- Royals fans have become quite accustomed to the fringe benefits of being a bad team: an early draft pick (and the accompanying opportunity to blow that pick by passing on the best player available to save money – I’m so glad we took Jeff Austin instead of J.D. Drew ten years ago), a plum spot in the Rule 5 draft, first dibs on the waiver wire. To that, we can add the fact that bad teams don’t have to worry about having their roster disrupted by the World Baseball Classic. Three years ago, I don’t recall a single significant member of the Royals that participated.
This year things are different, which is yet another sign that the Royals are slowly pulling themselves out of the morass of the post-strike era. The Mexicutioner will close for
Jose Guillen and Miguel Olivo will be playing for the Dominican Republic, which should have no impact on the Royals, both because their starting jobs are fairly secure, and because it’s not clear that an injury to either player would hurt the team at all. Mike Aviles is the starting shortstop for the Puerto Rican team – he’s come a long way, baby – but I can’t imagine that his absence will endanger his starting role on the Royals one bit. And then there’s Lenny DiNardo, working as a ringer for the Italian team but otherwise irrelevant. (I’m guessing that my brother and I could make the Syrian national team right now. We’d have a sizeable advantage on the other applicants: we’d know the rules of the game.)
Finally, there’s Dylan Lindsey, the 17-year-old South African pitcher who’s most famous for the fact that no one in the Royals organization – other than the scout who signed him – has even seen him pitch. (Strangely, this is the second straight WBC featuring a Royals pitcher on the South African team – Barry Armitage was one of the team’s most prominent members three years ago, and if he could have held onto a ninth-inning lead,
The most impactful spring training desertion is Mark Teahen, who will be playing third base for Team
The WBC is to be played every four years, but after the first one was hurriedly put together in 2006, it was agreed that the second one would be held three years later before starting the quadrennial pattern. This may have been a lucky break for the Royals. A year from now, Alex Gordon might have spent a few weeks backing up David Wright at third base, and more importantly, Zack Greinke might have been in Team USA’s rotation. This year the WBC goes on with no impact to the Royals’ rotation, and it will be four years – and another Greinke contract – before we have to worry about this event again.
- If there’s one player on the roster that you have to root for to have a huge March, it’s Alberto Callaspo. Unless Teahen magically learns how to play second base from ninety feet away, second base is going to come down to Bert vs. the Spork. Sam Mellinger has already set his over/under on Bloomquist’s starts at second base at 100, and while I’d take the under on that, the fact that 100 starts is even theoretically possible scares the hell out of me.
Joe Posnanski has written of "The Gloaden Rule", which states: "1) Use Ross Gload correctly, he will help your team win games. 2) Use Ross Gload incorrectly, he will get you fired." That rule applies doubly so for Bloomquist. Used as a backup at seven different positions, as a defensive replacement at second base, as an early-inning pinch-hitter when you need baserunners more than you need power, he’s a near-perfect 25th man. As an everyday starter, he’s a whirling vortex of suck that threatens to bring down every offensive rally he comes into contact with. If you could commune with the future and have access to the number of starts made by a single member of the Royals in 2009, Bloomquist is the guy I’d pick. If he makes 30 starts this year, the Royals have a chance. If he makes 130 starts, they don’t.
- Speaking of Gload, am I being unreasonably optimistic when I say that there’s actually a chance the Royals might cut their losses with him? He has a guaranteed contract for 2009, but I have yet to see any clear-cut evidence that he’s guaranteed a spot on the roster. The roster math for the Royals is pretty daunting, particularly since Hillman is committed to keeping 12 pitchers. DeJesus, Crisp, and Guillen man the outfield; Gordon and Aviles lock down the left side of the infield. Olivo and Buck share catcher duties. Jacobs will play at either first base or DH, and Teahen and Bloomquist are roster locks.
That leaves all of three roster spots for Butler, Callaspo, Brayan Pena, Shealy, Gload, Tony Pena Jr, or anyone else. If Butler or Callaspo fail to make the roster, something has gone terribly wrong, and for the third spot, I’d argue that Brayan Pena or Shealy – both of whom are out of options – are a better use of that roster spot than Gload. (And that doesn't account for the possibility of another acquisition this month, which wouldn't surprise me at all.)
