Friday, December 10, 2010

Francoeur Comes Home.

I’m sorry, guys. This is all my fault.

I mean, who am I to criticize Dayton Moore for finally doing something that I agitated for 18 months ago? I thought Jeff Francoeur was a risk worth taking then; how can I fault Moore for taking that risk now?

In my defense, that was more than 800 plate appearances (and more than 550 outs) ago. When Francoeur was wearing out his welcome in Atlanta, he was a 25-year-old outfielder just two years removed from a .293/.338/.444, Gold Glove-winning season. When he takes the field next April, he’ll be 27, and his last non-awful season will be four years in the past.

You know what? I’m not taking the blame for this. Dayton Moore and Jeff Francoeur was an inevitability from Day One. A charismatic ex-Brave? Someone Moore had a good personal relationship with in Atlanta? Great tools? No plate discipline? Lots of RBIs? A low OBP? Pleeze. The wonder isn’t that Moore and Francoeur are reunited. The wonder is that it took this long. The only thing this union is missing to make it the quintessential Dayton Moore transaction is a mutual option. Wait, what’s that?

But while I’m certainly less optimistic about Francoeur’s potential upside today than I was in June, 2009, at the same time I think this signing is so easy to mock – Bad Major League GM Signs Bad Major League Outfielder (That He Once Signed Out Of High School) – that it’s getting a bad rap. Or at least, a worse rap than it deserves.

For one thing, it’s a one-year deal. One year, everyone, along with that ridiculous and generally meaningless mutual option that Moore loves. (As an aside: have the Royals actually kept a single player on one of those mutual options? Miguel Olivo, maybe?) Judging from the Royals’ blogosphere, fans were fully expecting Moore to give Francoeur two or even three guaranteed years, at five or seven million dollars per. Instead, Frenchy is guaranteed just $2.5 million.

Nonetheless, the blogosphere is in open revolt. Over at Royals Review, they had to start an overflow thread after the original post generated over 800 comments. People are not happy about this.

Nor should they be. But neither should they be going completely apesh*t over it either. For some people, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. But it’s still a straw – it’s not an anvil.

The Cliff’s Notes on Francoeur, again: promoted to the majors in the middle of the 2005 season, at the age of 21, and was the phenom of phenoms – he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated inside of two months. He swung at everything, but no one cared, because he could hit for average, hit for power, catch everything, and had an arm like you wouldn’t believe.

In 2006 and 2007 he still suffered from a low OBP, but contributed in enough other ways – decent power, very good defense, didn’t miss a single game either year – that he was still a valuable player overall. In 2007 he drew 42 walks. He was still just 23. The following spring, Joe Sheehan and I wrote some fantasy baseball columns for Sports Illustrated, and working independently, we both listed Francoeur as one of our breakout candidates. (Trust me, Joe and I don’t agree on players all that often.)

And since then – complete meltdown. Beyond awful in 2008, to the point where he was sent to Double-A for a few games. Even worse in 2009 until the Braves dumped him on the Mets for Ryan Church. Francoeur had a nice, batting-average-assisted half-season with New York, then in 2010 went back to hitting .250 with no walks and mediocre power.

As Matt Klaassen cannily noted, over the past three seasons, Francoeur has been the fourth-worst everyday hitter in the major leagues. He will be just the third-worst hitter on the Royals, though, as two of the three players below him in the standings are Yuniesky Betancourt and Jason Kendall.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it – over the past three years, Francoeur has sucked. And as a rule of thumb, the simplest way to predict the future is to assume it will resemble the past.

But baseball is not simple. Players are not stat-generating robots; they improve and regress, break out and fall apart. The fact that Francoeur has hit .256/.301/.389 over the last three seasons does not mean that he’s going to hit .256/.301/.389 going forward, just as the fact that he hit .280/.319/.463 in his first three seasons (at the age of 21-23, mind you) didn’t guarantee that he would maintain that performance.

Maybe I’m giving Dayton Moore too much credit, but I feel quite confident in saying that if Moore knew for a fact that Francoeur would hit .256/.301/.389 with the Royals, he wouldn’t have signed him. This signing, then, is based on the expectation that Francoeur will improve. Which he might. He’s not Jose Guillen, signed to a long-term contract at 32, which anecdotally seems to be the most common age for good-not-great hitters to fall off a cliff. Francoeur will be just 27, which is the most common age for players to have the best season of their career.

