Patience is Better than Sacrifice (Usually)


I’ve been listening to the expert opinion spinners tell us what the Royals must do to fill their gaps and lay the final bricks of Mission 2012.  There is little discussion of consequence regarding our need for a utility infielder (except Gage Matthews’ post here on Kings of Kauffman and our Winter Meeting notes), the topic simply isn’t sexy enough.  We need a lefty reliever, but again, not much passionate discussion about this either.  (No surprise, Michael Engel has a good story here on KoK.)  However, a topic that is receiving some enthusiastic debate among many media sources is our need for a front line starter.

Most are saying we can’t afford a bidding war for a quality free agent so we’re left with no choice but to dip into our minor league treasury and trade away our blue chip stocks.  If we had no hope of ever filling these needs internally, and if a trade was the only possible way to bridge the final gap of a championship caliber club, then I would tend to agree with them.  But I don’t agree, and I think we do have a choice.

The Royals have found themselves in an interesting position.  They finally have some commodities that are the envy of baseball, a currency that even the Steinbrenner family can’t print as proficiently as we can right now – a deep pool of talented but unproven, young, high potential trade-worthy athletes.  Many of these players could command a high price on the open market, but they are also very valuable to the future of the Royals.

Anytime a trade is considered, a risk/reward scenario must be calculated by both franchises.  In our current situation, a team like the Royals must weigh the benefits of receiving an established player vs sacrificing an unproven young high-potential talent, or possibly a group of young and talented players.  There is considerable risk on both ends of this equation, but the downside potential is greater on the side of the team that gives up the young unproven talent, aka the Royals in this case.

On one side, if the Royals pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade, they would expect to receive an established player who they should be able to count on to perform at a predictable historical level.  The other team is taking a risk with the young player, but in all likelihood, the ceiling for this player (or the total ceiling value of a group of young players if more than one is included in a package) will likely be much higher than for the established player – unless the established player is in the final year of a contract or other extenuating circumstance in which case a team might just be renting a super star for a short period of time to make a run.

Some teams have an insurance policy to protect against making mistakes with bad trades – the policy is called “lots of money.”  Lots of money will enable you to pull out your checkbook and buy another free agent when someone doesn’t perform up to expectations.  Unfortunately, as you well know, the Royals don’t carry this type of insurance.

Money has tipped the balance of power and the result is that baseball does not have a level playing field.  The Yankees payroll is currently projected to exceed $200 million (a little less than they spent last year, but still more than almost every Powerball Jackpot ever awarded) which is around 400% of the Royals payroll.

How then do we compete with the big checkbooks in New York, Boston, and Chicago without taking risks?  We can’t.  Small market teams can’t play it safe and contend on the same level with the big boys.  A small market team will never reach the promised land of October without taking risks.  But, because we don’t carry the insurance policy, we must be oh so careful not to make a mistake that could collapse the foundation of what we’ve been building for the past several years.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, and it applies to baseball just as well as it does to International conflicts – those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.  Following is an example that all small market GMs should remember every time they consider trading away the jewels of their farm system.

In 2002, Bartolo Colon was traded to the Expos where he pitched a total of 17 games before moving on to the White Sox in 2003.  Colon has been a league average pitcher since then, and that includes one very good year for the Angels in 2005.  Would you like to know what the Expos gave up to get Colon for those 17 games?  Grady Sizemore, who was still a year away from debuting in the major leagues, was traded for Colon.  Sizemore just happened to turn into a 3-time All Star.

But it wasn’t a straight up trade.  There was another player they gave up to get Colon, an infielder named Brandon Phillips.  Phillips made his major league debut with Cleveland after the trade, and he was up and down for a couple seasons until he found his way in 2005.   Since then, all he’s done is win 3 Gold Gloves, play in 2 All Star games, and win a Silver Slugger.

Ok you might say, so the Expos made a mistake.  They gave away two All Stars for a pitcher that regressed from his “proven commodity” status.  No one could have predicted that Colon’s performance would slide and people would call them nuts for parting with two high potential minor league players in order to get what they expected to be a proven commodity.  Anybody could make a mistake like that, right?  Well, before you answer that, consider this additional important fact I omitted.

Did I mention there was a third player the Expos let slip away in this trade for Colon?  You may have heard of him, his name is Cliff Lee.  Lee didn’t break out for a couple of years until 2005, but he now has a Cy Young to his credit, he tallies more zeros on the opposing team than a P-38 Lightning, and a year ago he was the most sought after free agent pitcher in baseball and considered by many to be the game’s best pitcher.  He merely went 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA for the Phillies last season and should have helped lead them to the World Series, but didn’t, for reasons I still don’t understand.  Lee is the poster boy for Patience is better than Sacrifice.

