Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More on Bloomquist, the Royals, and the Nature of Democracy.

Well, I seem to have struck a nerve.

You could make a case that I overreacted to the Royals’ signing of a utility player to a modest contract…but if I have overreacted, then judging by the activity at virtually every Royals blog and forum in existence, we’re all overreacting. We’re overreacting to Willie Bloomquist, the player, because we’re really reacting to Willie Bloomquist, the symbol of a philosophy that has been failing to score runs in Kansas City for the better part of a quarter-century.

Mom always told me to count to ten before saying something when I was angry, and I was worried that I might have written something in the heat of the moment that I would regret later. But it’s been three days, and I wouldn’t take back anything I wrote. The Willie Bloomquist contract, examined in its context, is pretty much indefensible.

But I certainly can clarify some of my thoughts in light of the feedback I’ve gotten. Let’s start with the notion that a relatively minor signing has made me do a complete 180 with regards to my feelings about Dayton Moore. The reality is that I’ve been building to this moment all winter. This wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back so much as a straw-filled chest, but still, this was just the last of many personnel moves that individually were deflating, but collectively have me questioning my faith.

Joe Posnanski has already covered this, but the Royals will be spending about $25 million in 2009 on five players, at least four of whom will be in the starting lineup most nights, and four of those guys were acquired or re-signed this winter: Jose Guillen (career .323 OBP), Mike Jacobs (.318), Coco Crisp (.331), Miguel Olivo (.275), and now The Spork (.324). The acquisition of any one of these guys is forgivable – in Crisp’s case, even laudable – but to acquire all five guys defies common sense. For $25 million, you could have signed Mark Teixeira and still had money left over for Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez, who by the way would still be on your roster. (And I haven’t even mentioned the $6-7 million spent on Kyle Farnsworth and Horacio Ramirez.)

Baseball rewards balance, and punishes redundancy. One Jack Cust in your lineup is an asset, because he mashes the ball and you can hide him at DH – but if you’ve got four Jack Custs in your lineup, then you have no defense at three positions, and pretty soon you’re giving up runs faster than you can score them. Similarly, if you’ve got one low-OBP hitter in your lineup, he can bat ninth and compensate for his low OBP in other ways. But when you’ve got five low-OBP hitters in your lineup, then by definition some of them are going to have to lead off or bat in the middle of the order, and the liability of each additional low-OBP hitter has a multiplier effect.

With that said, my immediate reaction to the news that the Royals had signed Bloomquist was not spontaneous combustion. I reserved judgment until I knew the terms and context of the signing, and in fact had the word come down that the Royals were planning to release Tony Pena and that Bloomquist was signed with the clear purpose of serving as a seven-position utility player, I was prepared to surprise many of you by offering the contract my qualified support. But it didn’t, and so I didn’t.

Look, the front office is obviously going to talk sunshine and roses about a player who has just been acquired, and maybe my criticism of Hillman’s and Moore’s comments were unfair. (Although I still find Moore’s quote that Bloomquist is a “winner” just galling.) But what I find more meaningful than the boilerplate quotes about a player are the things that are not said. Dick Kaegel – and let’s keep in mind, Kaegel is an employee of the Royals, and as such can be considered the team’s mouthpiece – has written two articles on Bloomquist, and in those two articles Pena’s name appears only once – and that’s only in a listing of all the middle infielders on the 40-man roster. Alberto Callaspo’s name appears six times, including quotes like these:

“Bloomquist is expected to compete for the Royals' second-base job with Alberto Callaspo, who finished last season as the regular at that spot.”


“It’s a given that he’ll be able to outrun his principal second-base rival, Callaspo. Now he'll have to prove he's the better overall performer as well.”

Kaegel isn’t just pulling these statements out of thin air – these statements reflect the way that the Royals perceive Bloomquist. Even more damning, here’s a direct quote from Hillman:

“I hear he's a very good fielder at second base with plus-lateral range,” Hillman said. “He turns the double play just fine. He plays short just fine, but it's not his No. 1 infield position.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but saying that Bloomquist “plays short just fine” doesn’t sound like the most ringing endorsement of Bloomquist as the backup shortstop – particularly when the starting shortstop is Mike Aviles, who is perceived as a shaky defensive player. The most logical conclusion from all of this is that Bloomquist does not push Pena off the roster. The Royals have, incredibly, given a seven-figure contract to a guy who hits like a backup shortstop – and plan to waste another roster spot on a backup shortstop who hits like a pitcher.

