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December 27, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

All the Wrong Moves

by Jim Baker

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Todays' topic of discussion is this: how far should a team go to avoid embarrassing itself?

After the Tigers' disastrous 2003 season, I argued long and loud that they should go after free agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez in a big way because they had to do something to restore order to their universe. My contention was that after a season that was either historically bad or on the outskirts of historical inadequacy--depending on you calibrate things--the team needed to do something to get it back to at least mediocrity--up to and including giving an aging catcher more than other teams were offering for more years than would have been prudent under normal circumstances.

Rodriguez responded with the second-highest EqA of his career in the first year of his contract. The Tigers improved from the realm of historically bad to run-of-the-mill mediocre. Thanks to Rodriguez and a couple of other moves, the team successfully stepped back from the abyss.

This winter, the Tigers intradivisional rivals in Kansas City find themselves in a position very similar to Detroit's coming out of the 2003 season. They have, over the last two years, managed to lose 100-plus games with room to spare. This is a fairly infrequent occurrence in the postwar baseball world. Only eight non-expansion, postwar teams have managed the trick:

1952-54 Pirates: 317 losses
2002-03 Tigers: 225 losses
2004-05 Royals: 210 losses
1964-65 A's: 208 losses
2001-02 Devil Rays: 206 losses
1972-73 Rangers: 205 losses
1973-74 Padres: 204 losses
1953-54 Browns/Orioles: 200 losses

(This list does not include the three expansion teams that stumbled badly out of the gate and actually lost 100 games in more than two consecutive years: the 1961-64 Senators, 1962-65 Mets and 1977-79 Blue Jays.)

In all, only seven non-expansion teams in the 20th and 21st centuries have lost 100 games three years in a row or more. The Royals are looking at the possibility of joining this rogue's gallery of historic pre-war loser teams and the Pirates mentioned above:

1938-42 Phillies: 534 losses
1909-12 Braves: 416 losses
1910-12 Browns: 315 losses
1925-27 Red Sox: 315 losses
1919-21 A's: 310 losses
1922-24 Braves: 300 losses

I think we can all agree that not wanting to join this list of baseball infamy is a noble pursuit. What we need to figure out is if the Royals' moves have improved the team to the point where they can confidently stride into the 2006 season secure in the knowledge that they are not in danger of falling further into the void.

Reggie Sanders: The bad news for the Royals in 2006 is that Sanders has continued his madcap alternating .500-plus slugging seasons for 12 years now and next season is slated to be of the sub-.500 variety. The good news is that they have him under contract for two years so they are scheduled to get one of his plus-.500 seasons as well. This might be bad news, though, because Sanders will be 39 in the second year of his contract. He can still hit, especially in odd-numbered years. Let's put him on the ballot for Most-Likely-to-be-Traded-to-a-Contender.

Scott Elarton: One of the men who sponsored a petition to have Coors Field become an all-tee ball facility. He looked a lot more normal in Cleveland the past season and-a-half, but normal enough to warrant a two-year contract? Elarton battled Jake Westbrook for the title of Worst Starting Pitcher on the 2005 Indians and may have nosed him out. He did lead the team in home runs allowed, though, and even managed to give up more than KC whipping boy Jose Lima. (Although, to be fair, Lima ranked sixth in HR/9 to Elarton's eighth.) Had the Royals put the moves on Elarton's fellow Indian free agent Kevin Millwood, then we would know they had ambitions beyond avoiding humiliation.

Elmer Dessens: You could definitely see an invite to spring training. You might even see your way clear on a one-year contract. A two-year deal for a 34-year old pitcher coming off a 65-inning season (that included seven starts) who was never that good to begin with, though? That's pushing it.

Joe Mays: How bad of a year was it for the Royals? Consider that they gave an unconditional release to the pitcher who had the best ERA among their 2005 starters and it was not a stupid move. Why not? For one thing, D.J. Carrasco, the pitcher in question, joined Russ Ortiz, Kirk Saarloos, Kirk Rueter as the only pitchers throwing 100-plus innings in 2005 and walking more men than they struck out. Looking at that same group of 140, new Royal Joe Mays ranked 137th in K/9.

Mark Grudzielanek: Royals are born, not made--or something like that. Grudzielanek's low walk rates fit in well with the traditional Royals' modus operandi of helping opposing pitchers keep their pitch counts down. Kansas City second basemen hit .235/.293/.334 last year (with a healthy bump from Tony Graffanino's brief tenure), so, chances are, Grudz is going to beat the OBP in batting average alone. Definitely an upgrade worth a victory, maybe two.

Mark Redman: Everyone is guilty of what I call "permanent assignment"--at least to some extent. Permanent assignment is the act of locking in a perception about a player (or a person or anything else--it can transcend baseball) and failing to adjust that perception based on subsequent events. I have it in my head that Redman is still the competent commodity he was coming off his 2002-03 campaigns in which he posted PRAA of 8 and 12. In the past two years, though, those numbers have slipped to -6 and -9. Last year, the Royals only had one starter who managed not to have a negative number in this category. Mike Wood posted a zero in 10 starts.

Bobby Madritsch: The problem with real-life Cinderella stories is that they keep going past the glass-slipper fitting. Madritsch's rise in 2004 was a wonderful tale. If he can bounce back from his malady, this would prove to be the Royals craftiest move of the offseason.

Doug Mientkiewicz: You'll probably be able to gauge how right or wrong the Royals season went by how many plate appearances Mientkiewicz gets. If he qualifies for the batting title, then chances are they will have joined the legions of the lost detailed above. If they use him in the roles for which he is best suited and continue to do so throughout the year, then chances are they've gotten up off the doormat.

So, have the Royals done enough to avoid the century mark again? At this point, I would say it's a toss-up. The good news is that the Royals, like the '03 Tigers before them, didn't play up to projections last year and were actually three or four games better than their record showed. With that as a jumping off point, they may get under triple figures in losses just on luck alone. None of these moves--especially the pitching additions--will help the Royals the way Rodriguez helped the Tigers.

Speaking of whom, in the second year of his four-year contract, Rodriguez posted the worst batting average since the earliest days of his career. We can argue whether his offensive downturn was a matter of aging or a wholly misguided disregard for plate discipline which was extreme even for this notorious free swinger. In either event, the four-year deal isn't looking so rosy now for Detroit. Royals management can look at his deal as a cautionary tale or they can ride their new crop of second-, third- and no-line acquisitions to another 100-loss season and kick themselves for not going after more spectacular quick fixes.

Related Content:  Royals,  The Who,  Bad Season

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