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Losing teams like the Royals need to exploit their only advantage


Something good happened for the Kansas City Royals the other day -- or anyway, it feels to me like something good. I've written here that the biggest reason that Trey Hillman was unsuccessful as manager (three or four times bigger than any other reason) is because he had a lousy team. There are ways, I suppose, to make a lousy team less lousy and he was unable to to do that. There are signs, I suppose, of a manager being better than the talent around him, and he did not really show those signs. But more than that, it seems to me that when you give a manager Jose Guillen and say "Here's your best hitter," and you give a manager Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz and say "They will get you through the seventh and eighth innings," and you give a manager Yuni Betancourt and say, "Now you have an everyday shortstop" ... what you are really saying is, "We will be firing you at an undisclosed future date."

Still, I suppose what bothered me most about the Trey Hillman Era is I never really liked what the Royals were doing. I wrote about the frustration of a fan whose view of sports clashes with his team, but in this case I mean something bigger than that. No, I never really understood the small stuff either. Just this year, the first inning sacrifice bunt by a No. 3 hitter (David DeJesus), the positioning of Guillen in right field as late inning defensive maneuver (the winning hit landed in front of him), leaving Gil Meche out there through seven walks and a 128 pitches and so on and so on. But, in the end, baseball managers exist to be second guessed. On bad days (and in the Trey Era there were a lot of bad days) nobody likes the hometown manager.

I'm talking about the bigger picture stuff. I never quite followed the Royals play for success. The play seemed to be to win as many games as possible, which, sure, sounds sensible enough. But for the Royals, at this point in their development, I think that's a terrible idea. Ask yourself this question again: What ADVANTAGE do bad, small market teams have over the talented and rich teams? They have less talent and less money. They are less appealing to good free agents and the most talented players internationally. So what advantage do the Kansas City Royals have over, say, the Boston Red Sox? The easy answer is "none" but I don't think it's the right answer. In the Army -- and I have been lucky enough to see it in the classrooms -- they spend countless hours studying the "advantages" smaller, less equipped armies have over the powerful U.S. Those smaller armies may be more mobile. They may have better communication lines. They may be more committed. And so on.

It seems to me (and I've written this before) that the powerful advantage for the Royals and the like is simply this: time. That is what the Royals have that the Red Sox and Yankees and Phillies and Cardinals do not. The Royals have the luxury of time. Those teams have to win NOW, or bad things are going to happen. Ownership spends a lot of money, fans pay a fortune for tickets, expectations are heightened, and they better win. When they don't win, there's intense pressure. People get fired. Players get released. Headlines scream. When those teams don't win, there are consequences. Everyone's watching.

Having to win now creates a certain intensity but it can also spark mistakes. It can cause teams to overvalue a player who seems JUST PERFECT for the team. It can cause teams to be impatient -- either with prospects or slumping players. Win Now can spark bad trades, bad signings, short-sighted moves. Consider Seattle. Hey, I know, I was one of those people who loved what Seattle was doing in the off-season, bringing in Cliff Lee and building the best defense in baseball and all that.

But I will say that just a few days before the season began I was having a conversation with Chardon Jimmy and both of us, as if waking up from a daydream, thought at the same time: "Wait a minute, the Mariners aren't going to be any good. They can't score runs AT ALL." Of course, that's how it has played out, at least so far. But the larger point is that Mariners saw this too ... they knew they couldn't score runs. They were last in the league in runs last year. But they also knew that they were THISCLOSE to winning. And so they reached. They picked up human cannon ball Milton Bradley and hoped he would thrive in a new environment. They signed Chone Figgins (and his career sub-100 OPS+) to a four-year deal and hoped he really had learned how to walk. They brought back Ken Griffey Jr. for emotional purposes and also in the hopes he might hit a righty now and then. That's why they kept 36-year-old Mike Sweeney (who actually isn't hitting too badly -- low average but decent power in part-time duty). They have to win NOW. It still could work -- the season has only just begun. But the signs aren't the greatest. The Mariners are dead last in the league in runs scored again.

The Royals -- and other teams like the Pirates, Orioles, Cleveland, the Nationals and so on -- should know they're not going to win right away. My suspicion, though, is that the Royals have not known this. My suspicion is that they have done an extremely poor job of self-evaluation. For instance they really seemed to believe that last year's disastrous season was, in large part, a function of bad luck and injuries. They really seemed to believe that had Coco Crisp and Mike Aviles stayed healthy and Joakim Soria not missed a month or so, they would have been much, much better than the 97-loss team they were.

