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September 24, 2013 at 1:50 PM

Royals, other teams show you can move beyond ‘staying the course’

The Royals have been winning a lot more than usual this year after a bold pre-season trade made by GM Dayton Moore. Photo Credit: AP

The Royals have been winning a lot more than usual this year after a bold pre-season trade made by GM Dayton Moore. Photo Credit: AP

The Kansas City Royals beat the Mariners last night and pretty much have to keep on doing that in order to keep their playoff hopes arrive. But the Royals are at least contending for a wild-card spot this season, something that has rekindled enthusiasm amongst a fanbase beaten down over the past 28 years by a lackluster franchise that couldn’t get out of its own way.

Royals GM Dayton Moore took a beating both locally and nationally last year for his daring trade of top outfield prospect Wil Myers et al. to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for starting pitcher James Shields and swingman Wade Davis. The common argument was that the Royals were trading away their future for a “win now” moment and has to at a minimum make the playoffs in order for the whole thing to work. And yes, Myers has indeed gone on to become a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honors with the Rays and will be a cheap, club-controlled asset for years to come while Shields is only under contract through 2014.

Still, as Moore noted at the time and countless Royals fans will no doubt agree with today, their team has once again become interesting. And not just because of Shields, though he and fellow-newcomer Ervin Santana have stabilized a Royals rotation that — if you saw it in action against the Mariners a year ago last July — was one of the weakest in the game midway through last season. The Royals have also been helped by having one of the top defenses in baseball, which comes largely through a number of young prospects and players drafted and acquired by Moore. The Royals were a decent defensive team last season, but have taken their game to a different level this year with mainly the same players, minus jettisoned defensive liability Jeff Francoeur.

In other words, yeah, Myers would have been a nice piece to have. But the Royals managed to fast-forward their rebuilding plan — finally — a bit this year by stabilizing their pitching just as some young pieces were melding into the core long-envisioned by Kansas City. And as such, Royals fans got to watch interesting baseball this season — something this Mariners market in Seattle has not seen for a long, long time.

And even without Myers, this Royals defense isn’t going anyplace. Nor is Shields, not next year, at least. And if he leaves after that, a more-interesting Royals squad will be in a greater position to go out and attract the kind of top-level pitchers to come to a Kansas City franchise that won’t be viewed as a baseball wasteland.

The Royals aren’t the only baseball team that took some chances last winter and jumpstarted a rebuilding plan.

In Boston, the Red Sox were coming off a 93-loss season in 2012 in which they played several young players en masse towards season’s end. But GM Ben Cherrington raised eyebrows among the more cost-conscious analysts when he went and spent millions on outfielder Shane Victorino and first baseman/DH Mike Napoli. This, after all, went against the typical “stay the course” mantra so often espoused nowadays by analysts and others who plan for the future as if that means ignoring the present. Those who eschew the acquisition of veterans as poisonous to a rebuilding plan’s success. In Boston, of course, real life GMs have no such luxury and are subjected to a fanbase that demands competitiveness every year.

So, Cherrington spent some money, kept the good kids, and the Red Sox ran away with the AL East title this year. The aforementioned Victorino produced an .802 OPS and his usual outfield defense, while Napoli kicked in an OPS of .836. In fact, the top OPS guys among Red Sox players with at least 500 plate appearances are all 30 and over. And yet, the Red Sox still kept the good pieces from their young core intact.

Again, more than one way to skin the proverbial rebuilding cat, especially for organizations like the Mariners who have the money, the state-of-the-art ballpark and the television contract. They don’t have to Moneyball-it on-the-cheap like the Rays, A’s and, yes, the Pirates.

Moving on, we see another team that raised eyebrows around baseball last winter by signing two prime free agents — Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn — on a 90-plus loss team that had shunned making big money plays like that for years. The Indians five years or six ago were what the Pirates have become today — the cost-conscious fan’s flavor-of-choice when it comes to how to build a young ballclub from the ground up.

Trouble is, the Indians avoided spending to keep and supplement that talent as costs mounted. In the years that  followed, they went from everybody’s favorite franchise prototype to yet another cautionary tale of how prolonged rebuilding can empty your stadium. Instead of selling out the stadium as they did in the 1990s, the Indians had trouble drawing even when they contended. You can blame the economic downturn for some of it, sure. But condition your fans to expect to lose year after year, they eventually lose interest.

