Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Free Agency Redux

I've read and listened to some rumblings that all of this emphasis on signing free agents this offseason is misplaced, because all it is going to accomplish is push the Royals from 56 to 66 wins.

But I don't look at it that way, for a couple of reasons.

-- First, the idea that the payroll is being "increased" is an inappropriate label. As a result of expiring contracts, without any changes to the roster the Royals would enter 2006 with a payroll of about $28 million, which is far less than what should be a minimally acceptable standard for any major league baseball team. In 2006, every team should have a payroll north of $45 million at the very least. This doesn't qualify as a spending spree; it just brings the Royals into the higher end of the bottom tier.

-- When it comes to major league payroll, the Royals are in a tough position from a public relations standpoint. Although I have yet to see a convincing functional argument that making bad free agent signings now will be detrimental to the Royals' development in future years, I don't think the Royals can afford to suffer through another series of high profile free agent failures. Combine the Royals' limited resources with a relatively weak free agent class, and the conditions are ripe for the Royals to acquire some major free agent busts. If the Royals spend $20 to $25 million on free agents and still lose 100 games next year, there's a chance they might lose a significant portion of their fan base forever, not to mention damage public support for financing a renovated Kauffman or new downtown stadium.

On the other hand, in the wake of 3 100-loss seasons in the past 4 years, the team simply must signal to their casual fan base that they are making a committment to avoid being a complete embarrassment to themselves and the city. David Glass has already made a public commitment in this vein, and its the right thing to do regardless of the risk of failure. The conventional wisdom suggests that losing is always losing, whether a team finishes 72-90 or 56-106. In baseball terms, no doubt, but in public relations and fan base terms, I don't think so. There is vast difference between a 106-loss team and a 90-win team in the eyes of the casual (or even hardcore) fan. The progression of a team from embarrassing to competitive, and from unwatchable to occasionally fun to watch, gives the impression of progress, which is important. Losing 100+ games every season is complete public relations disaster; losing 90 to 95 games is less of a disaster and gives fans much needed hope, which is sorely lacking these days.

Anyone who follows the Royals understands that until the basic economic structure of the game changes, the Royals' future is going to be completely dependent upon drafting and developing their own quality major league players. Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and perhaps Andrew Miller next year are 3 steps in that direction. But until the day comes when the minor system is overflowing with talent, polished young players, the Royals can't afford to sit back and count on losing 100 games every season without fail. They have to try to compete, even if there's a risk they'll fail in the process.


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