Let’s hope I’m wrong. There are only four bench spots on a team with a 12-man pitching staff, and one of those goes to the backup catcher. That leaves three spots for Bloomquist, Mark Teahen, and Ross Gload, leaving Pena, Esteban German, and Shealy out in the cold. If Bloomquist represents the Royals’ decision to split the baby between German’s offense and Pena’s defense, wonderful. But pardon me for my skepticism; I’ve seen too many Royals teams hamstrung by bizarre personnel decisions. Teahen might get traded, or Gload might get released (a man can dream), or the Royals might go with a six-man bullpen. Or hell, if Callaspo has a bad spring they might waive him and give Bloomquist the everyday job. I’ll believe Tony Pena is a goner when he’s actually gone.

Beyond the direct on-field implications of having Bloomquist on the roster, there’s a sense that with each new acquisition, we’re finally getting a bead on Moore’s offensive philosophy, and it’s just more of the same – place a premium on the guys who hustle and run and give 110% and don’t beat themselves and insert-your-cliché-here, and stay away from the guys who, you know, hit for power and average and draw walks but don’t love the game with all their heart. It’s the same philosophy that didn’t work with Gerald Perry and Pat Tabler in 1990, and didn’t work with Tom Goodwin and Craig Paquette in 1996, and didn’t work with Terence Long and Joe McEwing in 2005, and I see no reason to think it’s going to work with Willie Bloomquist and Ross Gload in 2009.

Making this even more grating is that Moore has claimed, on many an occasion, that he is familiar with modern baseball analysis, that he understands the importance of OBP. And yet there isn’t a single player on the Royals’ roster – not one – that was acquired by Moore and has even a league-average walk rate. In 2008, the Royals drew fewer walks than all but three teams have in the past 75 years, and Moore’s solution has been to bring in three new players, none of whom has reached base even one-third of the time in his career. I’m tired of hearing one thing with my ears and seeing the exact opposite with my eyes. At some point, Moore’s credibility has to be called into question.

The other argument that I’ve seen used, in response to the notion that the Royals would have been better off signing a single premier free agent rather than spreading the money around to a bunch of mediocrities, is that no free agent worth his salt would sign with Kansas City. Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

The commenter “Stop the Madness” sums up this argument – I’m not picking on him, I’m using his post because he cogently lays out this line of thought:

“Can we please stop with the the fantasy baseball "we should sign X-player for X-million dollars" analysis? It takes two parties to enter negotiations... So, if you think Pat Burrell was just waiting by the phone for the Royals to call, or that he'd play for the Royals for the same salary he'd take from the pennant-winning Rays, you are being silly. Yes, silly. Any self-respecting agent for a GOOD player would take any offer from the Royals, and immediately shop it to 20+ other teams with better hopes of winning and probably make his client a few extra million dollars in the process.”

Do I think Pat Burrell would have signed with the Royals for the same contract the Rays offered? Of course not – all things equal, he’s going to sign with the better team. But do I think Pat Burrell would have signed with the Royals for more money than the Rays offered? Absolutely. All these arguments I’ve heard about the Royals being unable to sign a certain player that they wanted are true – but NOT ONE PLAYER signed with another team when the Royals had the best offer on the table.

Torii Hunter? The Royals offered 5 years, $80 million, and didn’t get him – because the Angels surprised everyone at the last moment with a $90 million offer. Andruw Jones? The Royals didn’t match the Dodgers’ 2 year, $36 million offer – and thank God they didn’t. Another commenter (ejfunk) argued “Did you really think Teixeira was going to sign with Washington?” No, because I didn’t think they’d have the best offer on the table – and they didn’t, not after the Yankees came through with an 8 year, $180 million offer.

It’s always possible – maybe even probable – that a quality free agent will listen to the Royals offer, but only in the hope that they can take that offer to another, better team and ask them to match it. But what if they don’t match it? Gil Meche was getting offered 4 years, $40 million from a pair of teams – the Royals tacked on another year and another million per, and guess what? No one matched it, and they got him. No one was willing to match 3 years and $36 million for Jose Guillen – for good reason – but the point is, the two times the Royals had the best offer on the table for a premier free agent, they signed him.

