Empty Yesterday: Kansas City’s trade deadline day


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.

Spending bill could exempt minor leaguers from federal labor laws

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Mike DeBonis of the Washington Post reports that, according to three congressional officials familiar with current talks, an upcoming spending bill could exempt minor leaguers from federal labor laws. This is an issue we have spent some time covering here. A bill proposed in 2016, H.R. 5580, would have amended language in Section 13 of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which would have made it so minor leaguers wouldn’t be protected under a law that protects hourly workers. There is also an ongoing class action lawsuit over unfair labor prospects.

As DeBonis notes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is among the representatives backing the measure. The provision specifically concerning minor leaguers didn’t appear in any of the draft spending bills, but DeBonis spoke to officials familiar with the negotiations under the condition of anonymity who said it was under serious consideration by top party leaders.

DeBonis got a comment from Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner. He said, “We’re not saying that [minor league pay] shouldn’t go up. We’re just saying that the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable. I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”

O’Conner said as much in an interview back in December. It’s an extremely disingenuous deflection. O’Conner also said, “I don’t think that minor league baseball is a career choice for a player.” This is all about creating legislation that allows Minor League Baseball to keep money at the top, which is great if you’re a team owner or shareholder. If they could get away with it, every owner of every business would pay its employees as little as possible, which is why it’s important to have unions and people keeping an eye on legislation like this that attempts to strip laborers of their rights in the dead of night.

Minor league players need to unionize. Or, better yet, the MLBPA should open their doors to include minor leaguers and fight for them just as they would a player who has reached the majors. Minor leaguers should be paid a salary with which they do not have to worry about things like rent, electricity, food, and transportation. They should be provided healthcare and a retirement fund. And if anyone tries to tell you it’s not affordable, MLB eclipsed $10 billion in revenues last year. There’s plenty to go around.

The owners are banking on this legislation passing and labor still coming in excess due to young men holding onto the dream of making the major leagues. According to CNN, “far less than 10 percent of minor league players ever get the chance to make it to the major leagues.” Some of these players have forgone college to work in baseball. They arrive at the park in the morning and leave late at night, putting in far more than your standard eight-hour work day. Since their bodies are their vehicle for success, they have to exercise regularly and vigorously off the field while maintaining a healthy diet. (And teams are still reluctant to invest even the smallest amount of money to ensure their young players eat well.) Minor leaguers make tremendous sacrifices to pursue their dream and now Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress to legalize taking further advantage of them.