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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.

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