And as Sam Mellinger writes, “I hear from someone who would know that there was a time during Furcal's free agency that he would've gladly signed with a club like the Royals if they could've matched/surpassed the Dodgers' offer.”

So would Pat Burrell have signed with the Royals for 2/$16? No. Would he have signed for 2/$20? If the Rays weren’t willing to match, I’d say yes. And if they were willing to match, well, there’s Bobby Abreu, or Adam Dunn, or Ben Sheets, or…

I’m not advocating that the Royals should have signed Burrell, who wasn’t the greatest fit for the team – I’m just advocating that they should have targeted a premier free agent, and if they had put the best offer on the table, I’m confident it would be accepted.

(And let’s not compare the Royals to the Nationals. The reputation of the Royals with the national media notwithstanding, thanks to Moore & Co. the reputation of the Royals within the game is much, much better than it was two or three years ago. The Royals might rank lower on a prospective free agent’s radar than the Yankees or Angels, but they rank as highly as any other AL Central team.)

Here’s another way to look at it. Courtesy of ESPN’s Free Agent Tracker, I added up the 2009 salaries guaranteed by each team to free agents this winter. The Yankees top the list, obviously, at $66 million ($22.5 to Mark Teixeira, $23 to C.C. Sabathia, $16.5 to A.J. Burnett, $4 to Damaso Marte). The Cubs are second at $26.25 million, mostly to Ryan Dempster and Milton Bradley. Here’s the list of the top 15 teams, and the most pricey free agent each team signed:

NYY: $66 million

CHC: $26.25 million

SFG: $24 million

PHI: $19.5 million

LAD: $17.08 million

NYM: $13.46 million

LAA: $13 million

BOS: $12.5 million

CLE: $11.75 million

TBR: $10.3 million

CIN: $9.13 million

KC: $7.98 million

HOU: $6.25 million

The Royals rank 12th out of 30 teams; they’d rank 11th if I included John Bale, who is on ESPN’s list but who I’m not counting because the Royals released him with the express purpose of re-signing to a lesser contract. The only team in the AL Central who has spent more is the Indians; the Royals have spent more money in free agency so far than the other three AL Central teams combined.

And keep in mind, this doesn’t include the payouts to Miguel Olivo and Mike Jacobs, or Coco Crisp, not to mention Jose Guillen.

And that’s why this offseason has been such a failure: because with the economy in the dumps, and non-Red Sox/Yankee teams pulling back, the Royals have had a prime opportunity to leverage a reasonable outlay of cash to leapfrog the other teams in their division. Instead, they’ve been making cosmetic improvements.

I still think the Royals are likely to be a better team in 2009 than they were in 2008, because their trio of young players – Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Zack Greinke – are almost certain to play better in the aggregate, and because the Royals can’t help but improve on the 600 at-bats they got from Ross Gload and Tony Pena Jr. last season.

But if anything, that only makes this winter that much more frustrating. Before this winter started, I had pegged the Royals for somewhere between 76-79 wins in 2009. After a lot of movement but no real motion, I might put them somewhere between 78-81 wins – about two additional wins at the cost of millions of dollars. But if they had gone out and focused all their efforts on Adam Dunn, slotted him at 1B/DH, and eliminated all their other acquisitions except for the Coco Crisp trade, they’d probably be an 83-85 win on paper – close enough that if two of the big three had breakout seasons, they could take the division. Instead, their margin of error is much, much smaller.

And of course, the most important task on Moore’s plate for the last nine months – signing Greinke to a long-term deal – remains unfinished.

And that’s why I’ve withdrawn my support for Moore. That’s not to say that I am taking a position that he ought to be relieved of his duties. I just think it’s best that I reserve judgment for now. I’m done with offering my support without getting something in return. I’m no longer applauding a GM for acknowledging the importance of OBP until he actually acquires a single player with an above-average OBP. I’m finished with accepting talk as a substitute for results.