And, again: it’s a one-year deal. The costs of any player acquisition can be divided into three parts: players, money, and opportunity. In terms of players, the Royals didn’t trade for Francoeur, and they don’t lose any draft picks by signing him. In terms of money, committing $2.5 million to Francoeur simply isn’t enough to inhibit the Royals from making any other move. Maybe I’m giving Moore too much credit, but I can’t foresee a situation in which the Royals find themselves unable to sign Player X, or offer Player Y a long-term contract, or trade for Player Z, because they spent $2.5 million on Jeff Francoeur. If that money wasn’t spent on Francoeur, it would have sat in a brokerage firm earning an annual Wal-Mart dividend.

In terms of opportunity: it’s a one-year deal. Francoeur is guaranteed a roster spot for 2011 – and as deep as the farm system is, the Royals don’t have any premier outfield prospects who might have a claim on that spot. This is nothing like the Mike Jacobs trade, when the Royals buried Kila Ka’aihue in Triple-A.

One of the complaints I’ve read about this deal is that it blocks David Lough from starting in the majors next season. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. I like Lough a lot, and think he has a chance to be an everyday outfielder in the majors. But Lough hit .280/.346/.437 in Omaha last year, hardly the numbers of someone who’s ready for a full-time job in the majors. (In 2008, Ka’aihue hit .314/.456/.628. Now that’s a player who was ready.)

The reason I’m so intrigued by Lough is that, after being an overly aggressive hitter throughout his minor league career, the light bulb suddenly went on in the middle of 2010. His career high in walks was 35, and in the first three months of 2010, he drew just 10 walks in 66 games. But from July 1st on, Lough drew 30 walks in just 54 games; after the All-Star Break he hit .316/.403/.462. If the improvement is real, he’s legit.

But the danger of letting him spend another half-season in Omaha to prove it was real is nothing compared to the danger of assuming it was real and starting him in right field on Opening Day. In general, I’m in full agreement with Moore’s philosophy that “it’s better to leave a player in the minor leagues for too long than to bring him up too early.” This philosophy was taken to an unhealthy extreme with Ka’aihue, but by and large it’s the right idea. You know who wasn’t left in the minor league for too long? Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur never played a day in Triple-A, and played just 102 games in Double-A when he was brought to Atlanta. He wasn’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball either – he was hitting .275/.322/.487 in Birmingham at the time.

If signing Francoeur accomplishes nothing else, it makes it easier for the Royals to avoid the temptation of bringing some of their players to the major leagues before they’re ready. There’s value in that. Maybe not $2.5 million worth of value, but it’s not negligible.

Then there’s the fact that, purely in terms of roster construction, Francoeur’s skill set fits the team pretty well. The Royals didn’t have a right-handed-hitting outfielder on their 40-man roster. (There’s also the fact that the outfield, as currently constructed, kinda sucks. In a rare moment of self-reflection, someone in the front office admitted as much. “Right now,” one club official said, “based on what our guys have accomplished, we might have the worst outfield in baseball. Now, I’m hoping those guys come through. They have potential, especially Gordon, but we don’t have much you can count on.”)

The only switch-hitter on the roster is Derrick Robinson, who’s not ready. So unless the Royals wanted to go with an all left-handed outfield, or bring up Robinson, or rush Paulo Orlando to the majors, or cross their fingers and hope Jordan Parraz doesn’t suck – they had to find a right-handed outfielder.

They could have traded for one – giving up some of their precious young talent for a stop-gap solution. Or they could sign one in free agency. The Royals wisely chose the latter.

As this article explains, the Royals were looking at no fewer than six options. One of them was Matt Diaz. I love Diaz, always have, and think that the decision to waive him after the 2005 season (the Braves swooped in and offered a nothing prospect to get him) might be the most underappreciated dumb move of Allard Baird’s career. But Diaz hit .250/.302/.438 last season. He turns 33 in March.

Diaz signed with the Pirates, for two years and $4.25 million. Given the opportunity cost – both years and dollars – I’d rather have Francoeur’s contract.