Giving Gload a two-year contract for no reason (Gload wasn’t eligible for free agency any time soon) remains one of
As Bob Dutton reports, the Royals may be considering just that. It may be a small decision in the grand scheme of things, but if the Royals do release Gload, the implications are fairly significant: it means that Moore understands the concept of a sunk cost, that he’s willing to admit when he’s made a mistake, and that he’s able to convince David Glass to pay a player to not actually play. Stay tuned. If Gload gets cut before Opening Day, it will be a very welcome sign that the Royals are hellbent on contending this year, and neither sentiment nor the ghosts of decisions past will get in their way.
- Some of you may have read Christina Kahrl’s column on the Royals’ small but very real playoff hopes. She makes many of the same points I’ve made – that the AL Central is a very compressed division, that even the division favorite Indians have holes, and that if the Royals are going to pull this off, it’s going to be on the backs of their talented young players, and not on the veterans that they’ve thrown millions of dollars at over the last two seasons.
I’ve been rooting for an underdog for so long that part of me resents Kahrl for giving the Royals as much credit as she does. I don’t want anyone to believe in us – it will make the inevitable victory that much more satisfying.
Obviously, that’s juvenile. It’s very, very hard – nearly impossible – for a team to suddenly reach the playoffs without having someone believe in them first.* The Rays had their believers last year. Even the Braves had a bandwagon of supporters back in 1991 – the Braves were just 39-40 to start that season, but a lot of people (myself included) looked at the team during the first half of the season and said, man, there’s some talent on this squad.
Talent doesn’t just materialize out of thin air, and you’re not going to win without talent. The Royals tried that before in 2003 – I don’t know anyone who was talking them up before that season – and it didn’t work. You need a foundation of talent to dream. The Royals have that foundation now, and suddenly people who don’t bleed blue and white are starting to take that dream seriously.
*: I have no explanation for the 2008
The latest to do so is Bill Simmons, who not once but twice this week talked up the Royals on "The B.S. Report." In his March 2nd podcast – flip to the 48-minute mark – he starts by talking up the Chiefs as the biggest sleeper in the NFL next year, but around the 52-minute mark goes out of his way during a football discussion to hitch his train to the Royals this summer. “You might be looking at The Year of Kansas City.”
The next day he goes even further during a discussion with Matthew Berry - again, forward ahead to the 48-minute mark. “I love the Royals in general – I think that whole team is going to take off this year. I like Cruz, I like Soria, I love Mike Aviles. Gordon – this is his third year, he’s due to make the third-year leap. I like Billy Butler. I just like that team.” This podcast is worth listening to, if only to hear
So obviously, not everyone has taken notice of the Royals. But Simmons has, and there are few, if any, sportswriters more popularly read than him. (And Simmons isn’t just blowing smoke. I have it on good authority that he stands to make some money if the Royals win the division. Or he would, if gambling were legal.)
I guess we’ll just have to accept that the bandwagon isn’t solely made up of die-hards. But hey, if the Royals go to the playoffs this year, none of us are going to complain or even remember that a few national observers thought this was a possibility. And it’s fun to go into the season talking up the Royals’ chances of a playoff run without being openly laughed at for a change.
We ought to prepare ourselves for a different kind of heartbreak this year, though. The saving grace of the Royals the last 20 years is that they’ve been so bad that they don’t have any near-misses on their resume. The Royals have been eliminated from playoff consideration with at least four days to go in every season since 1986, and they haven’t been more than mathematically alive in any season past about September 15th. This could be the year the Royals fall two or games short, and if that happens, I guarantee that we’ll be bitching about the money wasted on Kyle Farnsworth or Horacio Ramirez, or the playing time given to Gload or Bloomquist, or the one-of-a-kind event that is the Jose Guillen Experience, as the difference between missing the playoffs and making it. I might as well bookmark this column now, because if that’s the case I’ll almost certainly want to quote from this paragraph six months from now.
But you know what? I’ll take that risk, and so will every one of you. If the Royals go out there and challenge for first place all year long, and come up a game or two short, or if they collapse in September and cough up a division title that was in their grasp, we’re going to feel a hurt that, for many of us, we’ve never felt before. But at least we’ll feel something. We’ve been beaten down as Royals fans for so long that we’ve become numb to the pain. To feel pain is to feel alive, and Royals fans have endured two decades worth of dead Septembers. I don’t know if the season will end in agony or in ecstacy, but I’ve got a good feeling that this year, at least it won’t end with a sense of relief.