Finally, forgive me for getting a little worked up over the whole issue of fan loyalty. A number of people – some on this site, many more on other sites – have hinted that by jumping off the Dayton Moore bandwagon, that I have been disloyal to the Royals or otherwise damaged my credibility as a fan. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and I certainly encourage all of you to share those opinions freely on my site. But I find this line of thinking not just wrong, but dangerous.

Dissent is the sine qua non of any functioning democracy. The freedom to criticize one’s government without being accused of criticizing one’s country is the principle that led to the American Revolution and the foundation of a new nation. Believe me, as someone who has relatives that live in a country where publicly criticizing the government can and will lead you to prison, there are few rights I hold more dearly than the right to criticize those who have been entrusted by the people to govern on behalf of the people. Without belaboring the point too much, the conflation of dissent with disloyalty, of a lack of faith in our leaders with a lack of patriotism, has led to some of the ugliest periods in American history, from McCarthyism in the 1950s to some of the worst excesses committed in the past few years.

When it comes to our country, we at least have the right to choose our leaders; if we’re not happy with our president, we simply have to wait four years to elect a new one. But when it comes to our sports teams, we have no recourse to poor leadership except for dissent. If William Clay Ford had wanted to keep Matt Millen on as GM of the Detroit Lions for another eight seasons, Lions fans could do nothing but continue to wear bags on their heads. No one would call a Lions fan “disloyal” for any criticisms he might make regarding their team. No one would call a Chiefs fan “disloyal” for calling for Carl Peterson’s head the past few years, even if that same fan groveled at Peterson’s feet for the first decade of King Carl’s tenure. If a team is being run poorly, fans have the right – if not the duty – of calling out the people responsible.

It wasn’t anywhere close to being the worst moment in my time as a sports fan, but I don’t think I have ever been angrier as a sports fan than when Dick Vermeil, who coached a 13-3 team with the best Chiefs’ offense that anyone had ever seen, that had a first-round bye and opened the playoffs at home, lost that playoff game because the Greg Robinson-led defense surrendered 38 points without making the Colts punt once. But that’s not what made me angry. What made me angry was when, after quite literally two years of fan unrest regarding Robinson’s tenure leading up to that game, the Chiefs finally acknowledged the inevitable and fired Robinson immediately afterwards – only Vermeil spent most of the press conference castigating everyone who was critical of Robinson, defending his assistant to the bitter end.

We had heard for years about how high a priority Vermeil placed on loyalty, and that day we saw the ugly fruit of those misplaced priorities. Vermeil was loyal to his staff, alright – he placed loyalty to his staff above his loyalty to the team. He then lashed out at the rest of us for not sharing that loyalty, as if the point of being a Chiefs fan was to root for the front office.

Fans may get impatient, they may get stupid, but they never get distracted: their ultimate loyalty is always with the team. That’s the point of being a fan. Vermeil lost sight of that point. King Louis XIV said “l’etat, c’est moi,” and in that moment Dick Vermeil thought that he was the Chiefs, and I still think that that moment triggered the death spiral the Chiefs fell into over the next five years. (I hold Vermeil more accountable than Herm Edwards for the disaster that was the 2008 season.)

So if you think I’m wrong about Willie Bloomquist, speak up. If you think I’m wrong about Dayton Moore, rise up and make your voice heard. But please don’t say that I don’t care about the Royals anymore, or that I’m not rooting for them to win in 2009, or that I don’t hope with every fiber of my being that I spend all season eating my words as the Royals trample over the division on their way to the playoffs. And please don’t say that Rob Neyer isn’t a Royals fan anymore, even if he’s hinting at it himself. We all know he’ll be back the minute they start winning, and after writing professionally about baseball for the past two decades, observing as every non-Expo franchise in baseball except the Royals went to the playoffs, he’s earned the right to not have his fan credentials questioned.

It’s Dayton Moore’s job as general manager to put the Royals in the playoffs. It’s my job as a fan to hold him to that standard, and to call him out when I don’t think he’s doing his job. To say that I’m not a real fan because I have lost patience with Moore isn’t just misguided. It’s positively un-American.


I hope as many of you as possible are able to make it out to Royals FanFest, and that at least some of you make it to the revival of the Awards Night as well. I'd love to be there, but my wife is expecting our third child in two weeks, so I'm rooted here for now. I'm sure you all will be representing me in spirit.