Rany on the Royals: Cutting Bait

by Rany Jazayerli, M.D.

If the Royals are in a good frame of mind, it must be spring.

If they're still in first place, it must be spring.

If Tony Muser has a smile on his face, it definitely must be spring.

Last season, spring training got off to an inauspicious debut when intriguing NRI Steve Rain put his own twist on the term "sleeper," getting released on the first full day of workouts after waking up to his own personal alarm clock--one set a couple of hours later than everyone else's. This spring got off to an eerily similar start; intriguing NRI Johnny Ruffin was released after the Royals found out he had off-season surgery to clean out some bony deposits, without telling anyone. That would be a perfectly legitimate reason for Ruffin's dismissal... if it was his elbow being operated on. Instead, it was a toe.

A couple of days later, the team suffered their first significant injury of the season. Following in the grand tradition of the injuries that stalled the careers of Blake Stein and Jeremy Giambi, the injury felled perhaps the one player the Royals could ill afford to have an early setback. If Carlos Beltran or Mike Sweeney cracked a rib and missed a few weeks, their job would still be waiting for them on their return. But even if Mark Quinn is ready to go by Opening Day, the missed time only increases the opportunity for the Royals to mess with his future by demoting him to part-time status.

Nevertheless, the news coming out of Baseball City--for the final time, as spring operations are moving to Arizona after this year--has been mostly positive so far. Sweeney's heel has healed. Carlos Febles hasn't torn, separated, or broken anything yet. Dan Reichert is throwing strikes. Chuck Knoblauch is taking balls. More impressively, the Royals are talking about how great it is that Chuck Knoblauch is taking balls.

The most positive news by far, though, is that Jose Rosado was released. Seriously.

I don't mean that in a cruel way. Rosado is the best pitcher the Royals have developed in the last decade. He reached the major leagues at age 21, and in 16 starts recorded a 3.21 ERA. That he went 29-39 over the next four years is almost entirely a reflection of his context: poor run support which saddled him with undeserved losses, and poor management which made him one of the most abused young pitchers in the game and contributed to precipitous second-half declines in 1997 and 1999.

There is no doubt that Jose Rosado deserved a better fate than to pitch for the Kansas City Royals from 1996 to 1999, just as there is no doubt that the Royals deserved a better fate than to be stuck with a multi-million dollar contract in 2000 and 2001.

See, the story that no one is talking about is that at least some members of the Royals organization privately wonder whether Rosado's arm was hurting before he signed his two-year, $6.5-million contract in the winter of 2000, and that he kept that information private. I have no idea whether there is any truth to the allegation, but the suspicion was there. That suspicion only grew when Rosado showed up last spring claiming his arm didn't hurt, only it did hurt, and he pitched like it. By the time he admitted what was obvious and had the arm re-examined, he required a second surgery which wiped out yet another season.

In December, with a contract renewal on the line, Rosado worked out in front of the Royals' brass and threw the crap out of the ball. When he showed up for spring training with the contract in hand, he just threw like crap. I think the Royals can be forgiven for ceasing to pay attention every time Rosado cried wolf. I think they were in their rights to demand that he finally pay the rent.

In a way, this story resembles a far more publicized transaction several springs ago, when the Royals suddenly announced that Bo Jackson's career was over. Like Jackson, Rosado was a great player at his best, and the timing of his release seems callous and financially motivated. At least, I hope so, because like Jackson before him, Rosado's release was absolutely deserved. Sure, the Royals could have given him another outing or two to see if his fastball could zip past the John Tudor-in-a-sling stage, but if he had remained on the roster beyond March 15, the portion of his salary which was guaranteed would have increased from one-sixth to one-fourth, a difference of nearly $300,000.

If the Royals made the move based on financial considerations, all I can say is, hallelujah. This might be the first time that Allard Baird has made a conscious effort to cut costs by cutting the fat from the hugely-overcompensated middle class. More importantly, it's the first piece of evidence we've ever seen that Baird understands one of the most important concepts for any GM to master: sunk costs.

Rosado was paid $3.25 million to make five starts in 2000, and he was paid $3.25 million again in 2001 to do absolutely nothing. He's already been guaranteed $533,000 this year. Given how much time and how much money the Royals have invested in him so far, it must be awfully tempting to keep him on the roster for another go 'round, in the hope that, after so much time and so much money, their investment in him might finally pay some dividends. After all, unlike Bo, Rosado's future is no longer in the hands of modern medicine. He's pitching without pain for the first time in two years, and it would be very easy to assume that with time and continued rehab, he might be able to contribute at some point this year.

Baird didn't buy that line of thinking, figuring that after paying seven million dollars for Rosado to pitch five times, it was time to cut bait. Baird didn't cut Rosado because he thought Rosie's career was over. Baird cut him because he compared Rosado to the other options for the starting rotation, and came to the startling conclusion that the only thing Rosado has on guys like Dan Reichert and Chris George is service time and income.

For that, Baird has my admiration. After all, if he can conclude that he can't afford to waste millions of dollars on Jose Rosado, how much longer can it be before he connects the dots with Roberto Hernandez?

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

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