I’m not saying that Francoeur was their best option. (In particular, I’m curious to see what Austin Kearns signs for.) But the notion that signing Francoeur was some sort of calamity – sorry, guys, I’m not seeing it. Francoeur does, in fact, bring some skills to the table. He can hit lefties – he’s a lifetime .299/.343/.481 hitter against southpaws – and play defense. With the exception of 2008, he has graded out as an above-average right fielder; he has roughly average range, but still has one of the best throwing arms in the game. (He has thrown out at least 11 baserunners in every season of his career.)

The Royals, bless their heart, didn’t sign Francoeur to be a platoon player and defensive replacement. They signed Francoeur with the promise that he’ll get every opportunity to be an everyday player. Even for an outfield that their own front office admitted might be the worst in baseball, Francoeur might not be an improvement.

But he might be. He’s 27 years old. From the age of 21 to 23, he was an above-average outfielder. Is it really so ridiculous to suggest he might be able to bounce back? Is it really so ridiculous to give him a one-year contract to see if he can?

Frankly, I’m sort of fascinated to see what will happen. You all know what I think about Kevin Seitzer, and while it’s sort of a cliché to sign a bad hitter and say, “here, Kevin, you fix him,” I think it’s worth a gamble. Seitzer is criticized for emphasizing contact and line drives over power, but that misses the point, which is that what Seitzer also emphasizes is plate discipline. Two years ago, before Seitzer was hired, the Royals had one of the lowest walk totals by a major league team since World War II. Last season, with a bunch of retreads in the lineup for most of the year, the Royals finished a respectable 9th in the league in walks.

More than anything else, a lack of plate discipline has undermined Francoeur’s career. He’s being paired with a hitting coach that stresses plate discipline above almost all else. And he’s being paired with a hitting coach who isn’t afraid to make radical changes in a hitter’s approach. Many hitting coaches use a Hippocratic philosophy of “first, do no harm,” and only tinker with their hitters. One of the main criticisms of Seitzer is precisely because he’s not like that – he’s willing to take the chance of doing harm.

But in Francoeur’s case, there’s no risk of doing harm – he already sucks. Seitzer can hardly make Francoeur worse, but he might – just might – be able to make him better. Seitzer hasn’t had a real success story since Raul Ibanez, but then few players have been willing to surrender themselves to Seitzer’s approach the way Ibanez did.

Ibanez had nothing to lose – he was 29 years old, and his career numbers in the majors were .241/.295/.383. One off-season with Seitzer, and he hit .280/.353/.495 for the Royals in 2001 – his best numbers since he was playing in the California League. He’s been an above-average hitter ever since.

There’s a good chance that even after all his failures, Francoeur won’t surrender to the idea that his approach is broken and needs to be fixed. And even if he does, there’s a good chance that Seitzer won’t be able to fix him. But if he does and he does, well, the raw tools are there for Francoeur to return to being an above-average everyday player.

Which brings me to my main criticism of this contract, which is that while the downside for the Royals is limited, so is the upside. The mutual contract is silly; if Francoeur isn’t worth $4 million, the Royals will decline, and if he’s worth more than $4 million, Francoeur will. In the unlikely but very possible event that Francoeur can be fixed, and he hits .280/.340/.460 or something along those lines, with good defense, the Royals would have a very valuable commodity for 2012 – except that he won’t be under contract. This is a shame, and sort of defeats the purpose.

If Francoeur does rebound, then, the Royals will either have to pony up bigger bucks for an extension – and take the risk that he regresses once again – or let him go. One factor to consider is that if Francoeur rebounds even a little, he’s got a good chance at being a Type B free agent next winter. It’s important to know that the formula the Elias Bureau uses to rank free agents was 1) designed in the 1980s and 2) bears only a passing resemblance to reality. Some of the categories that go into ranking hitters include at-bats (or plate appearances), homers, and RBIs. So according to Elias, Francoeur didn’t have an awful season in 2010; he batted nearly 500 times, hit 13 homers, and drove in 65 runs. This quirk in the system may net the Royals a draft pick, or at least raise Frenchy’s trade value in July.

It’s pretty clear that the Royals have given up on 2011. They traded DeJesus, they’re shopping for stopgap options, and they’re increasingly certain to trade Greinke. As a fan, this hurts – mostly the trading Greinke part. But as an analyst, it absolutely makes sense. The wave of talent coming up through the minors has a chance to be historic, in Royals history if not in major-league history.

