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Taking their cuts

They're not the Yankees, but these Royals will spend

Posted: Tuesday December 4, 2007 1:07PM; Updated: Tuesday December 4, 2007 7:53PM
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Hiroki Kuroda
The Royals are hoping to land the highly regarded Hiroki Kuroda this winter.
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- At one end of things you have the Yankees, buying up anyone they want, working on mega-major-whopper trades and leaving the rest of baseball to choke on fluttering dollar bills in their take-no-prisoners wake. And on the other end, or at least down toward the bottom, you have the Royals, just trying to get better by whatever meager means they possess.

Except ... last winter, remember, the Royals laid down the most shocking sum for a free-agent pitcher, $55 million for five years of Gil Meche. And this year they just finished off another stunner, a three-year $36 million deal for outfielder Jose Guillen. This after they offered the top center fielder on the free-agent market, Torii Hunter, a five-year deal worth $70 million, only to have the Angels swoop in to steal Hunter away with a $90 million contract. There are other free agents, too, that the Royals covet; center-fielder Andruw Jones, maybe still, and Japanese starter Hiroki Kuroda.

The moral here: Don't automatically count out the Royals just because they're from a "small market." In fact, don't even bring it up.

"I've never ever even mentioned 'small market.' That [hacks] me off every time I hear that," says Dayton Moore, the team's general manager. "There are 2 million people in the [Kansas City] metropolitan area. We want all 2 million of those people to attend multiple games. We can draw 3 million people. We can do that. You know how? Put a winning team on the field."

Moore is in Tennessee this week for baseball's annual winter meetings, and if you don't think he's a player here, you weren't paying attention last winter, when he walked out of the meetings in Orlando with two starters (Meche and Brian Bannister, landed in a trade with the Mets) and a closer (Joakim Soria, a Rule 5 draft pick). Under Moore the Royals have shown a dogged aggressiveness in going after players that they want, even overpaying to get their man (the case with both Meche and Guillen).

In a dollar-on-dollar duel, the Royals aren't going to beat many teams. Still, they have money -- everyone has money in an industry whose revenues soared past $6 billion last season -- and they're intent on spending it to pull themselves out of a 21-year playoff drought.

"If you know what you want," Moore says simply, "go get them."

This is an easy time to bemoan the financial disparity of the game, what with the Yankees following a scorched earth policy. The Bombers, in the past few weeks, have signed closer Mariano Rivera to the largest contract ever for a reliever (on a per-year basis). They've given Jorge Posada the richest contract ever for a catcher. They've agreed to pay $16 million for another year of lefty starter Andy Pettitte. They've signed third baseman Alex Rodriguez to the game's most lucrative contract ever. They've been a major player in trade talks for Twins ace Johan Santana, who will command an extension worth somewhere around $20 million a year.

That kind of lavish spending can be distressing to fans in places like Kansas City and Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. But Moore, in an example that maybe a few other lower-revenue teams might pick up on, is going to keep swinging with the big boys -- for a select few players -- until he connects. He did last year, outspending the Cubs and several other teams on Meche. And he's done it this year with Guillen and a Japanese reliever, Yasuhiko Yabuta, signed to a two-year, $6 million contract last week.

With a reported $25 million to spend this winter and another bump in the team's payroll expected -- the Kansas City Star estimates that payroll, which set a team record at a tad over $58 million at the start of the 2007 season, could climb to near $90 million in a couple of years -- no one should be surprised if Moore actually gets someone else to sign on the dotted line before the winter is over.

"I don't care if you're the New York Yankees, the Kansas City Royals or the Boston Red Sox. That's the only reason we exist, the front offices -- to improve our baseball teams," Moore says. "So when opportunities become available to you, it's important that we sign the player, that we make the impactful trade. The opportunities, you got to cash in on them.

"I know one thing: If we don't go after them, we don't have a chance to get them."

What the recent uptick in the Royals' payroll means won't be determined for months, or even years. The Royals lost 93 games last season. They've had one winning season in their past 13. They haven't been to the postseason since they won the World Series in 1985.

But Moore is convinced -- and he has evidently sold owner David Glass on the idea, too -- that to play with the best teams in the league, the Royals have to throw some money at the players they think they can get.

It's an expensive game to play. But at least the Royals are in it.