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2017 Preview: Kansas City Royals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals.

 

Last season the Royals set out to defend their World Series title. They finished 81-81. What happened?

Injuries — particularly the one to Mike Moustakas — have been cited as the biggest reason for the disappointment. That’s not untrue, but it is a bit misleading. The Royals actually had fewer total days on the DL across their entire roster than many teams. The contending Royals of 2014 and 2015, however, were teams blessed with exceptional health. Exceptional health which made up for what many saw in the preseason of those years than less-than-contending talent. Maybe those projections were based on reality, but you can beat your projections by being super healthy, catching the ball well and catching breaks. It takes a superior roster — and a lot of depth — to overcome injuries and still contend, and though the Royals are good, they’re were not good enough to overcome the injuries they had.

Setting injuries aside, the biggest problem the Royals had in 2016 was simple underperformance. Which, yes, in some cases, can be attributed to nagging injuries and wear and tear, as was the case with Lorenzo Cain and the no doubt exhausted Salvador Perez. But whatever the cause of the mediocrity, the fact of the matter is that only two regulars had an OPS+ of 100 or greater, which led to the Royals falling to 13th in the American League in runs scored.

That should be improved with Moustakas returning and with the addition of Brandon Moss and Jorge Soler, each of whom had better offensive seasons in 2016 than most of the Royals lineup, not that that’s saying much. What they really need is for Alex Gordon, Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Perez to simply be better. They are better than they showed last year, though, so that’s not exactly a tall order. And most of these guys continue to catch the ball with the best of them, so defense should not be a concern.

You can’t talk about the pitching without first talking about the tragic death of Yordano Ventura this offseason. His loss obviously stands separate and apart from baseball analysis, but it unavoidably affects the Xs and Os as well. Dayton Moore went out and got Jason Hammel to try to fill the gap. Danny Duffy has a new contract extension and will lead the rotation following an excellent 2016. Ian Kennedy and Nate Karns return to the rotation with the now completely-healed-from-Tommy John surgery Jason Vargas rounding things out. It’s a good rotation, not a great one. Between Kennedy’s gopherball habit, Hammel’s poor second half and Vargas’ health concerns, there is  plenty of potential for bad seasons from starters with seemingly only Duffy capable of truly starring. The rest of the guys are who we thought they were. Possibly less.

Wade Davis and Greg Holland are gone but Kelvin Herrera is still there from the dominant pens the Royals featured in 2014-15. Joakim Soria and Matt Strahm set him up. Scott Alexander will serve as a lefty specialist. Travis Wood is a new addition. He’s started in the past and there’s talk about using him as a swingman, but he pitched 77 games in relief last year and was pretty darn good doing so. This is not the shutdown pen the Royals have featured in the past, but it should be good enough to support a contender.

The contending, however, is largely in the hands of the offense and the non-Duffy parts of the rotation. There was a lot that went wrong with all of that last season and a lot of change to all of that this offseason. It makes the Royals one of the hardest teams to predict in the American League. The Royals won in 2015 without having the best rotation in the world, so if the lineup is totally healthy and snaps back into form the Royals could be back in business. But the bullpen won’t save their bacon enough to make them a truly strong pennant contender, I don’t think, even if it should make them better than the .500 team they were last year.

A lot went wrong last year, though, and it’s a lot to ask all of it to go right. If it’s just some — the smart bet — the Royals will be good, but not great. And I think that adds up to them falling just short of the Tigers with both teams miles behind Cleveland.

Prediction: Third Place, American League Central.

 

This Day in Transaction History: Cardinals send two players to Phillies in lieu of Curt Flood

Curt Flood
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As a recurring column idea, Bill will expound upon one interesting transaction that occurred on a particular day in baseball history. It won’t always be the most exciting or most impactful transaction, but always something interesting. Feel free to share which transactions stand out to you in the comments.

. . .

The Cardinals and Phillies agreed to terms on a trade involving outfielder Curt Flood on October 7, 1969. The Cardinals sent Flood, Tim McCarver, Joe Hoerner, and Byron Browne to Philadelphia in exchange for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson. Flood famously refused to report to the Phillies, citing the club’s poor record, stadium disrepair, and racist fans. Flood challenged baseball’s reserve clause, sitting out the 1970 season. On this day in 1970, the Cardinals sent Willie Montañez and Jim Browning to the Phillies in lieu of Flood.

