It’s often said that baseball is a game of failure. Even the best offensive seasons of all time saw hitters fail to reach base on a hit more than half the time they put the ball in play. What is mentioned far less often is that baseball is a sport of disappointment for its fans, as well. For most of its history, the vast majority of teams have failed to make the post-season, much less the World Series. Heck, Mariners fans root for a team that, even in more than half a century, have never made it to the World Series.
Still, perhaps one of the greatest kinds of disappointment is prone to happen at trade deadlines and during the off-season. It’s a time for excitement and hope, absolutely. But when your team has a beloved player, it’s also potentially a time for disappointment. I was reminded of this during the most recent off-season when Atlanta chose to move on from Freddie Freeman and traded for Matt Olson instead.
Freeman had been a staple of the Atlanta offense for more than a decade. He had been good, he had been prominent, and more recently the team had been good with him on it. As a fan of baseball, it was sad to see him move on to Los Angeles even if that’s what made the most business sense for all players and teams involved.
The fact of the matter is, though, that it made all kinds of sense from a business perspective. Atlanta got Olson, who is four years younger, for two years longer than Freeman’s deal ended up being and at roughly the same cost. Were emotions removed from the equation, I imagine most of us would make a very similar choice.
This brings us back around to the Royals. Royals fans are entirely familiar with the bummer of business decisions around fan favorites. Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer famously departed the team following 2017 to get big contracts elsewhere that the Royals couldn’t or wouldn’t match. It’s a bummer, but it’s the business of baseball. Of course, those losses didn’t represent the best choices the Royals could have made, business-wise. They weren’t really competing in 2017 and so it would have actually been much smarter to trade those players, along with Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar, for prospects that might have helped jump-start the team into its next competitive window.
But the Royals were loyal to their guys, and wanted to give the fanbase as much time with them as possible. So they hung on to them as long as possible even though it didn’t make much business sense. This is far from the first or last time we’ve seen the Royals prefer nostalgia or loyalty over the best business choice. Signing Alex Gordon to that last year, refusing to trade Whit Merrifield for prospects when he was more valuable, giving Alcides Escobar starts when it was clear he just didn’t have it anymore.
Of course, it’s not like that loyalty NEVER pans out. The Royals famously re-worked Salvador Perez’s awful contract to pay him closer to his value. It’s hard to say how much it influenced the later contract negotiations that mean Perez will almost certainly be a Royal for life, but it must have played some role. Meanwhile, Salvy seems set to have his best years as part of the latest deal that may not have happened without some of that anti-business loyalty kicking in earlier.
The problem is that, the way the Royals do things, loyalty often leads to bad decisions. It might seem nice that the Royals are letting Carlos Santana get the lion’s share of playing time at first despite the fact that he appears unable to hit at anything approaching replacement level, anymore. And, in a vacuum, it would be. But this isn’t a vacuum. Loyalty to Carlos Santana is hurting other players - primarily Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares - as well as the team as a whole.
Most of the time this gets framed as preventing younger guys from developing, at that’s true. But at this point, Santana is so bad that Isbel and Olivares might just be better than him now. And Santana isn’t the only person causing problems for the Royals due to their loyalty. Ryan O’Hearn is simultaneously a guy it would make more sense for the Royals to play than Santana and a guy the team probably shouldn’t even have on its roster. Loyalty to Cal Eldred means that the Royals have kept a pitching coach who, even if he isn’t to blame for the problems of the young pitchers, isn’t improving things either.
When Moore promised to be more transactional, he cited the success of the Tampa Bay Rays. And, yeah, they can be a hard team to root for because you never know which players are sticking around and which will be gone next week. Winning isn’t everything, or else their stadium would constantly be full.
Still, after making that promise last year the team followed it up with one of the quietest off-seasons in recent memory. That even included refusing to make several moves that were so obvious to everyone tuned into the sport that they were taken as granted right up until it was too late to make them. I’m not saying the Royals need to cut bait on Salvy the moment it looks like he’s finally going into decline, but if they continue to cite business reasons for why they can’t compete while refusing to make obviously smart business choices Royals fans are going to continue to suffer the worst of both worlds - a team that can’t keep most of its stars or compete.