Five Questions: Kansas City Royals

1. The Royals gave Gil Meche how much? Gil Meche?

It’s probably safe to say that most people reading this preview on this particular web site feel that Meche’s five-year, $55 million contract was a moronic move by the Royals.

According to Royals general manager Dayton Moore, the reaction he got from fans about the deal was uniformly positive. Moore is active in the community, speaks to various groups on a regular basis, and claims to read The Kansas City Star daily. But he also says he avoids the tumult of voices wafting around the Internet. So it’s not surprising that Moore was taken aback when told of the widespread criticism the deal received in cyberspace.

I’ve been hanging around spreadsheets enough to know that any analysis of Meche’s fair market value is going to make the Royals look bad. This contract cannot be justified based on Meche’s performance record. But is the signing of Gil Meche the worst free-agent signing ever, as some have called it? Is this Dayton Moore’s version of “Brock Landers: Angels Live in My Town”? (You know, the film that inspired Jack Horner to say, ‘This is the one I want them to remember me by.’)

Let’s step back for a moment and look at why the Royals did what they did.

First and foremost, to hear them tell it, they really liked Meche. This wasn’t a case of Kansas City scrambling and overpaying for the scraps that were left in the marketplace. They targeted Meche, wooed him like a mercenary Delta Zeta, and were willing to go toe-to-toe with any team that tried to snatch him away.

With money to burn in the offseason, a youngish veteran that fit Moore’s top-of-the-rotation ideal was the number one item on his shopping list. In this year’s market, in Moore’s eyes, that meant Meche or Barry Zito. There was interest in Ted Lilly and Jeff Suppan, but the upside for those two wasn’t what Moore was looking for. And there was no chance that Zito was going to Kansas City. The market for what Moore craved was very limited.

Moore likes Meche’s makeup, a characteristic that is now the unofficial sixth tool of a Royals ballplayer. He likes his stuff. Moore is a scout at heart, and a scout’s mandate is to envision what a player is going to become. Moore envisions Meche as a frontline pitcher. There is no objective reason to believe this will be true. But that’s what Moore believes and so he set out to make Meche the crown jewel of the Royals’ offseason program.

Now let’s not forget that the Royals were nearly outbid for Meche’s services. If you believe that Meche’s fair market value is only $5 or $6 million, then tell that to the Blue Jays or the Cubs. Those teams were set to give Meche four years for $40 million. The Royals were at four and $44 million. The extra year Moore tacked on got the deal done. So the Royals are paying Meche $11 million per season. The market was willing to give him $10 million. These are not rational times that we live in.

Many teams chose to just stay out of the seller’s market of the offseason. That’s certainly a viable option. But the Royals are desperate. Meche’s Marcel projection sees him posting a 4.77 ERA this season over 166 innings. Know how many pitchers have beaten those numbers in the last three seasons? 198. Know how many of them have played for the Royals. Zero. Nada. Ziltch.

Moore saw Meche as an opportunity to upgrade the team’s starting pitching. He’ll almost certainly accomplish that. It would be hard not to. Is he worth $55 million? Read on.

2. How much will Dayton Moore regret giving Gil Meche so much money?

That, my friends, is what you call a loaded question.

There has been a lot of chatter about Meche’s comparables. Through age 27, Meche’s list at Baseball Reference includes Jason Schmidt and Chris Carpenter. Those names are missing from Baseball Prospectus’ list of comparables, replaced by the likes of James Baldwin and Joey Hamilton. What does this mean?

Comparables are a nice tool. They tell us a lot about what kind of a player a guy is and help us form associations with players we already know. But they’re really just suggestions, possible career paths, and in the case of a player like Meche, who has had a big chunk of his record marred by injury, comparables can even be a little deceiving.

In a nutshell, Moore has gambled that Meche is going to morph into a different pitcher than he has been in the past. That’s usually not a good bet. Sure, that’s pretty much what happened with Carpenter, but the Cardinals didn’t pay $55 million to sign their ace. The plucked him off the scrap heap and paid him $300,000. This is a different kind of gamble. It’s like paying $1,000 for a lottery ticket.

In reality, the likelihood is that Meche is not going to be the disaster that naysayers believe he will be. But he isn’t going to be the frontline pitcher that Moore envisions. What kind of pitcher is he going to be? Well, his three-year ERA heading into this season is 4.82. He has averaged 152.2 innings. The most likely scenario is that he is going to continue to be that kind of the pitcher. Sure he is leaving a cozy pitching environment and has some unsightly home/road splits. But Meche is an extreme flyball pitcher and Kauffman Stadium is actually a tougher home-run park than Safeco Field.

The only thing that can make the signing a good value is the possibility that Dayton Moore’s scouting eye picked up something that is impossible for quantitative analysts to see. And, hey, that could be the case.

Career paths change course. And with the changes, perception is altered. How will we view the Meche signing a year from now? Probably not as bad as it seems now; probably not as good as Moore would like it to be. But until Moore firmly establishes a track record of questionable judgment, KC fans might as well give him the benefit of the doubt.

3. Why should I buy a ticket at Kauffman Stadium this season?

Alex Gordon.

That pretty much says it all, but I’ll elaborate nonetheless. The Royals haven’t had a player come down the pike with this sort of fanfare since, well, ever. I’m not old enough to remember, but I don’t think the best rookies usually generated as much buzz in the days before Baseball America and the web. So even George Brett was able to debut without an avalanche of expectation heaped upon his shoulders.

