taken the safe route. Risk aversion dominates the Royals' philosophy at every turn. It's why the team pays Roberto Hernandez six million dollars for, essentially, his reputation. It's why the team went with Brent Mayne over Gregg Zaun. It's why they're going with Paul Byrd over a dozen other younger, cheaper, worthier candidates.

The Royals have no balls. They look at a team that lost 97 games last season, that hasn't had a winning season in eight years, and they think that they can somehow find their way to the top without assuming some sort of risk.

As Joe Sheehan writes in Baseball Prospectus 2002: "The fear of the unknown is something the Royals are going to have to get past in building a winning team." Or as Bill James so eloquently put it: "Like a man who never finds love because he fears rejection, the Royals organization has lived in terror of those small moments of pain which are a presage to all joy."

Bill's words ring true in my ears today, which is sad, because he wrote them seven years ago, in the 1995 edition of the Player Ratings Book. The Royals seem determined to insure that they'll still be true seven years from now.

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

Related Content:  Kansas City Royals,  Royals,  The Who,  Dee Brown,  Wrong

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