Hello from Indianapolis. Between the sub-zero temperatures, biting wind, and multiple forms of precipitation we’ve had today, this convention puts the Winter in the Winter Meetings.
It seems like every year we read that this year’s meetings are the slowest yet. Well, since I’ve been down here I’ve heard three different people tell me that this is the slowest…Winter Meetings…ever. We have one massive trade that was just made official (great for Yankees, okay for Tigers, bad for Diamondbacks), and a whole lot of waiting. From the Royals’ perspective, this is almost certainly a good thing.
As the bitter taste of the 2009 season slowly gets washed out, it’s time to face the reality that, miracles aside, the Royals are not going to be a contender in 2010. As such, it’s time to acknowledge that whether the Royals can be deemed to have a successful season next year has next-to-nothing to do with their win-loss record.
This is not an easy thing to accept. After 15+ years of almost ceaseless irrelevance, it’s not easy to swallow the notion that we’ll have to wait at least one more season to dream again. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. The alternative is to delude ourselves into thinking that adding the right mix of players this winter might be the difference between success and failure in 2010.
The Royals deluded themselves into thinking that two years ago, when they signed Jose Guillen. They deluded themselves last winter when they signed Kyle Farnsworth and Willie Bloomquist and traded for Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp. (Granted, if they also deluded Zack Greinke, then it was all worth it in the end.)
This winter, there are no illusions. And that’s a blessing if it means that the Royals can get back to doing what they should have been doing exclusively since Dayton Moore was hired: building towards a future that, if you squint, has finally started to move from the distant horizon to a spot on the landscape two or three years away. So the fact that the Royals haven’t made any moves during these meetings is almost certainly good news. As my friend Joe Sheehan put it, this free-agent pool calls to mind WOPR's line from WarGames that "the only winning move is not to play."
Granted, the Royals have had a lot of discussion with the bargain basement of the free agent market, particularly with catchers. They were in hard on Ivan Rodriguez before the Nationals swooped in with their 2-year, $6 million deal, graciously keeping the Royals from re-living the Chuck Knoblauch era. But they’ve been linked to Jason Kendall, Rod Barajas, even Jose Molina, all guys who share two characteristics: 1) they’d all come fairly cheaply, and 2) they’re all worse players than the incumbent they’d be replacing, John Buck.
Now’s the time where I’d ordinarily foam at the mouth about the fact that the Royals want to release Buck, who hit .247/.299/.484 last year (his OPS+ was 103, meaning he was an above-average hitter despite playing a premium defensive position) and is just 29 years old, and replace him with someone like Kendall, who hit .241/.331/.305 in the inferior league last year and is 35. But it’s not that simple.
If the Royals really think Kendall or Barajas will help the Royals in 2010 more than Buck, then we would once again have to seriously question their ability to make even the most basic baseball decisions. But I’ve become increasingly convinced that the desire to replace Buck is rooted in finances more than anything else. Buck made $2.9 million last year, and would probably be due close to $3.5 million in arbitration for next year. The Royals seem to have a cap of about $2 million they’d like to pay to whoever Brayan Pena backs up in 2010.
While the Royals do have some issues with Buck’s defense – deservedly, as he’s thrown out exactly one-sixth (20 of 120) basestealers the last two years – I get the impression that the biggest issue they have with him is simply his price tag. If they could sign him to a $2 million contract, we probably wouldn’t be hearing anything about Kendall et al. But that can’t happen – literally, as a player can not have his salary cut by more than 20% in arbitration.
Having said that, if the Royals are convinced that they can’t afford Buck’s salary in arbitration, I don’t understand why they haven’t released him already. My thinking is that once Buck is a free agent, he has a chance to find out what the market for him is. If it turns out that the market is not that strong, then the Royals might be able to sign him for a better price than he would have earned in arbitration – particularly since the Royals would be able to offer Buck the same carrot they offered Kendall and Ivan Rodriguez, regular playing time, that a lot of other – better – organizations aren’t in a position to offer. The way the Royals are playing this game, they might well sign Kendall for $2 million, release Buck, and then find out that they could have signed Buck at a price similar to what they paid for Kendall.
