I thought I had gone through all the stages of Royals grief. Denial? Well, of course. I LOVE denial. That has been my default stage as a sports fan most of my life. Hey, maybe Denny Bautista WILL become a star. Hey, maybe this is the year for Dee Brown. Hey, maybe Jose Guillen's performance will not fall off a cliff. Hey, maybe Mike Jacobs will not play every day against lefties. And so on.
Anger ... I have never really felt much anger about the Royals. I was angry about some of the preposterously cheap moves the Royals have made, and I was angry about the way the organization mistreated Allard Baird at the end, but all that's something else. I suppose the Yuniesky Betancourt trade probably triggered something like frustration, but only because of the Royals' continued insistence that it was a GOOD MOVE. It seems pretty clear that Betancourt, because of his striking inability to hit or get on base or field or run or hustle, is not an especially good baseball player, but the Royals continue to say that, no, Betancourt IS a very good baseball player, with a chance still to be great. And that makes me worry that maybe I'm the crazy one.
Bargaining ... well, if you want the best for the Royals you must bargain with yourself. Brian Anderson and Josh Fields WERE prospects at one point, right? A healthy Alex Gordon COULD be a good player. Luke Hochevar DID have a few exciting performances last year, didn't he? Well, didn't he? The lower levels of the minors DO seem bursting with pitching prospects.* Maybe if the Royals can just endure a couple of bad years, make a couple of moves ...
* Though I do think of the Bill James line: EVERY TEAM HAS PROSPECTS. And not only that ... every team, every year has exactly TEN prospects in the magazine pages of Baseball America.
Depression ... the Jason Kendall signing brought on depression.
And finally, acceptance. Royals GM Dayton Moore claimed in the pages of Baseball America to be interested in "acquiring young major leaguers who are years away from free agency," and then he and the fellas went out and signed Kendall and Scott Podsednik. This is like last year when Dayton and the fellas claimed to be interested in improving team's on-base percentage and then scoured the list of available talent and meticulously acquired those who could not get on base.
Well, hey, it just is. The important thing for the Royals to do is find young talent, get that young talent, develop that young talent. That's what Dayton Moore came to Kansas City to do. And that's what this team's future is all about. Doing all they can to make Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and Mike Montgomery and Aaron Crow and Will Myers and Tim Melville and Noel Arguelles and others into average-to-good-to-great big league players will matter in the long run. The Royals may not like to admit it -- they probably SHOULD NOT admit it -- but they are treading water until then.
So: Acceptance. That's the last stage of grief. I figured to have gone through the whole range of emotions. But it turns out that the Royals, unlike actual grief, have a sixth stage.
The Sixth Stage: Bafflement.
Friday, the Royals announced that they signed outfielder Rick Ankiel to a $3.25 million deal. Several brilliant readers have asked me what I think about this ... and I have to admit complete bafflement on the subject. My brain is ringing static. It feels like someone asking me what is the square root of Cheyenne. It's like asking me what is more effective, Tom Hanks or brake pads. The question doesn't compute.
The Royals are soaked with mediocre-to-bad outfielders. Well first they have David DeJesus, who is actually a good player, though the sort of good player who will leave you wanting more. He can't run, he probably will not hit more than 15 homers, and while he is above average at getting on base he's not THAT MUCH above average (lifetime .358 OBP; last year .347). He plays good defense in left field which is a bit like being a punter who can tackle -- handy, but mostly beside the point. Left field defense is so much beside the point that the Royals now seem interested in moving DeJesus to right. DeJesus is the sort of guy who, I suspect, could really help a good team. He's a bit out of place when he's a team's best player.
Beyond DeJesus, the Royals have "right fielder" Jose Guillen, who will get $13 million in his final year of that disastrous signing. He can't play right field anymore, which is why the position is in quotations, and there's no reason to believe he can hit anymore either. But he's getting $13 million, so you have to hope. They just signed Scott Podsednik, who is coming off a decent year that he is 98 percent unlikely to repeat. They signed Brian Anderson, a one-time big prospect the Royals apparently believe has some untapped talent. They have Mitch Maier, a longtime Royals farmhand who seems to be a lot like Brian Anderson. They also have Alberto Callaspo, a pretty decent line drive hitter who seems to have been bumped off second base. They also have Josh Fields, who has played some left field ... they supposedly want to give him at-bats though he doesn't really have a position. They also have a couple of mid-20s prospects who are probably not in the picture but, hey, they're out there.
