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March 19, 2002
Rany On The Royals
Moment of TruthThe 11th hour has begun. That, in itself, is a good sign. The Royals never got to the 11th hour with Johnny Damon. Jermaine Dye was shipped out of town at the slightest hint of urgency. But Mike Sweeney, whose contract expires with the 2002 season, is still in a Royals uniform.
Sweeney represents the final chance at redemption for David Glass and the Kansas City Royals. For years, Royals fans have been fed the party line that the team had no money with which to pursue free agents, and that story washed down easy for a while, because in its place we were offered the promise of an exciting young ballclub that was built from within, a team that could be competitive without outside help.
Reality set in. Those young ballplayers started to come of age, and more importantly, service time. Damon wanted a long-term deal, the Royals offered one at below-market price, and he refused it. The Royals claimed they could not afford him. Curiously, they could afford Roberto Hernandez, who made roughly the same amount of money, while being older and less valuable than Damon.
Then, the dream died. David Glass announced that the Royals could not negotiate any long-term deals with their players until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached.
Well, actually they could. They gave Jose Rosado a two-year contract. They gave two-year deals to Mike Sweeney and Jeff Suppan. But all of those contracts simply replaced salaries that were to be determined by arbitration, anyway. What the Royals couldn't do was buy out a player's right to free agency. Offering one of their fine young players a contract that would keep him in Kansas City any longer than the CBA mandated was taboo. Who knows why; maybe the Royals were concerned that Damon or Dye or Sweeney might prove to be vastly overpaid by the end of such a contract. (This is a legitimate concern for the Royals, who after all can't prevent Hernandez or Neifi Perez from being vastly overpaid in the here and now.) It could be that Glass is one of Selig's closest allies in the game, and has been reassured that a new CBA is coming, one that will prune the salaries of high-priced star ballplayers. Who can blame Glass for believing Selig? When has Allan H. Selig ever been proven wrong?
Regardless, Glass put his foot down, and squashed whatever hope remained. Refusing to sign your best young players to long-term contracts isn't fiscal responsibility; it's suicide. Offering young players long-term security in exchange for locking them at below market value (what they call "cost certainty" in the business) is the small-market franchise's weapon of choice. Glass's announcement was tantamount to throwing down arms and running from the field of battle. (This military reference brought to you by Tony Muser.)
Sign Jermaine Dye to a long-term deal? The Royals couldn't even get Rey Sanchez's name on a new contract. Employing the logic that has served the team so well for the past 12 years, the Royals decided they could live without a booming bat in right field a lot easier than they could live without a slick glove at shortstop. With Neifi Perez, the Royals were pleased they had killed two birds with one stone, even if in the process they strangled fan interest, butchered the trust of their players, and knocked off about six wins a season. Lee Harvey Oswald didn't do as much damage with a single shot.
Afterwards, it appeared that Glass had learned nothing from the debacle. When winter came and Sweeney's impending free agency loomed large the way Damon's impending free agency once loomed large, Glass continued to recite the same catechism that the Royals could not afford to sign him to a long-term deal. They could afford to give Brent Mayne a bloated two-year contract. They could afford to pick up Hernandez's option for more than six million dollars. The Royals simply can't afford to vastly overpay to keep their hired guns and still have enough money left to take care of their own. It wouldn't be prudent.
Last month, Sweeney made it clear that he wasn't going to negotiate during the season. Last week, suddenly, Glass turned an about-face. On Thursday, he said, "I think we have to work to keep Mike Sweeney. I've said a number of times before that I can't imagine the Royals without Mike Sweeney. It's a lot easier to know exactly what you can do if you have a Collective Bargaining Agreement. But we have to find ways to keep him in Kansas City. As soon as we know we're not going to have a Collective Bargaining Agreement any time soon, then I think we ought to go ahead and visit with his agent about it."
"As soon as we know we're not going to have a Collective Bargaining Agreement any time soon"? Wise decision, Mr. Glass. We wouldn't want to rush into any hasty decisions, would we? After all, it's quite possible that a new CBA could be hammered out and signed by both parties by, say, dinnertime tomorrow? Monkeys might fly out of my butt. Neifi Perez could out-homer Alex Rodriguez. (Okay, that last one is a stretch.)
The clock is ticking. The Royals are talking to Sweeney's agents, and his agents are listening. Opening Day is nearly three weeks away; there's plenty of time to iron out an agreement, but only if the Royals understand that they're not simply negotiating to keep Mike Sweeney in powder-blue-with-a-new-black-trim. They're negotiating to keep a semblance of credibility as a franchise.
On a pure talent level, the loss of Sweeney wouldn't cripple the franchise, any more than the loss of Jason Giambi will cripple the A's. First basemen can be replaced, no matter how good they are. However, if the Royals don't re-sign Sweeney, then you can book it that they won't re-sign Carlos Beltran in two years, and they won't re-sign Mark Quinn in three years, or Angel Berroa in six years, or any other good young player that they'd like to keep. Players can take a hint. If the Royals' front office won't trust them with the team's money by offering long-term contracts, the players aren't going to trust the front office with their futures by staying in town a second longer than they're obligated to do so.
The Royals have been edging towards a cliff for the past seven years, and they've now got one foot perched on the precipice. Mike Sweeney's contract negotiations are a fulcrum on which the entire franchise is perched. If David Glass can take his head out of the sand long enough to get Sweeney signed, then the Royals have a starting point to get their other young players eventually signed, starting with Beltran, and the team can start following teams like the A's down the road to small-market success.
If they botch Sweeney's deal and let him walk, or swap him for Pokey Reese at the trading deadline, it's all over. The Royals will become synonymous with the A's, all right.
The Kansas City A's.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.