Now, the Indians are contending again. If the season ended today, they’d be in the playoffs. Swisher and Bourn haven’t exactly set the world ablaze with their numbers. But Swisher is producing the mid-.300s OBP he’s known for while Bourn’s defense has stabilized one of the best run prevention outfields in the league.

If the Indians don’t bring those two aboard? Chances are, they’re not where they are today. Like the Royals, they made moves designed to address short-term needs and have managed to do just that while maintaining their march towards some future down the road.

Coming back to the Mariners, we’ve heard for years now that it’s all about the young core and that adding one or two key pieces can’t possibly make a difference so the team shouldn’t try. That the Mariners weren’t “one or two pieces” away, so it wasn’t worth the effort.

I disagree.

How different would the team’s outfield defense have looked with a full-time center fielder like Bourn manning center field instead of the mostly-injured Franklin Gutierrez? How would a Justin Upton acquisition have helped that defense this past winter? Even if Gutierrez had stayed healthy this year, an outfield with him in center and Michael Saunders in one corner — his better position — full-time might have cut down on the game’s worst defense significantly. A team with Dustin Ackley at second and Brendan Ryan at shortstop all year would have also aided that defense exponentially. Trouble is, neither could hit when it mattered in the first half and lost their jobs.

The Mariners did not abandon any commitment to defense this past winter.

Where this team went off the rails was in the players the front office committed to for that defense — and offense, by extension.

They committed to Gold Glove finalists Ryan and Ackley up the middle. Neither could hit.

They committed to Gutierrez in center and he got hurt — again.

They committed to above average defender Saunders in the corner, but he was forced to play center and then also stopped hitting when it mattered.

That’s four above average defenders who could not produce.

In fact, the only spots on the roster where the Mariners went with below average defenders were in one outfield corner and behind the plate. Catching-wise, they shipped off a below-average defender in John Jaso and tried to stick with Jesus Montero for a few months until Mike Zunino arrived. That didn’t work because Montero turned out to be a terrible catcher.

And they went with Michael Morse as a primary corner outfielder, hoping his bat could deliver like it had in the past. With two above average outfielders alongside Morse, you could live with his defense if his bat produced the expected upside.

It did not.

Some of those moves alone — banking so much on Morse, Montero and Gutierrez at key positions — are enough grounds to part ways with Jack Zduriencik after this season. But not for the attempt at making the team better. Simply for the way all of them fell short. At some point, a GM is held accountable for the successes and failures of his moves.

Did the Mariners “abandon” defense this year? Nope. They started the year with only two below average fielders on the diamond. They just counted on too many guys who fell short health-wise and offensively. And in some cases, the team should have known better. In hindsight, they should have brought in better free agents to address some areas of need — as the Indians, Red Sox and yes, the Royals, did.

So, next winter, when we’re having this same debate about who is worth it and whether it’s wise to “sacrifice” the future, just remember: that future is never guaranteed. Sometimes, even a 90-loss team can be one or two players away from making it all click together. Acquiring Upton in an outfield with a healthy Gutierrez and Saunders makes the M’s defensive woes a whole lot better. That’s one or two players right there.

For me, this team needs at least two outfielders imported next year. Preferably two big right-handed bats of some sort anywhere on the diamond. And if that happens, can we say it won’t work? As bad as this year has gone, no we can’t.

For all the deserved praise heaped on the Rays and A’s, neither has won a championship lately. The goal of any franchise is to be interesting, then make the playoffs and then — if it all comes together — you try to win it all.

The Royals are still in the hunt for something that matters and to them, that’s more interesting than the past several years waiting for a future that never comes. Ditto for the Red Sox and Indians.

For the Mariners, they can keep on trying. Bringing in some veterans last winter wasn’t the wrong idea. It was the execution of the total package that was off. At some point, they could get it right. And it doesn’t have to automatically take them five more years of “staying the course” to get it right. Sometimes, a bold move or two that goes against the prevailing wisdom of the day can indeed shake things up.

But you have to at least try to be different. At some point, staying the course when your ship is headed into a rocky wall gets you no place but the bottom of the ocean. It’s nice to dream about how young kids might all blossom together at some point. It’s also nice — for your paying fanbase — to dream of a playoff berth that might happen in a week or two. The Mariners have to get off this course towards the bottom of the ocean and start upping their risk quotient a bit.

And if they don’t like the guy taking those risks, by all means, change it up. It’s been five years of waiting for the other plan to work. So far, it’s failed miserably — for various reasons — each and every year since the end of 2009.

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