It seems to me that the outfield is chock full. It's not exactly chock full of goodness, but, hey, we've been over the treading water bit already.
Then they sign Rick Ankiel. I'm not saying this is a BAD move -- I'm so completely confused by it that I can't even think in terms of good and bad. Ankiel is one of the more famous stories in recent baseball. He was the preposterously gifted 20-year old pitcher who lost his nerve. He was the kid hitter in the minor leagues trying to live the dream. He was the 2007 call-up who hit 11 home runs in 47 games and the next year banged 25 homers in a comeback year that coupled nicely with Josh Hamilton's resurgence.
And all that's fine ... but what is he beyond the storybook pages? He's a 30-turning-31 year-old outfielder who has never had 500 plate appearances in a season. Last year, in 404 PAs, he hit .231/.285/.387.
He is a guy with some power and no plate discipline. He is a pretty good athlete with a great arm and shaky instincts. He's an interesting right fielder because of his arm, but the Royals figure to put him in center where he's at-best OK. He has a gigantic hole in his swing ... he hit .266 in the minors and .251 in the majors, and there's really no reason to believe that's changing. People talk about him improving ... but guys generally don't start improving at 31.*
* It's amazing that decades and decades after Bill James broke down the arc of big league players careers that people still have this fundamental misunderstanding about how baseball players age. Back in 1988, when talking about what he had learned about baseball, he wrote "Ballplayers, as a group, reach their peak value much earlier and decline much more rapidly than people believe."
For a long time, the feeling was that players peaked from 28-32. Bill James said, no, it's much earlier than that. There have been many studies done since then, some of them quite fascinating. My takeaway is that MOST major league players, if they are good enough to become regulars, will peak at 26 or 27 and fall off pretty rapidly. The best players -- the kinds of players who will play in the big leagues for a long time -- may continue to get better at 28 and even 29 and can maintain that high level for a good while longer.
That, of course, makes it tricky to judge: How can you predict who will have long careers and who will not? How can you predict who will maintain their level into their 30s? You would hope that teams are spending hundreds of hours studying this very thing because a good sense of how players age can save a team hundreds of millions of dollars over the course a GMs career. The Royals this off-season have signed a 35/36-year-old catcher, a 34-year-old speed outfielder, a 30/31 centerfielder and this only a couple of years after giving $36 million to a 32-year-old outfielder. I suspect they're not investing enough study time in the aging process.
To be honest: I don't know what to think about any of it. It's not impossible that Ankiel, playing in a comfortable atmosphere in Kansas City, will have a good year. Hey, Emil Brown did. It's also not impossible that he will be Mike Jacobs. I obviously have my own prediction (.240-.250 average, few walks, average defense the Royals will rave about, 15-20 homers if he gets enough at-bats).
But what makes the whole thing so baffling is that I have absolutely no idea what this is supposed to accomplish. It is just so disconcerting that three and a half years after Dayton Moore was hired in Kansas City, their minor league system is so bereft of Major League ready talent, they are going around the league and signing 30-somethings that nobody else wants. It is troubling that the Royals plan in 2010, apparently, is to make fans hope that a bunch of older players will recapture their past glory -- or at least their past moderate success.
It is troubling that Dayton Moore's entirely sensible plan for success -- find young players, develop them, bring them to the big leagues -- seems to be spinning in the mud. If you are going to be that kind of organization, you actually have to BE that kind of organization. I don't know if Jason Kendall, Scott Podsednik, Jose Guillen, Rick Ankiel, Yuniesky Betancourt, Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz and so on are blocking any promising younger players from the big leagues.
But I guess that's the point: If they ARE blocking younger talents, then the Royals are doing a lousy job of developing players.
And if they ARE NOT blocking younger talents, then the Royals are doing a lousy job of developing players.
So maybe it's really not confusing at all.