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John Sherman could be an improvement, but don’t expect a miracle

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He’s still just a businessman.

Well, it’s finally official: this week, John Sherman was unanimously approved by the Major League Baseball owners to complete his purchase of the Kansas City Royals. After two decades under previous owner David Glass—and even longer, if you take into account Glass’ guidance of the team in the 1990s—there’s a brand new face in town.

Glass had his warts, to be sure. He was famously cheap for years, holding back the Royals from doing anything competitive on the field. Anecdotes abound, but here’s a particularly potent one: Carlos Beltran, potential future Hall of Famer and one of the most talented Royals ever, wanted to sign an extension to stay in Kansas City before the 2003 season. He wanted three years for $25 million. The Glass family told him to sign for three years and $24 million. Beltran broke off negotiations after the understandable slight.

Between 2000 and 2013, they were a bottom-10 payroll team every year but one. Only three seasons saw the Royals sport an above average payroll—one of which resulted in a World Series victory (go figure). It would be natural to hope that John Sherman would be more aggressive in his payroll, and that the Royals could compete more often when given more to work with.

Yes, Sherman could definitely be an improvement over Glass. He could be more forward-thinking in regard to analytics and hold his front office to a higher accountability. But I don’t think Sherman will be miraculously better than Glass, and there’s certainly no reason to expect it.

That’s because, like Glass, Sherman is a businessman. The Royals are a business. They are a fancy business, to be sure. But they’re a business. Sherman became rich enough to buy a baseball team by being a good businessman, which means making a lot of money and making shareholders happy. Nothing more, nothing less.

If this sounds like a hit job on Sherman specifically, I promise that it’s not. Rather, it’s an honest examination of what businesses are built to do: make money. It just so happens that one of the best ways to make money is by honestly offering quality products and great customer service.

To put it another way: you can certainly be passionate about your business. But billionaires become billionaires by making money, not by being passionate about what they’re selling. And while I’m sure that Sherman is passionate about baseball and that he cares, nobody spends $1 billion on a passion project. They spend that kind of money so that they can make more money—they expect a return. And nothing quite matches the return on investment and prestige of owning a major professional sports team. It just makes financial sense.

All isn’t lost here. The best way to make more money is by gaining market share and by creating a product that people want to buy. Consistently putting a winner on the field is worth more than consistently putting a loser in the field. There are natural incentives to try to win, and Sherman will take advantage of them.

But there is no reason to believe that Sherman is any different than the other MLB owners. Ewing Kauffman himself hated losing money, and he’s lauded as one of the best sports owners in baseball. Sherman might very well be more aggressive with payroll than Glass was. That could have a positive impact on the club, to be sure. However, Sherman’s payroll or team operation won’t be hugely different. It just won’t.

What will continue to be more important will be the effectiveness of the front office in drafting, signing, extending, and developing players. In other words, Sherman will not be the reason this rebuild succeeds or fails. He can only amplify the result.