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Royals Review Dialogue: Pittsburgh and Kansas City, Two Franchises in Despair (Part One)

Do you ever find yourself thinking, "well, this team sucks, but at least I'm not a _____ fan?" That little mental game has gotten progressively harder in recent years, as old standbys like Detroit, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee have overtaken the Royals by most accounts. Luckily, we still have the Pirates.

They got their stadium, and still aren't much better.

Inspired by the Dave Littlefield-esque winter signings of Allard Baird, last weekend I chatted with Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout, our sister Pirates SB Nation site. Heres the first installment of our discussion of the similarities and differences between the Pirates and Royals.

Bucs Dugout: I initiated this conversation because I've been struck recently by the similarities between the directions taken by the Royals and Pirates franchises. The Pirates and Royals have done a lot of similar things since Dave Littlefield and Allard Baird took over their respective teams in 2001:

Drive for 75

Bucs Dugout: In every year since Littlefield took his job (and a few years before that), the Pirates have acquired veteran player after veteran player, even though such players have never had any conceivable hope of helping the Pirates build a playoff team. These players typically appear safer to the casual fan than unproven players. As others have pointed out, though, these veterans get the Pirates nowhere even when they perform well. 2003 was a best-case scenario in terms of the performance of these veterans - the Pirates got good or great seasons from Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs, Kenny Lofton, and Jeff Suppan. But they only won 75 games, Sanders and Stairs left after the season, Lofton was dealt with Aramis Ramirez in July in a terrible trade for virtually nothing, and Suppan was essentially dealt with Scott Sauerbeck for current utilityman Freddy Sanchez. The Bucs got nowhere.

Again, that's a best-case scenario. When things didn't work out, which they often don't when your team counts on mediocre players in their 30s and 40s, the results were terrible - in 2004, the free-agent signings of Randall Simon, Chris Stynes and Raul Mondesi were disastrous, and the Pirates won 72 games.

The goal of these signings seems to be what many Bucs fans call the "Drive for 75" - trying to avoid a catastrophic season by playing it 'safe' with veterans (who, really, are hardly more safe than young players anyway), rather than building a contender through years of planning and development.

I wonder if you could comment on this with regard to the Royals' recent signings of Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek, Doug Mientkiewicz, Paul Bako, Scott Elarton, and Joe Mays.

Royals Review: It's telling that Sanders and Stairs are now Royals, marking as you note the similar approach, but also Kansas City's inability to truly do anything well, instead half-heartedly copying other approaches. Matt Stairs was a much better option in 2003 than he is in 2006, ditto for Reggie Sanders. I think Littlefield needs to be given a certain degree of credit for the ingenuity displayed by the temp player approach, but nevertheless, it's clearly been proven to be ineffective. There is a reason those guys were available in the first place: Reggie Sanders isn't like an early `00s Juan Gonzalez or something and he certainly isn't a bona fide talent like Carlos Delgado. Granted, we both agree the '03 trades with Chicago were terrible, but what could Littlefield have really gotten? Of course, Aramis clouds the water a bit, since he was traded from a completely different trajectory.

When the Pirates made those signings a few years back, while no one was printing up playoff tickets, there did seem to be a real sense, from the analyst community to mainstream journalists to the message board people, that "hey, the Pirates might be interesting/good". You know, the kind of situation that people seem to think Texas or Milwaukee might be in, where your local radio hosts predict a wildcard and Bill Simmons says the 50-1 odds of them winning the pennant are worth taking. The point is, there was at least a plausible upside. Sadly, I haven't really come across anyone who truly thinks the Royals will be good next year. The Royals fandom has accepted that these guys are placeholders until the youngsters are ready and that we'll be more competitive.

That's it. I guess I appreciate the intellectual honesty, but it also defeats the premise of the signings at the same time: ticket sales won't be appreciably better just by getting 10 games better.

But I'm floored that people even assume the Royals will be any better. I'm absolutely dreading the '06 versions of Reggie Sanders, Mientkiewicz and Bako. And just as surely as one member of Elarton/Mays could be a league average innings guy, the other one could be terrible.

This has been a long way of saying that the Royals are following the flawed Littlefield strategy, but doing it so poorly that they might not even get to 75 wins. In fact, I'd be shocked if they did.

Using Small-Market Status as an Excuse for Fielding a Crappy Team

Bucs Dugout: This one is self-explanatory.

Royals Review: I'll save the ranting on Kid McClatchy to you, but the Royals have no room to talk. Yeah, the market is small. So I guess we just don't try anymore? It's such a strange rhetorical position. What? Demand an increase in the market's population or just willfully suck in the hope the next collective bargaining agreement helps you? Unfortunately the loudest naysayer of small-market baseball is from the team's owners, who, somewhat ironically, happen to be part of the Wal-Mart empire. The David Glass ownership has been a disaster for the Royals, bottomline.

