Keith Law of ESPN wrote a piece about the MLB CBA and its impact on teams like t..."/> Keith Law of ESPN wrote a piece about the MLB CBA and its impact on teams like t..."/>

Royals Stuck in the Middle By MLB’s CBA


Sep 14, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ervin Santana (54) pitches in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Keith Law of ESPN wrote a piece about the MLB CBA and its impact on teams like the Royals – not just as a small market team, but in regards to where they finished in the standings.

His thesis:

"The problem for teams like the Royals and other low-revenue teams under the new CBA is that there’s a strong disincentive to win unless you make the playoffs."

The Royals had a good season, with their two biggest acquisitions paying off and leading one of the best pitching staffs in the American League. They saw progress from Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez became an All-Star, Greg Holland became unhittable. They won 86 games and while they missed the playoffs, it’s encouraging to most of the fanbase, should see a bump in attendance and season ticket sales for next season, and puts the Royals on an upward trend.

But, as Law says, they do find themselves in a sort of purgatory. They didn’t win enough to make the playoffs. They didn’t lose enough to get a good draft pick.

Other issues in the CBA work against the Royals situation this offseason: because they’ll pick 19th in the draft, their first round draft slot amount will be lower than in past years, and their overall draft signing pool for the first ten picks will also be lower. Additionally, their pick won’t be protected – only the first 11 picks are. The Royals are likely to be looking at a few free agents. Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, and Curtis Granderson are all potential free agents this offseason who could be on the Royals radar, and all will receive a qualifying offer from their current team. So if the Royals do sign them, they’d give up their first round pick. They would still have a competitive balance pick next summer, and if they were unable to re-sign Ervin Santana, they’d receive a compensation pick if he were to sign with a new team. But even if they broke even on the number of picks, their draft pool would be limited even more.

Sep 23, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Wil Myers (9) is congratulated by left fielder Sam Fuld (5) after he scored a run against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Process’s central goal was to build the Royals from within, using the farm system to feed the big league team. Dayton Moore went out of his way to sign players for well over recommended slot amounts under the previous CBA, so they were able to acquire players with first round buzz in later rounds, most notably Wil Myers, who they gave $2 million as a third round pick. Jason Adam, Tim Melville, and others were also part of this strategy. It offered Moore and the Royals a chance to get those young prospects into the system while other teams passed them up, concerned with the amounts it would take to sign them.

Such flexibility isn’t offered in the new CBA. Their picks in the first ten rounds will have recommended signing bonus amounts and the Royals can’t go over that amount without paying the overage as a fine, or, if they overspend by 10% of more, they lose future draft picks.

More from Law:

"Reducing their ability to continue to add talent means their window of success is shorter, and they’ll also have less young talent in the system for potential trades."

Again, Myers is a good example of Law’s point. The Royals were able to trade him away because they’d built up depth in the farm system through their creative signing bonus strategy. Small market teams have to find advantages that allow them to stay within their budgets. So if they can develop a player and trade him for an established veteran star – like, say, James Shields – then they can get a player without having to convince the player to join them (unless they have a no trade clause, of course), and only have to convince the team who has that player’s contract.

Now, the Royals were still able to figure out a way to work the system to their advantage and get two players they felt highly about in the 2013 draft. Many scratched their heads when the Royals took Hunter Dozier with the eighth overall pick. Some labeled it a bust that very night. But Dozier signed for nearly a million dollars below the slot value and the Royals were able to shift that money to Sean Manaea’s signing bonus after he was taken with their compensation pick after the first round. Manaea was a potential top ten pick but slipped due to a hip injury and his price tag. The move allowed the Royals to get both players, whereas, according to Jim Callis of Baseball America, they would have lost Dozier before their second pick had they taken Manaea first.

Within the constraints of the system, the Royals found an approach in 2013 that ended up working out. It was a calculated gamble that Manaea would slip, and their projections turned out to be correct.

That draft strategy aside, it puts some of the Royals decisions into a different perspective. There was a point in late July where Ervin Santana looked like a certain trade candidate. Then the Royals won. And won. And it turned into an eight game winning streak as the trade deadline passed. They ended up with a nine game winning streak, then won six of their next eight and were right back into the wild card discussion.

But that streak kept the Royals from trading Santana for prospects and cost the Royals draft position and draft bonus money. The tradeoff is that they were in the hunt down to the last week (even if only mathematically). A bird in the hand, and all that. If the Royals build on 2013 and make the playoffs next season, that’s an easy call – you take the wins. But if they miss, down the road will there be any internal questions about how things may have worked out differently? If the Royals sign a free agent, miss the playoffs, lost the 19th pick and whoever is selected in that spot turns into a superstar, is it worth a couple of seasons of 86-90 wins? What if the CBA considerations then inspire a team to trade off more prospects, gutting their farm system even then, and that team still doesn’t make the playoffs? That’s the choice general managers have to make.

Remember, the Royals were a 2009 loss away from being able to select Manny Machado instead of Christian Colon and a three game sweep of Detroit in 2006 put them one game ahead of Tampa Bay and caused them to miss out on David Price. Instead, they took Mike Moustakas, who has yet to reach the expectations placed on him.

These are all hypothetical questions. Obviously it’s no guarantee that either Price or Machado become stars in the Royals farm system, but it’s enough of a likelihood that they would have that makes me think the Royals would gladly trade a couple games in last place seasons for the chance to bring in future All-Stars. There’s no way of knowing who’ll be available to the Royals in the first next June or if they’d sign or how they’d develop. But the question of “how much does a win cost a team?” if that team misses the playoffs is a a theoretical one worth considering.

That being said, watching a team win is a lot more enjoyable than watching them slog through another pointless September. I’m never going to be the type that actively roots for my team to lose, even if I know that it might mean a regime change that I might even support, or a better draft position.

In the end, Law supposes, these sorts of issues will be reevaluated when the next CBA is negotiated and, ideally, a system will emerge that doesn’t put the not-quite-successful-enough teams in such an awkward position. For the Royals, 86 wins got them close, but not close enough, to the playoffs, rejuvenated a fanbase (Royals TV broadcasts had the highest jump in ratings in all of baseball; attendance went up from 2012 despite no carrot of All-Star Game strips to entice new season ticket holders, and MLB attendance overall was down in 2013), and gives hope for next year. They wouldn’t trade that for fewer wins, lower ratings, less hope. But with the season actually over and the team watching playoff baseball from home, the resulting draft situation does have them stuck.