Do all trades work out the way this one did for the Expos?  No, they don’t.  But the history lesson here is that it takes too many years for these prospects to work their way through the system, too much time, energy, money, and coaching invested in them to give them away and watch them become stars for another club.  This type of mistake can rip the heart right out of your fan support.

Consider what the Padres received in return for Latos this weekend.  Do you think the Reds fan base’s excitement over their new outstanding pitcher might be slightly tempered by their concern that Latos’ performance could slip even further than it did from 2010 to 2011, or his arm could give out and they’ll end up watching their former stable of young stallions mature and succeed 2,160 miles to the Southwest in San Diego?  You betcha, you know they’re worried about that.

Dayton, if you’re reading this, I have a very important message for you.  Please, please learn from history and don’t trade away our top prospects from the farm system you’ve so competently crafted for us.  If you have an extra piece with some trade value that doesn’t really fit into the future (i.e. David Lough, Clint Robinson, maybe even Christian Colon to give the impression we’re making a big sacrifice, etc.), then fine, it makes sense to exchange this piece for another that fits more perfectly into our Mission 2012 puzzle.

If not, then let me speak from my heart.  I want to win a championship as much or more than anyone else in Royal Nation.  No one anywhere loves the Royals more than I do.  Cut me and I bleed Royal Blue.  But, I’ve waited 26 years for another championship, I can wait one more year for Wil Myers, or Mike Montgomery, or Jake Odorizzi to take their place at the K.  I’m begging you, don’t give them away.  If I have to watch Wil stroke doubles all over some East Coast stadium for the next decade, or Monty and Odo become staff Aces (or even a #2 or 3 for a contender) on another team 3 or 4 years from now, I’ll throw myself from the Broadway bridge, and I know you don’t want that.

Some people will say the Royals already made their big move this off season when they acquired Jonathan Sanchez, so I needn’t worry about any more risky activity.  The Sanchez acquisition was a great move in my opinion, with precious little downside risk, and one that few if any of us saw coming.  But, it’s possible there could be more moves on the horizon.

We all remember it was one year ago this week that the Royals pulled off their biggest trade in years, right in the middle of the holiday season when they sent Greinke to Milwaukee for a package of players.  In that move, we placed the greatest risk on the Brewers by forcing them to give up the young players and the result was that Zach broke a rib before opening day and started the season on the DL.  (And, we stuck them with Yuniesky Betancourt to boot.  Bravo Dayton!)

It’s possible Dayton may be overconfident from the apparent success (so far) of that move and motivated to try again.  Dayton knows we need at least one more pitcher and the media chorus has been singing the praises of a well stocked farm system that could be used to acquire a staff leader.  If the Royals’ brass listens to this chorus long enough they may begin to believe the Royals’ abundance of minor league riches provides them with the flexibility to survive a mistake which could make them overconfident and impatient waiting for a deal that makes perfect sense.  A blockbuster move like this would put us on the other side of the table, in the same dicey position where the Brewers found themselves last year.

Pull the trigger on a risky deal and the club could potentially wash away years of commitment to a minor league system that is on the verge of producing the first competitive team in Kansas City in a generation.  What if da Vinci had sneezed as he was painting the final strokes of the Mona Lisa?  Another artist’s painting might be hung in the smiling Madonna’s honored place in the Louvre.

Fortunately, our GM has given us reason to believe he won’t make a hasty move.  Rather, he has appeared to be calculated and methodical, apparently refusing questionable offers that many of us were afraid (no, petrified) he would accept.  He’s shown patience, and patience can many times, and more often than not, be better than sacrifice.  At least when it comes to the potential sacrifice of the Royals’ most valuable assets.  Based on the expectation that was set with the Latos trade, the asking price for another top notch pitcher would likely be steep and painful.  Unless all the stars align and the trade worked out perfectly, this sacrifice could be felt by our club for years to come.  Just ask the Expos about that if you don’t believe me.

I realize the Royals staff have access to facts and figures I don’t have.  They may have evidence that one of our young guys won’t reach his expected potential, or may not fit with the future plan due to some direction that hasn’t been announced yet, making him expendable.  I realize they can’t tell us everything and for the sake of their strategy and competition with other clubs they have to keep all of us in the dark regarding some pieces of these decisions.

If they decide to make a blockbuster deal using our farm system and our future as leverage, I’ll have to trust that they have the same desire I do to fight with all our effort to raise another flag at Kauffman.  I’ll try to accept that they are acting with only the best of intentions to improve our team.  But I also hope they understand we’ll dissect every single aspect of any move they decide to make.  And I truly hope they also realize that sometimes the best trade is no trade at all.

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