The trade became one of baseball’s most famous and not because of the quality of players involved. Allen, Rojas, Montañez, McCarver, and Hoerner all had lengthy, productive major league careers. Allen, in fact, would go on to win an MVP Award. Browning was really the only player of the bunch that didn’t pan out, as he never exceeded Double-A before his career in baseball was finished in 1975 at the age of 23.

Baseball’s reserve clause tied players to their teams even when their contracts expired. That is why many well-known players in the 1960’s and prior spent their entire careers with one team. Their options were: accept the below-market salaries offered by their teams or sit out the season in protest.

The Major League Baseball Players Association wasn’t created until 1966, but the reserve clause was challenged prior to Flood. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1922, in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, that the Sherman Antitrust Act did not apply to Major League Baseball. The Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits in interstate commerce anticompetitive agreements and attempts to create monopolies. The Supreme Court maintained that the business of baseball did not qualify as interstate commerce as it pertains to the Sherman Antitrust Act. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “The business is giving exhibitions of baseball, which are purely state affairs.”

New York Giants outfielder Danny Gardella sued then-commissioner Happy Chandler. Gardella was banned five years because he played in the Mexican League. He claimed that was an unfair use of monopolistic power and said that the 1922 Supreme Court ruling no longer applied given the exponential growth of the sport. Gardella ended up settling out of court.

The reserve clause was more seriously challenged in 1953 when Yankees minor league pitcher George Earl Toolson filed a lawsuit against the Yankees. Toolson spent the 1946-48 seasons with the Triple-A affiliate of the Red Sox in Louisville. He joined the Yankees in ’49, reporting to the Newark Bears. The Bears, however, dissolved, so Toolson was sent to the Yankees’ Single-A affiliate the next year. Toolson refused to report, saying that the reserve clause was a restraint of trade. Because the highly competitive Yankees had complete control over his career, he could not willingly play for another team that might afford him a better chance to realize his dream of pitching in the majors. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reaffirmed the reserve clause.

All of that laid the groundwork for Flood and MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller to challenge the reserve clause when the outfielder refused to report to the Phillies. Flood said in a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, “After 12 years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen.”

Aside from a very brief stint with the Washington Senators in 1971, this lawsuit ended Flood’s career in baseball. He was a terrific player, making the NL All-star squad three times, winning seven Gold Gloves, and winning two championships with the Cardinals in 1964 and ’67. From 1961-69, he accrued 39.2 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference. Only 12 players had more WAR in that span of time.

Sadly, Flood too was unsuccessful in challenging the reserve clause. Judge Irving Ben Cooper of the Southern District of New York denied Flood’s motion for a preliminary injunction, writing, “The game is on higher ground; it behooves every one to keep it there.” He also wrote that “the preponderance of credible proof does not favor elimination of the reserve clause.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit also dismissed Flood’s case, citing Federal Baseball Club v. National League and  Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc. as precedents. The Supreme Court upheld the rulings of the lower courts.

However, Flood and the MLBPA had made the most progress against the case to date. Miller finally nullified the reserve clause five years later when pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally argued that the reserve clause didn’t give team owners the right to renew player contracts year after year in perpetuity. The MLBPA filed a grievance on behalf of the two players and the case went before an arbitration panel. Peter Seitz, an arbitrator agreed upon by the two sides, ruled in favor of Messersmith and McNally. Major League Baseball appealed in the district court of Western Missouri, but Judge John Watkins Oliver upheld Seitz’s decision. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld Seitz. In 1976, the era of free agency began, allowing players with six years of service time to become free agents.

Despite Flood making arguably the greatest impact on the game of baseball, he is not in the Hall of Fame. It is not surprising, though the Hall of Fame is owned and operated by private interests, as the Hall has often taken an ownership-sided slant. It was not until very recently that Miller was elected to the Hall of Fame, in fact. In late February, 102 members of Congress sent a letter to the Hall of Fame urging Flood’s election. Thankfully, we don’t need the Hall of Fame to decide for us whether or not Flood made an impact. He most certainly did and every player who has signed a contract as a free agent in the time since has him to thank. Just ask Gerrit Cole.