A few fans feel that way too ... I hear from them quite a lot. But fans can be somewhere between optimistic and unrealistic. Teams cannot. My guess, based on what the Royals did during the offseason, is that they actually believed they were not far away from being a .500 or so ball club. They signed a handful of veteran players -- Scott Podsednik, Jason Kendall*, Rick Ankiel -- in the hope of giving Trey Hillman a viable team in 2010. Inevitably -- and, yes, it was as inevitable as December snow in Cleveland -- that was the team that cost Hillman his job.

*The Royals seem absolutely thrilled with what they're getting from Jason Kendall. No, I'm serious -- they're beyond thrilled. Yes, Kendall is slugging .341. Yes, after a pretty hot start (for getting on base, anyway) he is hitting .233/.329/.286 the last month or so. Yes, he has committed six errors and has thrown out 26 percent of attempted base stealers, which is a lower percentage than cast off Miguel Olivo threw out last year. Yes, according to the Dewan numbers, he has cost the Royals two runs defensively. Yes, the Royals ERA is at the moment dead last in the American League -- it's worse than last season though teams so far have scored markedly fewer runs this year. And, finally, yes, the Royals are on pace to lose 100 games.

Still, everyone around the Royals seems thrilled with Jason Kendall. My good friends Ryan Lefebvre and Frank White talk nightly on television about how well he blocks the plate (the wild pitches DO seem down this year) and how he will give you a professional at-bat and how much pitchers are learning from him and how much he's adding to the team. Royals officials constantly praise Kendall's winning approach to baseball, his intensity for the game, his leadership. Maybe it's so. Maybe there are hidden treasures he's providing, things that will help this team for years to come.

But for now, it's probably worth pointing out:

• Former Royals catcher John Buck, for Toronto, is hitting .278/.331/.602 with eight home runs.

• Former Royals catcher Miguel Olivo, for Colorado is hitting .289/.343/.567 with eight home runs.

Olivo, by all apparent indications, is playing better defense too -- he's plus-6 runs on the Dewan scale.

I haven't liked any of it. It seems to me that the Royals must take advantage of the one advantage they have -- time. How do they do that? Well, the big thing is to know that while, sure, you want to win, the goal must be bigger than that. You are building a team to win down the road. Everything -- and I mean EVERYTHING -- must be pointed in that direction. Every break you take, every move you make, every smile you fake, every bond you break should have 2011 and 2012 and 2013 in consideration. And with time, you can do things. If you have some young and reasonably talented players, you can give them opportunities to learn and grow at the Major League level. If you have prospects you are not quite sure about you can FIND OUT what they have inside.

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In the Royals case, I think it's unconscionable that they have not at least tried to figure out what they have with first base prospect Kila Ka'aihue. Two years ago, Ka'aihue destroyed the minor leagues, banging 37 homers and walking 104 times in Class AA and AAA. The Royals decided he needed more "seasoning" and traded for Mike Jacobs to "play" first base. Unconscionable might not be strong enough. Ka'aihue was sent back to the minors and for a while lost faith (25-year-old kids will do that when they are not given a chance) and perhaps because of that had a humdrum year in Class AAA (though he did walk 100 times). This led all those people who did not believe in him in the first place to pat themselves on the back and congratulating themselves for being right. It's AMAZING how bad teams in strange ways start to root against their own players. Then, Kila had a great spring training this year and he was sent to the minor leagues. He got off to a great start, and the Royals finally called him up. He sat him on the bench for two weeks, got four measly at-bats, and they sent him back down.

Now, I don't know if Ka'aihue can play. I really don't. I'm not saying he's a big league hitter -- I simply don't know. A lot of people think his bat is too slow. He might be a left-handed, more patient version of Ryan Shealy. But the Royals don't know either. They were quite certain that Mike Aviles was nothing but a minor league player and the guy was Royals player of the year a couple of seasons ago and he has now forced his way back into the starting lineup. But here's the main point about Kila: They DO NOT HAVE TO GUESS. If they are just honest with themselves -- and realize they're not going to win this year -- they can just let Kila hit. This is the advantage of time. If the Royals were trying to win now, sure, they might be nervous about giving Kila pressure at-bats.