If the Royals get a major talent haul for Greinke, then the amount of young talent they bring to the majors in 2012 and 2013 figures to compare with the great youth movements of our generation, like the 2008 Rays, like the 1992-94 Indians, like the 1991-95 Braves. Even if it winds up being a lesser youth movement, like the 2001-02 Twins, that should be enough to set the Royals up for years of contention. If Greinke winds up being the final, spectacular offering to the angry baseball idol that cursed the franchise so many years ago, his sacrifice will not have been in vain.

The problem is that people are getting tired of hearing about 2012, and it’s tempting for the Royals to try to find a way to have their cake and eat it to. They tried that in 2009, signing a bunch of stopgap veterans, and for 29 games it worked. It hasn’t worked since, nor should we expect it to.

The Mission 2012 mantra reminds me of the lightning scene in “Poltergeist”, where the kids count the time between seeing the lightning in a rain storm and hearing the thunder. At first they can count to five, indicating the lightning is still off in the distance – and then they can count to four, then three, and pretty soon their house is under attack. At first Mission 2012 was so far off in the distance that we didn’t even know when it would arrive – and then Moustakas and Hosmer started hitting, and then the Sinister Six all made it to Double-A, and suddenly you could see Mission 2012 in the distance. It’s still in the distance, and I know it feels like it’s never going to get here, but it’s getting closer. I promise.

And the Royals are acting accordingly. Two off-seasons ago, not seeing any young talent on the immediate horizon, Dayton Moore threw his money around like they were beads at Mardi Gras. Two years to Kyle Farnsworth here; two years for Willie Bloomquist there. Trade a reliever for Coco Crisp here; trade a reliever for Mike Jacobs there.

Last year, Moore let Miguel Olivo and John Buck out of their contracts, then signed Jason Kendall for two years – simultaneously hurting the team in 2010 and committing way too much money and playing time to a washed-up catcher in 2011.

This winter, Moore has again committed way too much money and playing time for a player in 2011 – but only 2011. He didn’t give out a two-year deal to Francoeur, and I strongly suspect he won’t be giving out a two-year deal to anyone else. It’s almost like he understands that he’s got all these prospects that are going to deserve a spot on the roster in 2012.

That’s the strangest criticism I’ve heard about Moore in all this – that signing Francoeur just proves that he’s so addicted to veteran players that he’s going to block the progress of all of the Royals’ top prospects when they’re ready. Maybe I’m giving Moore too much credit, but…come…on. Dayton Moore made his bones in drafting and developing players. He’s spent the last four-plus years drafting and developing players – his players. It’s one thing for him to not show faith in the prospects he inherited, like Ka’aihue and Mike Aviles. But does anyone really think that he’s going to make excuses not to bring up Moustakas when he’s ready? That he’s going to bury Eric Hosmer? That he’ll trade away Mike Montgomery for a shiny object?

In the same week where the Rockies signed Ty Wigginton to a two-year deal for $8 million, and the Pirates gave Kevin Correia a two-year deal for $8 million, and the White Sox gave A.J. Pierzynski a two-year for $8 million, getting angry over a 1-year, $2.5 million contract for anybody is sort of silly. The Mariners just signed Miguel Olivo for two years and $7 million, which is especially ridiculous given that they could have bought his option from the Rockies (as the Blue Jays did), exercised the option, and only had to commit $3 million for one year.

But the Royals’ signing of Francoeur gets more derision than any of those moves, because it’s Jeff Freaking Francoeur, and because it’s Dayton Freaking Moore.

Maybe I’m giving Moore too much credit. Maybe, as Sheehan tweeted, I have Stockholm Syndrome. But from where I sit, this move isn’t remotely as bad as most Royals fans think. Even if, thanks to the lack of a true option, it’s not nearly as good as Dayton Moore thinks.


Copy and paste everything above, and you can skip what I’m about to write regarding Melky Cabrera. The Royals have signed Cabrera to a one-year, $1.25 million contract with incentives. Cabrera, like Francoeur, was never able to build on his early promise. As a 21-year-old rookie for the Yankees in 2006, Cabrera hit .280/.360/.391. At the end of that season, given his age, defensive versatility, and on-base ability, he was quietly one of the more valuable young commodities around.