Major-League Payroll Increases, Whether They Make Sense or Not

Bucs Dugout: This off-season, the Pirates spent over $15 million to acquire Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz, Roberto Hernandez and Joe Randa. None of these players (except Burnitz, whom the Pirates have an option on) is signed after 2006. It is very unlikely that any of them will be key players on the next good Pirates team.

Other, more important aspects of the Pirates' organization remain badly underfunded, however. During the 2005 season, it was reported that the Pirates have no advance scouting. None. Their minor-league system includes almost no foreign talent. Their drafts under Littlefield have been thrifty - when Cam Bonifay ran the team, he took (or was allowed to take) chances on good young players, like Zach Duke, who fell in the draft because of signability concerns. Littlefield takes few such chances and has not had much success in the draft after the first round.

Royals Review: That's incredible. And hey, enjoy Joe Randa, by the way. I eagerly await reports as to who takes the "lovable white player" mantle this season in Pittsburgh: Casey or Randa. Ahh, yes, the irrational payroll increase. Weirdly, this is part of the larger PR front designed to prove you can't win. 1) You tell the fans for years that the payroll is set at X and that "unless we get this darned system fixed, that's the way its gonna be". 2) At some point, say, once every 3-5 seasons, you leak reports in October about "Team payroll level to raise to X+20 million next season", followed by nonsensical acquisitions. Hence, the goody bag both our teams picked up this winter. 3) After team fails, ownership throws up hands and says the budget will have to be tightened until "we get this darned system fixed".

Personally, although I seem to be fairly unique in this regard, I think the Royals FA signings this winter were HEAVILY influenced by ownership. An ownership who, without fail, is an inept web of cronies who in this case don't even really know anything about the Wal-Mart their grandparents built, much less baseball. It makes sense if this is part of your big PR drive to show you're interested. In their own ways the Casey and Minky moves are similar, the only real response you can have is an almost stoic, "Umm, why!?"

Bucs Dugout: Just an addendum here. Casey wins the "lovable white guy" award by a mile - he's from Pittsburgh, which was undoubtedly one of the Pirates' reasons for acquiring him. I'd say Randa is more likely to make the ladies swoon, however.

Bad Minor-League Systems

Bucs Dugout: Despite having favorable draft positions each year, the Pirates' minor league system is currently unimpressive. Baseball America, for example, ranks the Pirates' system 18th out of 30 teams going into the 2005 season; that ranking will probably fall this year. Many of the Pirates' best young talents recently graduated to the major leagues or are about to, but Cam Bonifay, not Littlefield, acquired most of those players. There are only a few real prospects left in the minors.

Royals Review: One of the things Rob Neyer started talking about in 2004 - that was the year that everyone followed Billy Beane and jumped at college players, right? - was that teams like the Royals desperately need organizational depth, but they also need really good players. The only way the Royals can ever win is if they draft and develop truly elite players, guys like Carlos Beltran. Drafting low-upside, low-risk college players won't likely get the Royals there, but then again, they weren't competent enough to do it the old way either. For awhile it seemed like Baird was part of the "revolution": he made some good scrap-heap moves, such as Raul Ibanez, and drafted safe, vaguely decent guys like UT Longhorn J.P. Howell. But, as with the attempt to mimic Littlefield, it wasn't a foolproof system anyway, especially when the rest of the League got wise to it. Thus, Beane went back after the high-risk high school pitchers again last draft, because that's were the new advantage was.

The Royals just don't appear to be good at any aspect of fielding a team. They don't evaluate well, they don't develop guys and they don't spend money keeping them around. They seem to view their AAA affiliate with contempt, and I seriously doubt Alex Gordon will spend half a season in the minors. Why not start that arbitration clock ASAP!!

Then again, the impression I get is that I'm in the top 10% of the fanbase in terms of negativity. People believe in the words "youth movement" religiously, and the most intense fan negativity manifests itself in complaints that we don't have a youth movement. Depending on where you start the cycle, the 1990s Twins (since Royals fans seem very anti-Beane/Oakland as a whole) had one or two failed "youth movements" before the most recent group approached semi-success in an incredibly weak early `00s AL Central. No one remembers excitement that the 78 win Pat Meares, Dave Hollins, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Stahoviak 1996 Twins generated. Well, they didn't make it.

Bucs Dugout: Don't forget Rich Becker! I know what you mean - youth movements don't always work. But teams like the Royals and Pirates absolutely have to try them, or they'll never succeed. That's impressive that your fanbase wants young players. The Pirates' fanbase, or at least the Pirates' fanbase as McClatchy and Littlefield perceive it, doesn't seem to want any more young players. This might be interesting to watch with the Royals. As Mike Emeigh likes to point out, the 1997 Pirates ended up contending in a weak division, nearly winning the pennant despite finishing slightly below .500. Then in 1998, they only won 69 games, and their failures were largely (and mostly unfairly) blamed on young players. Every Pirates? offseason since then has been characterized by a dumpster dive for veterans. It?s funny that the Royals have been doing this since their flirtation with contention in 2003.