But they're not going to win now. So what the heck is Kila Ka'aihue doing back in Omaha? Play the guy already. Maybe it becomes rapidly clear that he cannot play. Maybe it becomes clear that he can make the adjustment and he becomes a high OBP guy with some power, exactly what the Royals do not have. Either way, the Royals owe it to themselves to find out. But, no, they're trying to win now and squandering the one edge they actually have. They absurdly signed Jose Guillen to a $36 million contract three years ago and he has never played well enough for them to deal him away, and so they feel forced to play him at DH every single day because they don't want to release him and they don't want his sorry attitude to flare up as it would if he was sitting on the bench. So they play him, an absolute dead end choice. Guillen can't play the field anymore, and he goes into preposterous month-long slumps when he can't hit at all, and he has no future with the team. Still, they play him. And Ka'aihue rots in Omaha.

Alex Gordon is down there too, tearing up pitchers and learning left field or something. Scott Podsednik plays left field in the big leagues. He has hit pretty well. It goes without saying, however, that he's not part of the Royals future.

So after all this, you want me to tell you the good thing I noticed. Well, It has to do with new manager Ned Yost. I have heard numerous reports from Milwaukee fans about Yost, and it is true that most of the reports have been pretty much along the lines of "Good luck!" But one thing most people concede about Yost is that he was patient with that young group of talented players in Milwaukee. It isn't that he made Ryan Braun (who somehow learned to play left field in the big leagues) or Prince Fielder or Yovani Gallardo or even Rickie Weeks or Corey Hart into what they have come. But he played them. He gave them their chance. He allowed them to fail and allowed them to fail again.

This takes a tremendous amount of confidence on a manager's part -- let's face it, there's a reason managers end up playing these annoying "scrappy" players that drive the Baseball Think Factory posters to distraction. They honestly believe these guys will not make mistakes. And by not making mistakes, they will help the team win (or, more directly, help the team not lose). Sure, you can show the managers a million statistics that will prove otherwise -- take Jason Kendall -- but you're not going to convince most baseball managers of it. They don't want to play young players. Young players make mistakes. And mistakes cost a manager his job.

But Yost has a history of playing young guys. And the other day, late in the game, with the Royals up, he showed his strength as a manager. He basically left Luke Hochevar in the game to lose. Hochevar had been pitching really well, and the Royals led 4-1 going into the seventh. He had only thrown 76 pitches. And he was facing a Chicago White Sox team that cannot hit. And then, it all kind of fell apart for him. A line drive single ... a ground ball single ... a 7-pitch walk ... a hard line drive single ... a ground ball single ... a bloop single ... and the White Sox took the lead. The White Sox eventually won the game.

The Kansas City Star's Bob Dutton asked Yost to explain what he was thinking, and this is what Yost said: "I told (Luke), 'Look in those those types of situations, I'm going to let you pitch yourself out of trouble. You need to learn how."

I love this. I don't love it because I think it will work -- like with Kila, I have no idea if it will work. But this is exactly what I think the Royals should be doing. Developing players who actually matter in the future. Challenging them. Sticking with them. Luke Hochevar was the first pick in the draft, and the Royals think he has the stuff to be a very good pitcher. OK, fine, they owe it to themselves to do everything they can to make that happen. That's more important than a win or two in a lost season. That's more important than getting Rick Ankiel at-bats. There are some of the things the Royals should know by year's end:

1. Is Luke Hochevar going to be a high quality starter?

2. Is Kila Ka'aihue a viable option as a designated hitter/first baseman?

3. Does Alex Gordon have a future on this team as an every day player?

4. Can Alberto Callaspo field competently enough to be an every day third baseman?

5. Is a healthy Mike Aviles good enough to be a Michael Young-type offensive player or Brian Roberts-type offensive player?

6. Are Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister part of this team's future rotation?

And so on. With third baseman Mike Moustakas tearing up Class AA and speedy center fielder Derrick Robinson finally getting on base a little bit and lefty pitcher Mike Montgomery moving up fast and first-round pick Aaron Crow impressing so many at spring training and power-hitting first baseman Eric Hosmer wowing scouts, the Royals have some exciting things happening in the organization.

But it seems to me that if they are going to be about developing young players, they actually have to DEVELOP YOUNG PLAYERS. No, nobody wants to go through another 90-100 loss season. But the Royals are going to lose those games anyway. The question is: What will they get out of all those losses? What will they get out of this season? What I liked about Ned Yost's move the other day is that while, sure, he wanted to win the game, what he wants much more is a future Luke Hochevar who can finish the job.