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Royals' Latest Plan Won't Work Either

by Jim Callis
January 19, 2006

CHICAGO—Once upon a time, Kansas City had a baseball team that wasn't an embarrassment. No, seriously.

The Royals were the model all expansion franchises wanted to emulate. They climbed above .500 in just their third season (1971) and won seven division titles in a 10-year span, reaching the World Series in 1980 and winning it all in 1985.

They haven't been back to the playoffs since, and now they're a complete laughingstock. The Royals have matched or set a franchise record for losses in five of the last seven years, upping the ante to 106 in 2005. Locals wondering how hapless the old Kansas City Athletics must have been now know first-hand.

The Royals' cynical business approach has made them look worse. Annually receiving eight-figure revenue-sharing payments from Major League Baseball, they have chosen to pocket the money as profit rather than beefing up one of the game's lowest payrolls.

Not this offseason, though. During a two-week stretch in December, Kansas City signed seven free agents:

Elmer Dessens, two years, $3.4 million.

Scott Elarton, two years, $8 million.

Mark Grudzielanek, one year, $4 million.

Doug Mientkiewicz, one year, $1.85 million.

Paul Bako, one year, $700,000.

Reggie Sanders, two years, $10 million.

Joe Mays, one year, $1 million.

The Royals, who also traded for Mark Redman (2006 salary: $4.5 million) in December, can't be accused of just hoarding revenue-sharing dollars any longer. They also can't be accused of doing anything that matters.

Opportunity Denied

Signing third-tier free-agent leftovers may make the Royals better than if they went with the players already on hand, but only marginally so. Just as a pig in a dress is still a pig, a last-place club with Elarton and Grudzielanek is still a last-place club.

Losing 86 or 96 games this year, rather than 106, won't revive baseball in Kansas City. It won't improve the Royals' attendance problems after they ranked 29th among the 30 teams in 2005. And now they've cut off the opportunity for a few of their most promising youngsters to show what they can do.

Perennial Futures Gamer Justin Huber hit .326 with 23 homers in the minors last year, but he's blocked at first base by Mientkiewicz and at DH by Mike Sweeney. Andres Blanco, Ruben Gotay and Donnie Murphy didn't show much in their stints at second base for Kansas City in 2005, but all once were highly regarded by the organization. If the Royals ever contend again, they're more likely to be part of that future than Grudzielanek is.

Kansas City also may have delayed the arrival of its only two blue-chip prospects. If the Royals decide to stick with Mark Teahen at third base, Alex Gordon would move to the outfield, which is more crowded after Sanders signed the biggest free-agent contract of general manager Allard Baird's tenure. Either Gordon would have to wait, or dynamic athlete Chip Ambres would lose the chance to show what he could do and Emil Brown (a lesser version of Sanders, albeit a cheaper one) would head to the bench.

Left fielder Billy Butler faces the same obstacles. Actually, most scouts think he's destined for first base or DH--where Sweeney, Mientkiewicz and Huber will be looking for at-bats.

Creative Approach Needed

There's no easy solution for the Royals, who have a terrible big league team and a thin farm system with little behind Gordon, Butler and Huber. No GM in baseball--not Billy Beane or John Schuerholz or anyone else--could turn this franchise around quickly.

But they're doing exactly what they shouldn't be doing, spending excess cash just for the sake of spending it. They might as well just burn it, for all the good it's going to do.

The only way to rebuild the Royals, who can't attract premium free agents and don't have the money to sign them, is via the farm system. Instead of throwing money at Dessens and Sanders, they should be pouring it into the draft and international signings.

Kansas City has the No. 1 overall pick in June, which will cost them a bonus of upwards of $4 million. But the Royals should keep their wallet open after that. The club that spent less than slot money on its top choices in 2003 and 2004, and a bargain-basement $1,000 for each of its fifth- through ninth-round choices in 2003, needs to be more creative.

The Royals dropped $2 million total in rounds two through 10 in the 2005 draft. They need to up that to $10 million or more. Take three or four players considered to be first-round talents and give them first-round money. Instead of selecting Justin Bristow in the 22nd round last year but not meeting his price tag to divert him from Auburn, lock him up.

Adhering to MLB's slotting system isn't doing Kansas City any good. The draft doesn't offer any sure things, as the Royals know all too well after spending $4.15 million on Colt Griffin and Roscoe Crosby in 2001. But aggressively trying to get better, even if it results in some spectacular flameouts, is preferable to dying a slow, miserable death.

You can contact Jim Callis by sending e-mail to jimcallis@baseballamerica.com.