You’d be pretty hard-pressed to sketch a description of “The Player the Royals Need the Most” that would be more perfect than Gordon. He’s got ability, swagger and a trophy case full of awards from his pre-big-league career. He’s from Lincoln, Neb., within the Royals’ extended region. He grew up rooting for the Royals. His brother was named after George Brett.

Not only does Gordon project as a star, the type of player who could potentially have the on-field impact for the Royals that Albert Pujols has had for the Cardinals, but because of his background, he’s a guy that Royals fans can delude themselves into believing will be in Kansas City for a long time.

We’ll see if that happens but, for now, we can just enjoy having a player that eventually will be as highly-regarded as the best players on the opposing teams that come into Kauffman Stadium. I can remember as a kid how it felt watching Brett play. The Royals haven’t had that kind of player since Brett retired. Mike Sweeney doesn’t fit that role. Neither did Carlos Beltran. Nor Zack Greinke, Jermaine Dye or Johnny Damon. Gordon fits the role to a T. He’s got the “it” factor.

(Note: It was tempting to make this a double-barreled item and include Billy Butler. Butler is a boy who hits like a man among children, or something like that. He’s good. He and Gordon will be one of the most dynamic one-two punches in the American League for a long time. However, I just don’t think Butler’s ascension to Kansas City will happen as soon as Royals fans would like. Really hope I’m wrong about that. And, yeah, Butler has his own web site and did a little press junket in Kansas City over the winter. But that all had “over-eager agent” written all over it. Butler’s a good kid with his head screwed on straight and a tremendous work ethic.)

4. Just how much does Buddy Bell love his veterans?

We should find out this season if Buddy Bell is really Dayton Moore’s Bobby Cox, the guy who can implement his grand vision for the Royals franchise, or if he’s Russ Nixon, the guy holding down the fort while Moore gets things moving in the right direction.

Moore’s evaluation of his manager will hinge on how successful Bell is at transitioning the organization’s best young talent into productive big-leaguers. This, perhaps, has been Cox’s strongest trait over the years. Time and time again, he has been willing to put young players in prominent roles while giving them the leeway to fail for awhile, if that’s what it takes to make them better in the long run.

That’s not to say that Bell won’t be the same way. Bell doesn’t have a great track record of young players blossoming under his tutelage but it could be that he just hasn’t been given that many top-notch prospects with which to work. During his time in Colorado, Juan Pierre, Juan Uribe and Jason Jennings were all thrust into regular roles and pretty much left alone, sink or swim.

Of course, there is more to transitioning young players than throwing them out on the field. On this year’s Royals, the team has a number of “proven” veterans who appear to be slated for bench roles, such as Jason LaRue, Reggie Sanders and Ross Gload. There is nothing wrong with a veteran bench. The bench actually projects to be one of the better units in the AL. However, if Gload starts to take away at-bats from Ryan Shealy or if Sanders is playing instead of Mark Teahen, then Bell is not the right manager for this particular franchise.

Bell is the kind of manager that is popular with veteran players, and the feeling is mutual. Last season, as bad as the Royals were, they had a shockingly high number of veteran players playing regular roles. Last year was on Allard Baird. But as the team gets younger and, hopefully, more talented, Bell is going to have to prove he can deal with unproven players.

5. When will the Royals finally pull the plug on Angel Berroa?

If I had the money, I would march out to Kauffman Stadium and pay the balance of Berroa’s contract myself—with the stipulation that he be permanently barred from the premises. Leave it to the Royals to find the one shortstop on the planet even worse than Neifi Perez.

The Royals were trumpeting Berroa’s improved work ethic this offseason, saying they expect a big comeback season from Berroa in 2007.

Personally, I don’t think they really believe that bilk. They feel somewhat stuck with Berroa and don’t have any great internal options to replace him with. If Berroa were to catch fire (yeah, right), bad mouthing him in the press would not be the best way to drive up his value.

At the same time, I don’t think the Royals comprehend the full scope of Berroa’s ineptitude. He has been almost certainly the worst player in the major leagues the last three seasons, at least among those who have gotten regular playing time.

Even more, Berroa is getting worse with each passing season. As I type this, Berroa is batting in a spring game. He somehow gets ahead 3-0 in the count before lunging at three straight pitches and striking out. This is Angel Berroa, the way I will always remember him.

Players as bad as Berroa don’t become productive everyday players. Some of them carve out part-time roles utilizing whatever limited skills they possess. As best as I can tell, Berroa has no skills whatsoever. He’s bad at everything and shows no inclination to get better.

Thankfully, word is starting to seep out from Royals spring training in Surprise, Ariz., that Berroa is not guaranteed to be the starting shortstop come Opening Day. The alternatives? One of the Alex Gonzalezes (of Blue Jays/ ’03 Cubs fame) and Andres Blanco. Blanco has bulked up, and while he’ll never be a plus-bat, he does have the capability of being an above-average contributor at the most crucial position in the defensive spectrum. And he’s cheap.

The Royals still owe Berroa about $8.5 million on the regrettable contract he signed back in 2004. Will they be willing to eat that money when the time comes?

An unnamed scout, talking to Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star, summed it up best: “I guess we’re going to find out just how much they want to win.”

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