Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Kansas City on the Clock

Today’s the day. This is it. Now is the time. Seize the moment. It’s time for the bounce. For those of you that aren’t aware, I am announcing it right here. June 6, 2006 is the day the Royals turn it all around. Today our pain turns into joy at Kaufman Stadium. Today we replace the bags over our heads with our Royals’ caps and DeJesus jerseys. Today we hit the bottom and start moving up. There’s a pretty wide gap between the Royals and the rest of the league, but starting today, that gap is going to close. I know it’s coming. I can feel it. My mind is spinning with excitement. Did I mention that I hit my head on the door frame as I climbed out of my car this morning?

No, that can’t be it. It’s the Royals. It just has to be. You see, today is the Major League Baseball 2006 amateur draft. Over the next 36 hours, around 50 new players will be added to the Royals stable of young talent. For the first time in franchise history, the Royals will make the first overall pick in that draft. The player they choose will join Alex Gordon and Billy Butler and Justin Huber as the future of Kansas City Royals baseball. Rumors are that they will go with a polished (meaning college) pitcher – either Andrew Miller from North Carolina or Brad Lincoln from Houston. I know, there are also those rumors out there that say they Royals haven’t decided yet or aren’t going to be willing to pay number one pick money, so will draft a lesser-known or high school prospect that will be easier to sign. A year ago, I’d have said those rumors were right. Not this year. Not now. Not anymore.

They Royals have changed. There’s a new sheriff in town – or at least, there will be on Thursday. Last week, after months of speculation, Royals’ ownership said goodbye to Allard Baird and the perpetual three-year plan. To replace him, they hired the biggest up-and-comer in major league baseball front offices - Atlanta Braves assistant general manager Dayton Moore. By all accounts, this is the best possible hire the Royals could have made. He’s got a history in scouting and player development, two areas where the Royals are in serious need. He’s got a strong personality. He grew up rooting for the Royals and has a love for Kansas City. He’s going to be the difference maker. Part of the agreement with the Braves is that Moore won’t join the Royals officially until after the draft ends on Wednesday. But that’s okay. He spent the week prior to the announcement meeting with the Glass family. His goals are clear. It’s time to bring this once-proud franchise, this former World Series champion, back to relevancy in Major League Baseball. That journey starts today with the draft.

Now, in the waning hours before Moore’s tenure truly begins, let’s examine just how bad things got over the last six years. I’m not trying to pile on Allard Baird. I’m sure he is a good guy. And I am certainly not absolving David and Dan Glass as owners. They are still on the hook for their unwillingness to re-locate to Kansas City and view the club as more than just another discount shopping store – this one offering great deals at super-low prices to other MLB clubs. However, I have no problem saying that Allard Baird’s near six-year tenure as general manager of the Kansas City Royals was an unmitigated failure. It was awful. Baird failed in all possible areas to do his job. I agree that the GM cannot play the games and that the players have to perform to succeed. However, you get to a tipping point where the talent divide is so extreme, even if the Royals players were playing at the top of their game, they would still lose two out of every three. That is where we are right now. And the underlying cause is that for the last six years, Baird was completely and utterly unable to do the four things required of a general manager in Major League Baseball.

First, Baird was unable to manage the budget in a way that would allow for success. “But the budget is the responsibility of ownership!” you say. That is true. However, the general manager has the ear of ownership and it is the job of the general manager to school ownership on how to spend their money in order to put a quality product on the field. The Royals now have a reputation as misers – unwilling to put adequate money into any facet of the operation – scouting, player development, the front office or the big league club. More than a small portion of that blame falls at the feet of the general manager, who was unable to convince ownership how and where to spend those dollars. Because of that failure, Dayton Moore will be required to revamp the baseball operations budget. His first and biggest test will come as he works to convince the Glass family to spend more money AWAY from Kaufman stadium. Hire better scouts, expand operations in Latin America, get the best minds available into the front office. These will be the first big hurdles for success. My optimistic side tells me that Moore got these assurances from David Glass up-front. My realistic side reminds me that there is most likely still work to be done.

Second, Allard Baird will be remembered for many years as one of the worst player evaluators ever to hold a high profile position in major league sports. Baird’s first three drafts were absolute busts. The jury is still out on his last two because those players are still getting seasoned in the minor leagues. But, make no mistake, if Gordon and Butler fail and if Chris Lubanski doesn’t show fast improvement, the Baird player evaluation stock will fall even further. His first two first-round picks – Colt Griffin in 2001 and Zach Grienke in 2002 are unconditional failures. But, it’s not just the number one picks that have hurt the Royals. The Royals haven’t had a steal in the draft in years. They haven’t uncovered a sleeper pick that becomes even an average to good major league player. And, the truly despicable final straw - in most MLB circles, the Royals aren’t considered a draft contender after about the fifth round. Why? Because it takes money to sign draft picks and the Royals haven’t been willing to spend that money. So, for the last 90% of the draft – picks 6 through 50 – the Royals haven’t been looking at talent, but at sign-ability. They’ll draft a player higher that will be easier to sign, but those types of players shouldn’t really be drafted in the first place. Add to that the unwillingness to spend money in Latin America finding potential stars and the problems grow even worse. Moore’s job will be to make the draft meaningful and expand the Royals role in Latin America. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to have that influence this year, but in 2007, he’ll be expected to make picks late in the draft that could be sleeping giants. That’s how you build a farm system.