It never came together for him; he regressed over the next two seasons, although in 2009 he rebounded to hit a respectable .274/.336/.416. He was the starting centerfielder on a world championship team, and was just 24 years old. But the Yankees being the Yankees, they could do better, and they did – they traded for Curtis Granderson, and sent Cabrera packing as part of the Javier Vazquez trade with Atlanta.

The only part of the last paragraph that matters, apparently, is the last word. Cabrera, like Francoeur, and like so many others before him, is an EX-BRAVE! So naturally this is just Moore being Moore, and so it must be an awful move. Never mind that Moore tried to trade for Cabrera four years ago, and succeeded – the Yankees were willing to trade him for Reggie Sanders before Sanders received his Injury-of-the-Month Club selection in the mail.

I guess it doesn’t matter that Cabrera is still just 26 years old. He might take playing time away from Mitch Maier! Never mind that Cabrera is MORE THAN TWO YEARS YOUNGER than Maier. And never mind that his career line (.267/.328/.379) – IS BETTER THAN MAIER’S (.256/.330/.347). And never mind that Cabrera is a switch-hitter who can play all three outfield positions, and seems to be a roughly average fielder wherever he plays. And never mind that he’s making just $1.25 million.

Cabrera is an ex-Brave. And he was awful in 2010. So signing him is just proof that Dayton Moore has taken a step down from incompetence and has now entered the realm of parody. If you don’t believe me, click this.

I understand the temptation to rip Moore for everything he does. I may have even succumbed to this temptation a time or two myself. But come on, guys. The Royals just signed an incredibly versatile outfielder – hits both ways, plays all three outfield spots – who’s in his mid-20s, who’s been a slightly below-average hitter for most of his career – for $1.25 million. I don’t just like this move – I really like this move. It’s a small transaction, but the Royals just signed a good fourth outfielder for peanuts. And as with Francoeur, there is the small but real possibility that Cabrera re-discovers some of his early promise again.

It would be one thing if the Royals signed Cabrera with the intent of having him eat into Alex Gordon’s playing time. But it appears the Royals want to give Cabrera the chance to complete for the starting job in centerfield. This would cut into the chances that Jarrod Dyson starts in the majors – a very good thing, because even if you think that Dyson can be an everyday player in the majors, you can’t deny that he needs to show he can actually hit in Triple-A first. This might mean that Maier and Gregor Blanco will have to fight for a roster spot – and as I’ve argued since the Royals traded for Blanco, the two players have remarkably similar skill sets, so keeping both is kind of redundant anyway.

I like this signing a lot more than the Francoeur signing, both because Cabrera is only guaranteed half as much money, but also because Cabrera, by virtue of only having 4+ years of service time, is not a free agent at the end of 2011. If he does have a bounce-back year, the Royals can keep him for 2012 at a reasonable cost; if he doesn’t, they can cut him.

Combined, the Royals have guaranteed Francoeur and Cabrera $3.75 million in 2011. By coincidence, they’re paying Jason Kendall $3.75 million in 2011 by himself. They paid Jose Guillen more money than that after he was waived at the end of July. Barry Zito makes more money than that every seven starts or so. Kyle Farnsworth made more than that in each season of his two-year deal.

This isn’t the apocalypse, everyone. This is just the Royals taking a couple of one-year flyers on a couple of hitters who showed promise in their early 20s, and are still in their mid-20s. This is a chance to see what Seitzer, after years of being asked to reinvent a bunch of thirty-something hitters who weren’t that good in the first place, can get through to a couple of players who are old enough to have been humbled, but young enough to make adjustments.

Maybe I’m giving Moore too much credit. But if these are the two worst moves he makes this off-season, he’s had a hell of an off-season. I said before the Winter Meetings began that the best move the Royals could make was to do nothing at all. They didn’t do nothing, but they also didn’t do anything to disrupt the team beyond 2011. Mission 2012 is still on course.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Kansas City Chiefs' Playoff Odds, Week 13

Before we get into Chiefs mode, a few housekeeping items:

- For those of you who missed it, I wrote a guest column for my friend John Sickels at here. If you’re a die-hard Royals fan, you probably won’t learn anything new from this – but any time I’m offered the chance to gloat in front of a national audience, I’m inclined to take it.

