Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Kansas City Royals.
MLB Springboards: No. 30 Astros | No. 29 Marlins | No. 28 Mets | No. 27 Rockies | No. 26 Twins | No. 25 Pirates | No. 24 Indians | No. 23 Mariners | No. 22 Padres | No. 21 Cubs | No. 20 Brewers | No. 19 Red Sox | No. 18 White Sox
2012 record: 72-90
Finish: Third place, AL Central
2012 final payroll: $68.6 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $78 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 17th
Hashtags: #lukeofhurl #sal4mvp #burntends #performanceart #thriftstore #generationk #moralhazard #doublesmotheredcoveredchunked #foundationproblems #smoltzandbagwell
Since the last labor strike ended, the Kansas City Royals are either the worst franchise in baseball or a work of performance art looking to bring organic meaning to the idea of institutional incompetence. The Royals' win-loss record since the beginning of the 1995 season: 1,230-1,648, a .425 winning percentage or, on average, a 69-93 season. Even the Pittsburgh Pirates, the standard bearers of dreadful, have 16 more victories over that time.
This is merely context for the rationale, and even more the urgency of the rationale, that guided the Royals this offseason, when they deviated from their build-build-build philosophy and planted a big, honking Christmas tree in the middle of their abode. Nearing the 30th anniversary of their last playoff appearance, with their best core since those 1980s teams in place, knowing fans are ready to show up in droves after avoiding Kauffman Stadium like the team was offering the plague instead of baseball – and the two, at times, could be confused for one another – the Royals got aggressive and look legitimately ready to win.
James Shields is not Justin Verlander. He wasn't even the best pitcher in his rotation last year. The Royals, of course, do not concern themselves with what he isn't. They prefer to concern themselves with the 477 innings of 3.15 ERA ball he has twirled the last two years. And his three years of playoff experience (even if it was middling). Plus the intangible effects of showing the core this is a franchise that wants to win by importing someone who can help teach players how to do it, or at least what doing it feels like.
For this, the Royals gave up Wil Myers, who many scouts believe is the best hitter in the minor leagues. He is exactly the sort of player the Royals cherish. Which shows just how desperate they were for starting pitching. If they are willing to cede six years of Myers, not to mention six more of pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery and third baseman Patrick Leonard, for Shields and pitcher Wade Davis … well, nobody will deny that desperation makes for dreamers and patsies and sometimes both.
With Ervin Santana on board for a year at an excessive $13 million and Jeremy Guthrie re-signed for another three at a very reasonable $25.5 million, general manager Dayton Moore finalized the deal for Shields and Davis to completely overhaul his rotation. Left to fight for the fifth spot are Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza, Will Smith and Luke Hochevar, to whom the Royals, in one of the nonsensical moves of the offseason, tendered a contract and will owe $4.65 million. Among the 1,143 pitchers in major league history to start at least 100 games and throw at least 750 innings, Hochevar's 5.39 ERA ranks 1,139th.
Moore's offseason wasn't entirely about filling out his rotation. The Royals went shopping at the Salvation Army and came back with perhaps the best collection of non-roster invitees headed to spring training. Expect one or two of Miguel Tejada, Endy Chavez, Xavier Nady, Brandon Wood, Willy Taveras, Dan Wheeler and George Sherrill to make the team.
When Moore made the trade and all of baseball did what it reflexively does, which is question the wisdom of his moves because of past failures, a handful of analysts invoked a very loaded phrase: moral hazard, or the idea of someone's self-interest getting in the way of his duty to a greater thing. This worked from the premise that Moore made this trade to save his job, a charge loaded with assumptions.
Just because Moore is on the hot seat – and because of the Royals' 468-614 record since he arrived, he is – does not presuppose he will frame his moves strictly through that prism. He did not go bonkers on one-year deals. He has not plundered the farm system with further deals. If anything, Moore has raged against owner David Glass, demanding more money for amateur signings, more money for player development, more money for the major league payroll.
If he has a failing, it's believing too much in his team, which is not moral hazard as much as misplaced yearning. The Royals made the Shields deal because they are certain they can win this season, and it's not altogether far-fetched, not with Salvador Perez primed to put himself among the game's elite catchers and Billy Butler finally finding his power and Alex Gordon defining the idea of a complete ballplayer. Those are three great pieces to start.
There is plenty more. Alcides Escobar's bat is catching up to his glove, which is elite. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were the most highly touted of the Royals' prospects, and each has flashed All-Star potential. Lorenzo Cain, along with Escobar one of the pieces in the great trade of Zack Greinke two years back, is a potential impact player in center field when healthy. The bullpen, larded with power arms, is another strength.
Over the two years of Shields' contract, pitching will turn the Royals into successes or dramatic failures. When Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino return this summer from Tommy John surgery and Kyle Zimmer and Yordano Ventura arrive soon thereafter, the rotation finally could turn into a strength. Though the Royals know better than to dream that, the painful lessons of Duffy, John Lamb, Montgomery and Chris Dwyer – this generation's version of Generation K – always there to remind them.
There will be few players in all of baseball more scrutinized this season than James Shields, who has the unenviable task of proving himself worth more than a 21-year-old who never has taken a swing in the major leagues. For the rest of his career, Shields will find himself tied to Myers, good, bad or otherwise. If Myers blossoms into an All-Star, Shields will be Doyle Alexander or Larry Andersen or any other starting pitcher dealt for a future star. Shields can't control that part. What he can – what he must – is stabilize a rotation whose foundation has needed bracing and piering for far too long. A top-of-his-game Shields means the world to a Royals team in need of just that to win.
Even if Royals
Stink, at least KC still has