Third, and speaking of that farm system, Allard Baird never managed to build it up enough to have any success. Instead, Baird built an entire franchise full of Double-A players. Most of the young guys on the Royals roster this year should be trying to refine their skills in Wichita or one of the other minor league clubs. Instead, they are rushed to the majors. This creates multiple problems. First, these guys are overmatched at the major league level. The perpetual failure hurts the players’ growth. They don’t see success because they are taking their unrefined skills against the best in the world instead of developing them against comparable talent and growing with success. Major League Baseball is different than most other professional sports in that MOST players don’t really mature until their mid to late 20s. Yes, the super stars may get there earlier, but for every one Albert Pujols there are 20 Derek Lees – guys that need a few years to mature and then can give you two to four years of great play. The Royals’ system doesn’t allow those players to develop because they are forced to fail against the guys that have already gone through the developmental process. Second, because so many guys are rushed to the majors, players that really shouldn’t be playing in any affiliated minor league are taking up roster spots on A and AA ball clubs. These are players that have no shot at making it to the majors. If the player has no realistic shot at making it to Kansas City, cut him loose! Third, if you do have a player that has strong major league potential and you rush him to the majors, his service days add up and you are unable to keep him longer when free agency arrives. Without getting into the finer points of the spectacularly complex world of MLB free agency, players move through stages toward unrestricted free agency by accruing days of service in the major leagues. If you have to rush a David DeJesus up, he’s going to be eligible for free agency sooner. That means, when he’s hit that mature point, a small market club like the Royals won’t be able to afford him. People crying for Alex Gordon to play third in Kansas City this year need to understand that the only thing that will accomplish will be getting Gordon onto the Yankees’ payroll sooner rather than later. Let him develop, than use his MLB days of service when he is at the beginning of his prime. Then build a franchise and environment that a player wants to be a part of and maybe one or two will choose to stick around. That’s the only model that works for small market baseball teams.

Finally, and most spectacularly, Allard Baird failed in the vital role of trades and free agency. Building a major league ball club is like putting together a 25 piece puzzle. Your farm system should supply 20 of those spots. The final five you will have to get through free agency. When you need to trade a young prospect away because you know you can’t resign him, you need to get players back that will be able to fill those first 20 spots within one or two years. Baird’s tenure was filled with awful moves in both of these categories. First, in free agency, Baird grabbed guys with glaring problems (Chuck Knobloch), serious injury concerns (Kevin Appier in 2003, twice) or terrible track records (Benito Santiago and Juan Gonzalez before the 2004 season). None of these moves worked. He also gave contract extensions to Angel Berroa and Matt Stairs, signed Jose Lima and gobbled up middle infielders with no power like I grab crab Rangoon at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.

So that leaves us with trades. Baird’s Royals tenure will be known for the trading away of what could have been the greatest young outfield in the league. In his six years, he traded the following players: In 2001, he traded Johnny Damon for Roberto Hernandez, Angel Berroa and AJ Hinch. Later that year, he joined a three team trade that sent Jermaine Dye to Oakland and brought Nefi Perez from Colorado to Kansas City. Finally, in 2004, he sent Carlos Beltran to Houston and ended up with John Buck, Mark Teahan and Mike Wood. These three trades, more than any other moves, define the ineptitude of Baird’s tenure. Three times he had young, productive and high-demand players and he gave them away for piece parts. Berroa, Buck, Teahan and Wood would not be on the major league roster of any other big league club. Hernandez, Hinch and Perez are no longer with the Royals. They were awful moves and Baird deserved to lose his job based on those three moves alone. Dayton Moore will have to be able to get value in return when the young Royals stars are priced out of Kansas City. His ability to do so will define his tenure, as well.

So, there you have it. Out with the old, in with the new. Now, I’m left with only one thing that truly bothers me. Since John Scheurholz stepped down as Royals GM, we’ve had the following first names in that position Herk (Robinson), Allard (Baird), Muzzy (Jackson, interim GM until Moore takes over) and Dayton (Moore). I know it’s not a reflection on their ability, just strange. Nobody named “Jack” available? How about “Tom”? Does “Matt” disqualify me for the job? I think I’ll change my name to Spartacus. Then I’ll get a place in line. Until then, go Royals. It’s a new day.

The Race to 63! The Royals went on the road last week and did surprisingly well, winning one in New York, two in Oakland and one in Seattle. Alas, they are still on pace to be one of the worst ever. Current record: 14-41. Projected record: 42-120.