But I’m working on the assumption that the Royals are going to downgrade behind the plate from Buck to someone like Jason Kendall, and I’m okay with that. Why? Because at the same time that the Royals can’t find enough coins under their cushions to keep Buck, they could find enough money to sign one of the most intriguing Cuban players to defect in recent memory. The Royals have guaranteed $7 million to Noel Arguelles over the next five years – the contract seems to be official pending only things like visas granted and physicals administered. On the one hand, it’s not a lot of money – it’s less money than the Royals guaranteed Farnsworth last winter. On the other hand, it’s the largest amateur contract the Royals have ever handed out, domestically or internationally.
So on the one hand we have a team that can’t afford spending an extra 1-1.5 million dollars for their starting catcher in 2010, and on the other hand we have a team willing to spend $1.4 million a year for the next five years for a player that might not reach Kansas City until 2012. There’s one inescapable conclusion to draw from this: the Royals, finally, have placed a higher priority on amateur talent than on free agent talent. And not just rhetorically, but financially: they're putting their money where their mouth has long been.
This is such a no-brainer for a small-market team that it really shouldn’t even warrant a mention – except that, all around baseball, you’ll find that even small-market teams will spend millions on immediate help at the major league level but then pinch pennies when it comes to signing prospects. To pick another small-market team at random, the Cincinnati Reds – like two dozen other teams – passed over Rick Porcello in the amateur draft in 2007 to save a few million dollars, signing a high school catcher named Devin Mesoraco instead. (Mesoraco looks like a future backup at best.) The following winter, they gave Francisco Cordero a 4-year, $46 million contract to be their closer. The Padres took Matt Bush with the #1 overall pick in 2004 to save money, then turned around and plowed that savings into one year of 38-year-old innings sponge Woody Williams. And so on.
The Royals are certainly guilty of this – just look at the names listed above. But for all the money that Dayton Moore has wasted on bad free agents, that money never came at the expense of the amateur budget. The Royals shied away from Porcello like everyone else, a debatable decision at the time which looks much worse now, but Mike Moustakas was not a signability pick. Eric Hosmer certainly wasn’t – he signed for $6 million up front, a better contract than #1 overall pick Tim Beckham got (Beckham signed for $6.15 million, but spread out over time.) Aaron Crow was drafted because the Royals thought he was the best player available. Tim Melville, Wil Myers, and Chris Dwyer all got seven-figure bonuses after dropping because other teams shied away from their demands. The Royals spent $600,000 on Korean catcher Shin-Jin Ho, and $1.35 million on Nicaraguan third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert.
And now that the purse-strings have been tightened a little, it’s notable that the first budget to get slashed is not the amateur budget, but the professional one. It’s never a good thing when budgets get slashed, but by slashing the free agent budget first, Moore has done an excellent job of mitigating the damage. It's okay if the Royals can’t afford John Buck, as long as they can afford Arguelles, a young (19 or 20 in Cuban years, could be 23 or 24 for all we know) athletic left-hander with a strong build, who throws in the low-to-mid 90s with an excellent changeup and a promising curveball. Arguelles would almost certainly be a first-round pick if he were subject to the amateur draft, with Keith Law describing him as a probable top-ten pick overall. Along with Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, and Chris Dwyer, Arguelles gives the Royals what has to be the strongest collection of left-handed pitchers in any team’s farm system.
The up-to-the-minute buzz is that the Royals might give Jason Kendall a two-year contract to get this thing done. This would be not just dumb but pointless: the point of keeping Kendall over Buck is to save money, but if you give Kendall a two-year deal, you run a very high risk that by Kendall plays so poorly in 2010 that the second year of his contract is dead money that needs to be eaten, and Kendall will probably make more in a two-year deal than Buck would make next season.
But if the worst thing that Moore does this off-season is give Jason Kendall a two-year deal…well, I’ve seen a lot worse than that. And there’s a good chance that will be the case, if for no other reason than the Royals simply don’t have the money to make a more expensive mistake. They might not have 7 million dollars lying around to sign Rich Harden or Mike Cameron or someone who could make a real impact, but they also don’t have 7 million dollars lying around to give to Hank Blalock or Xavier Nady or some other waste of payroll.
But they do have 7 million dollars lying around to give to Noel Arguelles. And for that, I am grateful, and more than a little surprised.