On August 31, 2008, the Royals looked dead to the baseball world. A shocking September run lifted the spirits of the KC baseball faithful and visions of competing in 2009 ran through everyone’s minds. In the 08/09 offseason, a variety of moves was made in the interest of contention in 2009 that were deleterious to the team’s long term and short-term chances. In light of this recent Royals hot streak, it is important to remember the lesson of 2008.
On August 29, 2008, the Royals record was 56-78. Following a 2007 that saw the team improve its win total for the second consecutive year, 2008 seemed headed in the opposite direction. But, fueled by an insane month of Ryan Shealy, Kyle Davies stringing five excellent starts together, the soft September callup-infused lineups and pitching staffs of other teams, four games against baseball’s first ever $100 million payroll/100 loss team, the Royals slayed the month of September, going 18-7.
The Royals hot September meant that the good guys finished in not-last-place for the first time since 2003, reaching the seventy-five win ‘milestone’. Improvement on the win total for three consecutive seasons, a finish out of the cellar, and a hot conclusion to the season had many people believing that the Royals were, at long last, ready to contend for the postseason.
Based on the assumption that contention was in play, the 2008/2009 offseason was handled accordingly. The two biggest moves of the offseason were acquiring Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs in exchange for two young, pre-arb relievers. The loss of those relievers necessitated the signing of Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz. Willie Bloomquist, Horacio Ramirez, and Sydney Ponson were also brought in to round out the team, Miguel Olivo’s option was exercised.
The short term result was a disaster. Despite an overrated 18-11 start, the 2009 team regressed mightily, well out of contention before the all-star break. Mike Jacobs was a disaster and no longer plays major league baseball. Coco Crisp was decent for a month, then out for the rest of the season with injuries. Farnsworth was a disaster in meaningful situations early in the year, but pitched well enough in mop up duty later in the season to make his overall numbers not too horrible, though he has admittedly been better this year. Juan Cruz had the opposite season trajectory, initially unhittable before injury and ineffectiveness ruined his season, he no longer plays major league baseball. Ho-Ram and Ponson did not survive the season with the team. Willie Bloomquist...was Willie Bloomquist. And so on.
The financial ramifications were also troublesome. While none of those individual deals was a total albatross in of itself, add them up and it is a lot more money. Twenty million or so spent on a bunch of scrubs that could have been spent on the draft, international signings, an impact free agent, saved for next year, etc.
The long-term implications of the failed offseason moves are less clear but more ominous. A year of ML at-bats for Kila Ka'aihue was instead wasted on the DFA’d Mike Jacobs. Development of Mitch Maier was stalled by playing Crisp. Cheap bullpen building blocks Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez were gone from the team. A second round draft pick was forfeited for signing Juan Cruz. A year behind the plate for Brayan Pena was lost. The notion that contention was possible also led to the panic trade for Yuniesky Betancourt. While it’s true that DM and company think that Yuni is or at least can be a shortstop is a problem in of itself, but it seems that such a trade, prospects for a veteran, is less likely if the team didn’t think it was contending.
It might turn out that Pena really can’t catch and Kila really does have slider bat speed. That’s fine. But at least we would have known that in 2009 instead of finding that out in 2011, and we would have been two years ahead in finding and developing replacements for those failed prospects. If Kila proves to not be the answer, maybe we take a flyer on a Jake Fox type and win the lottery. Maybe when we move Mark Teahen, we go after different players in return since our perception of organizational need has changed.
Maybe everything that possibly can goes right in 2011 and it really is a contending year. Moose has the rookie year that Ryan Braun had, Montgomery is Strasburg, Gordon lives up to his ridiculous expectations, etc. What makes contention that year more likely? Kila the rookie DH or Kila the two year veteran DH? Maier the AAAA part timer, or Maier the two year starter?
This recent Royals hot streak has been fun. “Man, I LOVE winning! You know? It's like, better than losing!” But, as trading season approaches, it’s important to keep things in perspective. The Royals would have to win like 65% of their remaining games to win the division. Plus, leapfrogging three teams is much harder than just catching one team. Deciding to not sell on the veterans on the team or, horror of horrors, becoming buyers at the deadline would be a disaster.
There is a difference between ‘turning things around’ or ‘the team finally coming together’ and a month of good play/good luck. I would hate to see contending in 2012 or 2013 take a step back so that contending in 2010 could take a teeny tiny step forward that would still leave us far short. To say nothing of the fact that selling on the veterans could actually improve the team in the short term. Replacing Guillen and Pods with Kila and Gordon plus less Bloomquist could very well make contending in 2010 MORE likely than keeping them would. When tempted to keep the team together based on the recent hot streak, it’s important to remember 2008, when we let a month of hot baseball obfuscate the rest of the season, and the team suffered for it in the long term and the short term.