Everything has changed. Pessimism has turned to optimism. Dread has been replaced by hope. Overnight, the Royals have gone from a franchise that was one transaction away from official joke status to a team that is slowly, haltingly–but finally–headed in the right direction.
Mike Sweeney is not, by himself, going to save this franchise. Locking him up for five more years no more guarantees a turnaround than having him on the team the past five years prevented the Royals from perennial last-place finishes. But for the first time in years, the Royals have a foundation. They have a face. They can point to Mike Sweeney and say, "our best player has bought into our future." They did it for far less than anyone thought. Instead of the $12-$15 million a season that everyone figured it would take to land Sweeney, the Royals got his John Hancock for five years, $55 million, or what we Wichitans like to call "Darren Dreifort money."
So kudos all around. Kudos to David Glass, for finally distinguishing himself from Carl Pohlad by making a serious financial commitment to his team. Kudos to Allard Baird, who helped keep the negotiations on track–and off the sports pages–and not flinching when Sweeney's agents insisted on an unprecedented contract clause to clinch the deal. Kudos to those agents, Seth Levinson and Keith Miller, for not pressuring their client into trying to squeeze every last dollar out of his biggest payday. Levinson only adds to his well-deserved reputation for representing his clients' best interests, even at the cost of his own commission. Keith, you're finally forgiven for hitting .167 in 1993.
But mostly, let's give thanks to Mike Sweeney. The more we hear about what a perfect gentlemen he is, the more the natural inclination is to wonder what we're not hearing about, what skeletons he might have in his closet.
No more. I give up. There is simply nothing bad you can say about Mike Sweeney, who gave up about three million dollars a year to stay loyal to a team that hasn't sniffed .500 in his career. Well, I guess you can say that he's naive.
Sweeney's contract, as momentous as it was, is not the only reason why things are suddenly looking up in Kansas City. Just weeks after Allard Baird made the decision to cut the cord with Jose Rosado (a connection which was only temporarily severed, as Rosado signed a minor-league deal last week), Baird made the far more difficult decision to release Doug Henry.
This was a borderline astonishing decision. Rosado's release saved the Royals $2.7 million. Doug Henry had a guaranteed contract, meaning the Royals saved exactly nada by letting him go. On the contrary; since they'll have to pay the player who replaces him at least the major-league minimum, cutting Henry now actually cost the team $200,000. Not only that, but with both Darrell May and Roberto Hernandez starting the season on the DL, Baird could have kept Henry around for at least a week or two and still kept pet projects like Jeremy Affeldt, Brian Shouse, and Miguel Asencio on the roster. Instead, Baird actually recalled Jeff Austin (who had been banished to Triple-A weeks ago) rather than keep Henry around any longer.
This sends out two signals regarding Baird, both of them positive. The first is that he finally realizes where the Royals lie on the Success Cycle. The Royals are in no position to give opportunities to a veteran middle reliever who isn't going to be around when the team is finally good again. With the quantity of young pitchers in the minors finally reaching critical mass, Baird realized that the Royals can not take the next step in the rebuilding process without giving those pitchers the chance to get established in the majors.
The second is that Baird is willing to admit that he made a mistake when he signed Henry in the first place, even if it means eating a seven-figure salary. The same man who six months ago thought Neifi Perez was as valuable as Jermaine Dye has mastered the concept of sunk costs. Grey matter hasn't sprouted so fast since the Wizard gave the Scarecrow a brain.