- I’m glad I got my Carl Crawford column up on Saturday, because if it had gone up on Sunday, it would have been obsolete the moment it hit the web. The Jayson Werth contract was just that ridiculous. If Werth is worth 7 years at $18 million a year, it would be hard for anyone to argue if Crawford claims he’s worth 8 years at $22 million a year, or even more.

Of course, what Crawford is truly worth is simply what the market will bear, and the fact that the Nationals lost their mind for Werth doesn’t mean the same will happen with Crawford. But if this is indicative of what the free-agent market will be this winter, the Royals might be better off sitting it out. Sure, they’ll have money to burn in a year or two, but if they don’t like what’s available in free agency at that point, there’s a good chance they can simply trade a token prospect to a team that’s having buyer’s remorse, and get a useful but overpriced player with the old team footing some of the bill.

- As Matt Klaasen pointed out on Twitter, the Jayson Werth signing makes the timing of the David DeJesus trade even more suspect. For one, if the price of an everyday outfielder just went up, then the $6 million that DeJesus is owed for 2011 looks even more appealing today. And secondly, since none of the usual suspects signed Werth, that means one more team that would have been in the running for DeJesus’ services.

For instance, the Red Sox. Going into the winter, Boston looked like clear favorites to sign either Werth or Carl Crawford. But now, Werth is off the market, and they’re unlikely to chase the rising cost of Crawford (especially now that they’re trying to work out a long-term deal for Adrian Gonzalez.) We know that the Red Sox had interest in DeJesus last July. You don’t think that right now, if the Royals had held on to DeJesus, the Red Sox would be showing considerably more interest than they had a month ago?

There’s nothing wrong with a GM being decisive; Kenny Williams has made a living like that. But there is something wrong with a GM being decisive when he doesn’t have to be. There was nothing to be gained by trading DeJesus in November instead of in December or January. There was considerable opportunity to be lost. The Royals have Vinny Mazzaro and Justin Marks; they also have to wonder if they could have gotten more, if they had just shown some patience.

- When I appeared on the Baseball Prospectus Podcast to talk about the Royals 2 weeks ago – you can find that here – Kevin Goldstein asked me if I thought the Royals would trade Zack Greinke this winter. I put the odds at the time at around 20%, because I felt like the Royals had all the leverage in the situation, and they would only move him if they got him an overwhelming offer.

Today, I’d put those odds much higher, for two reasons. The first is that with the money that’s flying around this month, Greinke’s contract - $27 million for 2 years – looks even more enticing than ever. Depending on where Cliff Lee ends up, you’ll have at least one and possibly two of the Rangers/Yankees who will be looking for a fallback option, and Greinke for $27/2 looks considerably more appetizing after you’ve just offered Lee $120/5 and been turned down.

The second is that the number of media rumors hinting that Greinke wants out of Kansas City continues to go up. I don’t trust these rumors 100% - Greinke is a tough person to read, and he’s very private, and unless these rumors are coming straight from his mouth (which I doubt) then I’m inclined to take them with a huge grain of salt. The Royals would know better than anyone spreading these rumors whether their relationship with Greinke is salvageable or not. But there’s certainly a chance that it’s not, in which case he’s likely to go. I’d put the odds that he gets traded by Opening Day at 50/50, maybe a little higher depending on where Lee ends up and just how desperate the bridesmaids get.


Sunday was a heck of a day for the Chiefs. They won, which wasn’t surprising; the Chargers lost; which was. And then Josh McDaniels was relieved of his duties in Denver, and given how many teams respond to their coach being fired with sudden, if short-lived, improvement (look at the Vikings post-Childress and the Cowboys post-Phillips), we can only hope that the Broncos respond the same way – given that they host the Raiders in two weeks and go to San Diego for the season finale.

As it stands, the Chiefs are 8-4, and hold a 1.5 game lead on the division with four games to go. Here’s what this means:

1) No matter what happens against the Chargers next week, the Chiefs control their own destiny.

That’s the most important thing to take away from this. If San Diego had won against Oakland, then a scenario was very much in play that had the Chiefs losing in San Diego, finishing their season with three wins and an 11-5 record – and missing the playoffs when the Chargers also finished 11-5 and had the tiebreaker in hand.

