...and strengthen the things that remain?
(From "When You Gonna Wake Up," Slow Train Coming)
I was off work last Friday, the non-waiver trade deadline for major league baseball. I was pretty excited to be able to follow along as all the big trades were made, and I was anxious to see what the Royals would do to improve the organization. Obviously, with the major league team in freefall, I did not expect them to add pieces at the major league level, but I was hoping that the Royals could improve the upper levels of the minor league system, which is not exactly teeming with prospects. Baseball America's ranking of the Royals' top 10 prospects last fall included only two players who are at Omaha this season, Kila Ka'aihue and Carlos Rosa.
Instead, the Royals chose to stand pat. Well, that's not entirely true, since they did pick up Josh Anderson, an outfielder whom Detroit had waived. However, Anderson's .282 on-base percentage and .315 slugging percentage do not have me expecting great things. Anyway, the Royals had some trading chips, but did not cash them in.
Obviously, we out here in bloggerland don't know what offers the Royals entertained, or what trades they proposed. Perhaps they were aggressively shopping players but were not offered enough in return. The bottom line is, they didn't get anything done, and the roster remains essentially unchanged from the group that has gone 23-53 since May 7 (that's the worst record in baseball in that timeframe, by the way).
Even worse, the Royals didn't even provide themselves with any payroll flexibility for the coming offseason. According to the awesome Cot's MLB contracts website, the Royals have $51.6 million in payroll obligations for next season, with 10 players eligible for arbitration (meaning their salaries will almost certainly be going up). Since the team's payroll is supposedly maxed out at this year's $70 million, it looks like the Royals will be bringing pretty much the same team back next year. So, if you believe the 29 games at the start of the season were the "real" Royals and the 76 games since have been a fluke, you should be thrilled. On the other hand, if you have a basic grasp of logic and statistics, you are wondering what the 2011 Royals will look like.
This is yet another reason I wish the Royals had really tried to get younger (and a little cheaper for some flexibility in the next couple of offseasons). Take a look at the team's active roster. Go on, I'll wait. OK, note that there are 10 players born in the 1970s. That's not a knock on the 70s--I was born during that decade. But I'm not a major league player, and therefore exiting my prime years as an athlete like those guys are. It's a sad fact of baseball life: you peak around age 27, have a few years just under that level, then start the decline. Obviously, there are exceptions, but that's the general rule.
Compare the Royals to a team with a similar record this year, a similar market size, and a similar recent history: the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates were very active before the trade deadline, making 4 trades in the days leading up to July 31, plus a couple more earlier this season. As a result of those trades, Pittsburgh now has an active roster with ONE player who was born in the 1970s. Most of the Pirates are 24-25 years old now, meaning their best years are at least theoretically ahead of them. If I were a Pirate fan, I would be excited about the next few years.
The Royals have a decent core of players who are approaching age 27, but not nearly enough. Here's who I would consider that core: Brian Bannister, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Zack Greinke, Luke Hochevar, Joakim Soria. And you could throw Alberto Callaspo in there, too. The sad thing is, Bannister is 27 now and Greinke and Hochevar turn 26 this year. The Royals need to find ways to build around this core, and they need to do it soon. Or we'll be looking forward to 2015.