Losing teams like the Royals need to exploit their only advantage
The Royals don't have pressure to win now and they have time on their side
They should be spending time developing players such as Luke Hochevar
New manager Ned Yost has a history of giving young guys a chance to grow
Something good happened for the Kansas City Royals the other day -- or anyway, it feels to me like something good. I've written here that the biggest reason that Trey Hillman was unsuccessful as manager (three or four times bigger than any other reason) is because he had a lousy team. There are ways, I suppose, to make a lousy team less lousy and he was unable to to do that. There are signs, I suppose, of a manager being better than the talent around him, and he did not really show those signs. But more than that, it seems to me that when you give a manager Jose Guillen and say "Here's your best hitter," and you give a manager Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz and say "They will get you through the seventh and eighth innings," and you give a manager Yuni Betancourt and say, "Now you have an everyday shortstop" ... what you are really saying is, "We will be firing you at an undisclosed future date."
Still, I suppose what bothered me most about the Trey Hillman Era is I never really liked what the Royals were doing. I wrote about the frustration of a fan whose view of sports clashes with his team, but in this case I mean something bigger than that. No, I never really understood the small stuff either. Just this year, the first inning sacrifice bunt by a No. 3 hitter (David DeJesus), the positioning of Guillen in right field as late inning defensive maneuver (the winning hit landed in front of him), leaving Gil Meche out there through seven walks and a 128 pitches and so on and so on. But, in the end, baseball managers exist to be second guessed. On bad days (and in the Trey Era there were a lot of bad days) nobody likes the hometown manager.
I'm talking about the bigger picture stuff. I never quite followed the Royals play for success. The play seemed to be to win as many games as possible, which, sure, sounds sensible enough. But for the Royals, at this point in their development, I think that's a terrible idea. Ask yourself this question again: What ADVANTAGE do bad, small market teams have over the talented and rich teams? They have less talent and less money. They are less appealing to good free agents and the most talented players internationally. So what advantage do the Kansas City Royals have over, say, the Boston Red Sox? The easy answer is "none" but I don't think it's the right answer. In the Army -- and I have been lucky enough to see it in the classrooms -- they spend countless hours studying the "advantages" smaller, less equipped armies have over the powerful U.S. Those smaller armies may be more mobile. They may have better communication lines. They may be more committed. And so on.
It seems to me (and I've written this before) that the powerful advantage for the Royals and the like is simply this: time. That is what the Royals have that the Red Sox and Yankees and Phillies and Cardinals do not. The Royals have the luxury of time. Those teams have to win NOW, or bad things are going to happen. Ownership spends a lot of money, fans pay a fortune for tickets, expectations are heightened, and they better win. When they don't win, there's intense pressure. People get fired. Players get released. Headlines scream. When those teams don't win, there are consequences. Everyone's watching.
Having to win now creates a certain intensity but it can also spark mistakes. It can cause teams to overvalue a player who seems JUST PERFECT for the team. It can cause teams to be impatient -- either with prospects or slumping players. Win Now can spark bad trades, bad signings, short-sighted moves. Consider Seattle. Hey, I know, I was one of those people who loved what Seattle was doing in the off-season, bringing in Cliff Lee and building the best defense in baseball and all that.
But I will say that just a few days before the season began I was having a conversation with Chardon Jimmy and both of us, as if waking up from a daydream, thought at the same time: "Wait a minute, the Mariners aren't going to be any good. They can't score runs AT ALL." Of course, that's how it has played out, at least so far. But the larger point is that Mariners saw this too ... they knew they couldn't score runs. They were last in the league in runs last year. But they also knew that they were THISCLOSE to winning. And so they reached. They picked up human cannon ball Milton Bradley and hoped he would thrive in a new environment. They signed Chone Figgins (and his career sub-100 OPS+) to a four-year deal and hoped he really had learned how to walk. They brought back Ken Griffey Jr. for emotional purposes and also in the hopes he might hit a righty now and then. That's why they kept 36-year-old Mike Sweeney (who actually isn't hitting too badly -- low average but decent power in part-time duty). They have to win NOW. It still could work -- the season has only just begun. But the signs aren't the greatest. The Mariners are dead last in the league in runs scored again.
The Royals -- and other teams like the Pirates, Orioles, Cleveland, the Nationals and so on -- should know they're not going to win right away. My suspicion, though, is that the Royals have not known this. My suspicion is that they have done an extremely poor job of self-evaluation. For instance they really seemed to believe that last year's disastrous season was, in large part, a function of bad luck and injuries. They really seemed to believe that had Coco Crisp and Mike Aviles stayed healthy and Joakim Soria not missed a month or so, they would have been much, much better than the 97-loss team they were.
A few fans feel that way too ... I hear from them quite a lot. But fans can be somewhere between optimistic and unrealistic. Teams cannot. My guess, based on what the Royals did during the offseason, is that they actually believed they were not far away from being a .500 or so ball club. They signed a handful of veteran players -- Scott Podsednik, Jason Kendall*, Rick Ankiel -- in the hope of giving Trey Hillman a viable team in 2010. Inevitably -- and, yes, it was as inevitable as December snow in Cleveland -- that was the team that cost Hillman his job.
*The Royals seem absolutely thrilled with what they're getting from Jason Kendall. No, I'm serious -- they're beyond thrilled. Yes, Kendall is slugging .341. Yes, after a pretty hot start (for getting on base, anyway) he is hitting .233/.329/.286 the last month or so. Yes, he has committed six errors and has thrown out 26 percent of attempted base stealers, which is a lower percentage than cast off Miguel Olivo threw out last year. Yes, according to the Dewan numbers, he has cost the Royals two runs defensively. Yes, the Royals ERA is at the moment dead last in the American League -- it's worse than last season though teams so far have scored markedly fewer runs this year. And, finally, yes, the Royals are on pace to lose 100 games.
Still, everyone around the Royals seems thrilled with Jason Kendall. My good friends Ryan Lefebvre and Frank White talk nightly on television about how well he blocks the plate (the wild pitches DO seem down this year) and how he will give you a professional at-bat and how much pitchers are learning from him and how much he's adding to the team. Royals officials constantly praise Kendall's winning approach to baseball, his intensity for the game, his leadership. Maybe it's so. Maybe there are hidden treasures he's providing, things that will help this team for years to come.
But for now, it's probably worth pointing out:
Former Royals catcher John Buck, for Toronto, is hitting .278/.331/.602 with eight home runs.
Former Royals catcher Miguel Olivo, for Colorado is hitting .289/.343/.567 with eight home runs.
Olivo, by all apparent indications, is playing better defense too -- he's plus-6 runs on the Dewan scale.
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