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

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  • http://www.earthquakeresurrection.com David Lowe

    Excellent article, Michael. I agree that Cain deserves to be playing in the majors this year. Now. He looks like the perfect leadoff hitter and great defensive center fielder.

    I grew up in the championship years of 1975 – 1989 watching Willie Wilson take over in CF and dominate the league. He was constantly on base, wreaking havoc for the other team. He was leading the league in hits and stolen bases.

    The Royals desperately need this again, especially with the big ballpark (still).

    The Royals need a lot of other pieces that the championship team had. Awesome defense up the middle (Frank White, UL Washington, Patek, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson, Darrel Porter, Jim Sundberg). Legit all-stars who can drive in runs (Brett, McRae, Aikens, Balboni, Tartabull, Bo Jackson, Mayberry). Great starting pitching (Gura, Leonard, Gubicza, Jackson, Saberhagen, Cone, Gordon, Quisenberry, Montgomery). Guys at the top of the lineup who can hit for high average and get on base (Wilson, Patek, Seitzer).

    Will this young crew be able to become what these players were in the past? I sure hope so.

    Moustakas = Brett
    Cain = Wilson
    Hosmer = Seitzer
    Kaiahuie = Aikens
    Clint Robinson = McRae
    Christian Colon = White
    Escobar = Washington
    Perez = Porter
    Lamb = Gura
    Mike Montgomery = Danny Jackson
    Jeffress = Gubicza
    Crow = Gordon
    Duffy = Saberhagen
    Dwyer = Cone

    It would great if most of these prospects performed like these former Royals greats, but I kind of doubt that will happen. But its a good start and with the right kind of moves, the Royals brass could actually come close to making this team watchable again.

    David

  • Tom Barkwell

    I actually took some comfort in Ned’s statement. He was honest and straight-forward about the situation, and I appreciate it. The boss made a promise as part of sales pitch to a free agent, and they’re going to keep it. I would be more upset if they reneged.

    So Cain plays every day in Omaha for a few months. What will it hurt? If Melky gets hot, we can trade him prior to the deadline. If he fizzles by early June, welcome to the big leagues, Mr. Cain.

  • Bryan

    Your points are spot on.

    I have done a lot of thinking and fussing about this promise also, and I have come to the conclusion that it is all about Cain’s service time and not really about any promise to Melky.

    What I don’t understand is that if this is the case why they don’t just come out and say this.

    I guess we just have to not watch the first two months of the season. If it weren’t for service time we would have Moose as the starting third basemen. We would have Cain in center. And possibly even have Hosmer playing now. He seems ready. And some of the pitchers would be here also.

    At the end of the day I don’t think service time will really matter too much either. I think it will matter less than getting these guys up and giving them big league experience now.

    I would make the argument that if you get more of these guys up now, it makes for a much more likely chance of competing in 2012. If that is the case, the park is full through September and that added revenue, and added revenue in 2013 and beyond would trump any additional costs brought on by service time issues.

    By allowing service time to control it causes less heartache and makes decisions easier. You don’t have to think of doing any creative contracts, like the Longoria contract or anything else that might work and might be smart. Why not make the hard decisions now and start doing some creative contracts and start making some real attempts at truly competing this year?

    But I forgot. It is an old school league. No need to think beyond what is already dictated. No need to make any waves.

    Isn’t that what Moore is doing with the farm system. He has abandoned some old traditions and done his thing and had success. I say he has to continue to do that in other phases, like with service time. If he doesn’t and won’t allow himself to go against the grain, the Royals can’t be competitive.

    I like what Moore has done. But if he doesn’t continue to grow and continue to challenge conventional thinking he is destined to fail in Kansas City.

  • ed kranepool

    Nice article.

    I want to comment on a couple of the comments. First off to Mr. Lowe, UL Washington was not a great defender; he wasn’t even average. I believe he had a nick name back then: Hands of Stone. However, I agree with you: Cain should be playing CF on opening day.

    Secondly, to Bryan, and I admit some level of ignorance on this subject, so I’m really just asking for clarification. If Cain came up last year with the Brewers, hasn’t his service time already started? The situation with Moustakas is different, since he has never been up. Do the Royals gain something in terms of service time by sending Cain to Omaha?

    • http://www.earthquakeresurrection.com David Lowe

      Ed,
      I agree. I should have left just Patek on there as the shortstop…and I just couldn’t bring myself to list Buddy Biancalana as a major star!

      But, UL could hit the ball pretty good. Am I forgetting a great shortstop from that era? Onix Concepcion? Nah. Who am I forgetting?

      David

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