Empty Yesterday: Kansas City’s trade deadline day

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Before we begin to talk about why Thursday felt like SUCH a disastrous day for the Kansas City Royals – and, possibly, your hometown team too — we should probably offer two qualifications. One, Major League trades are hard things to pull off. They sound so easy on talk radio and fantasy leagues. But in real life, a thousand things have to come together, enthusiasm has to be spread all over the teams, momentum has to drive forward. Any tiny blip can nix the whole thing. A thousand trades are talked about for every one pulled off … and that ratio goes up exponentially when talking about major trades. Teams may really, really try to pull off a trade and for any number of reasons it just doesn’t happen. So that’s one.

Two, the Royals might not have been able to change their fate no matter what they did. The Royals, it seems to me, are the very essence of an eh-not-bad team. The lineup is average-conscious and cannot score runs. The pitching staff is pretty good but bullpen heavy and it relies heavily on a No. 1 starter who, best anyone can tell, will not be around after this season. A move, even a bold one, might not alter that at all.

With those two caveats: The Royals just had an infuriating trade deadline day. Infuriating. Because – and here’s where the opinion begins – this was the time for the Royals to make a choice. They needed to be buyers. They needed to be sellers. They needed to be SOMETHING. And instead, like it has been for most of the last quarter century, they were nothing. And that is hard to take.

See, for those 25 or so years the Royals have been … so … impossibly … irrelevant. They have had one player voted All-Star Game starter – ONE BLEEPIN’ PLAYER VOTED ALL-STAR GAME STARTER – since 1991 (and Jermaine Dye was traded two years later). They have not hired an interesting manager in forever. They are never in on the biggest free agents. They are never talked about in the biggest trades. They are just one of those teams that don’t matter much. The Royals are an opponent. They are a placeholder.

The last couple of years it seemed that finally, finally, finally the Royals were not going to be background music any longer. I did not like their bold trade of big prospect Wil Myers for temporary ace James Shields – still don’t like it – but it WAS bold. It was a statement. “Win now!” general manager Dayton Moore was saying. The minor league system was being touted as one of the best ever. The Royals won 86 games last year. They jumped their payroll significantly to make this year even better.

These Royals were wallflowers no more! Act! Do! Win!

Except … well, they could not quite break a few of the bad old habits. They did raise payroll, but mostly to bring in those 30-something veterans like Nori Aoki and Omar Infante that almost never actually help the team (and neither has helped much). They fired another hitting coach but did nothing to really alter the way the team is run. Billy Butler fell off the age cliff. Eric Hosmer lost his mojo. Mike Moustakas reveals himself more and more to not be an everyday big league player. A few good things have happened too – the solid pitching of young Yordano Ventura and emergence of Danny Duffy has helped and the late innings have been clamped down by a dominant bullpen. Because of this, the Royals have hovered around .500 despite a dreadful record in one-run games. They’ve shown just enough to make the optimistic believe they are a better team.

Dayton Moore is one of those optimists. All year long he has talked about the Royals having the talent to be a much better team. Even though he seems to believe this, he also believes that manager Ned Yost and one of the 384 batting coaches he has hired the last three years are doing a great job. Those two thoughts don’t seem to correspond, but we move on.

This week, the Royals are on the brink of SOMETHING. They are just on the good side of .500, and they are not in playoff position. Their ace, James Shields, probably has two months left as a Royal. Their offense is lousy and out of tune with the modern game. Their bullpen is probably their strength and everyone in baseball knows that bullpens are fickle beasts. The Royals had to decide: Go for it now with a few pieces in place? Back off and recharge for next year’s fight? What?

The Royals boldly decided to do … nothing.

Nothing. According to the Kansas City Star’s Andy McCullough, the Royals did have discussions for David Price but decided they couldn’t afford the contract. They kicked the tires on a couple of more 30-something veterans and decided they too were too expensive. And … that’s it. They did nothing.

Shortly after doing nothing, they lost first baseman Eric Hosmer to an injury that could keep him out for six weeks – or, essentially, the rest of the season. That’s bad luck. But in my experience bad luck, for some reason, does tend to follow inactivity.

Nothing. Of course the American League teams that are pretty unanimously viewed as smarter than Kansas City – Detroit, Boston, Tampa Bay, Oakland – did something. They divided as buyers or sellers and made bold moves to either (A) Win a World Championship this year or (B) Build their talent base for next year. You might or might not like the moves, but there is no doubt that there’s an active plan in place. The Royals, meanwhile, just drifted in the ocean.

It’s hard to say exactly what is happening behind the scenes in Kansas City. I don’t know what the Glass family’s commitment level is – I suspect the Royals management would have liked to do more, a lot more, but ownership’s commitment level is probably at Defcon 4 already. I also believe that Royals management skews conservative; the Myers for Shields deal was about as wild and crazy as they get.

That said, I think often of the line from The Music Man: “Pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you’re collected a lot of empty yesterdays.” The Royals are world-renowned collectors of empty yesterdays.

And this empty yesterday leaves its mark. The Royals might get hot against a relatively weak schedule and win enough games to slip into October. But they probably won’t. The Tigers have David Price now, Oakland has Jon Lester, the Angels have finally gotten out of their own way, the Blue Jays and Orioles are probably better, the Yankees added a few pieces, even the Mariners did something. The Royals keep the faith that the meek will inherit the earth. Maybe that will happen. But the meek ain’t winning the American League.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.