Promises, Promises

We knew it was coming.  The feeling of dread permeated through the Royals online community.  The front office executed their plan brilliantly, sneaking it in with little fanfare and on the wave of a much bigger, much more obvious move.

They knew.  Oh, yes, they knew that in our collective relief about the signing of Jeff Francoeur – no more worry or speculation, it was at least over – we’d never see something like signing former Yankees and Braves outfielder Melky Cabrera coming.

And now, for a while at least, I’m afraid we’re stuck with him.

Look, I’m sure there’s a time that Melky would have been a perfectly normal stopgap outfielder for another last place Royals team.  There were rumors the Royals were going to send Mark Teahen to New York a couple years ago for Melky.  He’s like a switch-hitting version of every bland, replacement level outfielder out there.  He’s not awful at things.  More like not at all good.  Even in being terrible, he can’t quite get there all the way.

Cabrera was signed with the idea that he’d be able to play everyday.  He signed for relatively little – just $1.25 million – and wasn’t blocking anybody obviously worthy of a spot in the outfield.  Jarrod Dyson had played great defense and did well on the basepaths in a September callup, but as a 50th round draft pick, has never been much of a prospect.  As much as I root for the guy, Mitch Maier is a career fourth outfielder, and barely at that.  Gregor Blanco gets on base and has good speed and good defense, but he and Maier are so similar, it’s not like he’s a must-start.  Poor David Lough seems destined for Shane Costa treatment, as the internet begs for his playing time yet get rebuffed time and again.

Apparently, there was some promise made during the negotiations that Melky would join the Royals with the shot to play everyday.  The Royals get a cheap option to patrol the outfield for a season, Cabrera gets to show the rest of the league he can play and maybe he can cash in.

Then a crazy thing happened.  The Royals traded Zack Greinke, acquiring Lorenzo Cain in the process.

At FanFest, Ned Yost told us basement-dwelling bloggers on the panel that if they’d known they’d get an outfielder in a trade, they’d have never signed Cabrera.

Now, after a couple weeks of spring training, Yost is talking about how flexible the infielders are and how it enables the Royals to carry five outfielders.  That’s all well and good.  I’m surprised, but I’m happy.  I think Mitch Maier, one of the probable survivors of the spring cuts, deserves a shot to play some more.  Blanco played alright and is a great on-base guy (and not just in coach-speak).

So that’s great.  They keep an extra outfielder, while Cain, Dyson and Lough play in Omaha.  But the feeling I get, based on Yost’s comments, is that no matter how well Cain plays or how poorly Melky plays, Cabrera is going to start the season as the Royals center fielder.  It’s not based on performance, it’s not based on upside.  It’s hardly motivated by salary, as Melky would only make $800,000 more than Cain’s minimum salary.

“We made a commitment to Melky and Francoeur to give them a shot,” Yost acknowledged, “and we’ll give them a good two-, two-and-a-half to three-months shot. We have to give them a legitimate shot because we made that commitment.”

It’s all based on this idea of a promise.  The explanation has been that by promising playing time to Cabrera and reneging, the Royals will shatter their reputation and lose out on free agents in the future.

I’m not sure where this idea comes from.  Unless there’s a clause in the contract that legally binds the Royals to playing Melky for three months at five starts a week, this just doesn’t fit for me.  Even with an increasingly progressive baseball universe, where on-base percentage is even landing on the scoreboard and advanced statistics trickle into normal discussion, it’s still an old-school game.

And old-school baseball guys have a veteran fetish.  They’re obsessed with “leadership” qualities.  A “winning” mentality.  Melky was a Yankee, thus he’s a winner.  He was a Brave, thus he plays the game right.  That’s all it takes to get a promise of starting in center.

If they veer from that promise, then all hell breaks loose.  You want to sign a solid #3 starter?  Too bad, you shoulda played Melky.  It’s December 2013 and the Royals are in on an impact bat, but oh, they lose out because they didn’t play Melky.

Here’s my question: if players are getting playing time based on some kind of idea of “commitment”, what message does that send to the prospects coming up who aren’t popping up on top 100 lists?  Does David Lough keep working hard to try to break through, or does he get discouraged, frustrated, and fade away with another player promised time?  What if the Royals sign another veteran next season to play second base, but Johnny Giavotella is smacking the ball to all fields in Surprise and signalling that he’s ready to play?  He’d better hope they didn’t promise the veteran a shot, or he’ll have a long spring ahead of him.

Okay, it’s a slippery slope.  The circumstances of the Cabrera signing are unique to the winter meetings just before Greinke was traded.  It’s not necessarily going to be a situation that repeats itself.  Regardless, even if, over the next five years, the Royals don’t sign another veteran who’s looking to prove himself, I’m more disturbed by the idea behind Cabrera’s promise, this idea that playing a better player with more potential short- and long-term will tarnish the Royals reputation in the future because of going back on their word with a replacement level free agent.

What I think is going to work better with potential free agents is the potential to win.  You don’t win with Melky Cabrera, and having him in center field for 140 games isn’t going to produce much more above replacement level.  Even worse, he’s a candidate to collapse entirely.  What message does that send to a potential free agent?

What if you have Lorenzo Cain out there?  He’s fast, athletic, he makes plays.  He hit at the big league level for half a year last year.  Sure, it’s a small sample, but he still did it.  And worst case, he plays the same as Cabrera.  Best case, he looks like a future All-Star, perhaps enticing a free agent to sign in Kansas City.

Maybe the Royals don’t win any more games with Cain in center this year, but he should get that chance.  Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are going to be run producers.  Billy Butler‘s going to be a pure hitter.  Those guys need someone on base so they can drive someone in.  Perhaps Cain isn’t the guy, but nobody knows it unless he gets a shot.  He can’t just be getting his feet wet in a new league in 2012 or in August 2011.  He needs to play at the big league level and figure out how to be a leadoff hitter in the show.  It’s not going to happen if Melky’s around.

That all being said, at least the Royals are discussing keeping Maier and Blanco over Cain.  If Melky’s going to play most of the time, Cain can’t just sit on the bench.  The Royals have that part right.

What would be even better is if they could get it all the way right and ship Melky off, somewhere, anywhere.  I’m sure another team would like a “winning” player, right?

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Kansas City Royals KC Lorenzo Cain Melky Cabrera MLB Royals

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