The Chargers’ loss eliminates the possibility of an 11-5 team missing the playoffs, at least in the AFC. Which no doubt makes Matt Cassel happy, seeing as how only one NFL team in history has missed the playoffs with an 11-5 record – and he was the quarterback of that team.

(In the NFC, though, all bets are off. The NFC West is so putrid that in each of the other three divisions, there are two teams that are 8-4 or better. One of those teams is guaranteed to miss the playoffs.)

If the Chiefs lose in San Diego, but win their final three games, they are guaranteed to win the division, and in fact are guaranteed to be at least the #3 seed. (They would be guaranteed to have a better record than the AFC South champion – the Jaguars, who lead the division, already have 5 losses, and they lost to the Chiefs head-to-head.)

2) The odds that the Chiefs qualify for the playoffs as a wild-card team, which were already tiny, are now infinitesimal.

Before, there was a chance that the Chiefs might finish 11-5 and lose the division, which would bring the wild-card into play. But now, for the Chiefs to not finish in first place in the AFC West, they would have to finish no better than 10-6. This could happen if they lose to the Chargers and then stumble against the Rams or Titans, while San Diego wins their last three.

In that case, the Chiefs have to hope that either the Ravens or the Jets finish no better than 9-7. Remember, the Chiefs lose almost all tiebreakers outside the division, because of their inferior in-conference record. (There are some scenarios in which, if the Chiefs lose to the Rams, they might win a tiebreaker against the Jets or Ravens, but those permutations are a little too complicated to get into right now.)

For the Ravens to finish 9-7, they’d have to lose three of their last four games, which include home games against New Orleans and Cincinnati, and play Houston and Cleveland on the road. None of those games are gimmes, but I expect them to at least split.

The Jets would have to lose their last four games in order to finish 9-7. Maybe their 45-3 ass-kicking on the foot of New England is fresh in my mind, but I actually wonder if this could happen. The Jets host Miami this week, then play the Steelers and Bears on the road. If they lose to the Dolphins, the chance of a major freefall is there – and then they finish at home against a feisty Buffalo team that is a hell of a lot better than their 2-10 record would indicate.

If the games break right next week, we can revisit these scenarios in more detail. For now, I’d focus on the division if I were you.

There’s two ways this can go. If the Chiefs beat San Diego, then it literally does not matter what happens against St. Louis in Tennessee. Even if the Chiefs lose to BOTH the Rams and Titans, if they beat the Raiders in the season finale, they will be 10-6, and both the Raiders and Chargers will have at least seven losses each.

Now if, like me, the memory of the home loss to the Raiders to close out the 1999 season, costing the Chiefs a playoff berth – because Pete Stoyanovich missed the game-winning field goal as time ran out, then Jon Baker started overtime by kicking out of bounds (his third time that day!) – you’d rather it didn’t have to come down to the final game. But if the Chiefs beat the Chargers, there’s a good chance that it won’t.

If the Chiefs win next week, then their Magic Number is 2 – any combination of Chiefs wins (vs. the Rams or Titans) or Raiders losses (vs. Jacksonville, Denver, and Indianapolis) that equals 2 or more, and the Chiefs will have clinched the AFC West before they kick off against Oakland. They might be playing for seeding, but they won’t be playing for their lives.

If the Chiefs lose to San Diego, they really need to run the table to be safe. If they beat Oakland, then a win against either St. Louis or Tennessee eliminates the Raiders. However, a loss against either team opens up the door for San Diego to win the division if they win their last three games. After playing the Chiefs, the Chargers host the 49ers, then finish on the road against the Bengals and Broncos – all very winnable games for them.

If the Chiefs lose to San Diego and Oakland, then they have to beat St. Louis and Tennessee, for starters. Then they have to hope that both Oakland and San Diego lose at least one of their other three games along the way. Which is certainly possible. We might, in fact, see a scenario in which the Chiefs lose in San Diego, take care of business against the Rams and Titans, and – if both the Chargers and Raiders lose one more game – the Chiefs will still have clinched the division before they take the field against Oakland.

In summary: beat San Diego and the division is yours for the taking. Lose to San Diego and the division is still yours for the taking; you just can’t afford any more screw-ups. That’s what a 1.5-game lead with four games to go does for you.