It’s December, and that means colder weather for most of us, perhaps even snow-covered terrain in spots, and, of course, the festive holiday season. What a perfect backdrop to start talking baseball again.
After all, it is the so-called silly season, or what is better known in popular baseball culture as the Hot Stove season, when qualified major-league players, their dollar-driven agents and team executives go shopping for the best off-season deals and acquisitions.
In the interest of fair disclosure, I must admit that I am a self-proclaimed baseball traditionalist who grew up in an exciting era before the reserve clause in major league baseball contracts was struck down (in 1975) and effectively opened the floodgates for players to forsake loyalty to their teams and the communities that support them once their contract expired and sign with another team without having to wait to be traded or released. As such, I long for a time that will never return, when there was greater economic and competitive parity around Major League Baseball and team rosters were more stable from year-to-year, enabling greater familiarity and following of the local teams.
But that was then and this is now, and baseball team owners and general managers today, unlike their forefathers of the game, have little choice but to play with the cards that have been dealt to them. And it’s no big revelation that the teams with the best hands are the ones in the largest broadcast markets, which also happen to be the teams with the greatest monetary resources.
It’s true that teams in smaller markets can and have succeeded over short spurts of time (the Minnesota Twins and Cincinnati Reds are good recent examples), but it’s only a matter of time before the salary demands of their best players become unaffordable and the lure of the free market becomes an unavoidable consequence.
So here we are in the week following the Major League Baseball winter meetings – halfway between the end of the 2010 MLB season and the start of spring training for the 2011 season – and the season of free-agent signings is in full swing.
The Kansas City Royals have made it clear that their growth blueprint for the future success of the struggling franchise relies heavily on developing the talented prospects from what baseball experts say is one of the major-league’s most fertile farm systems. But general manager Dayton Moore knows you have to keep your options open to a potential trade or free-agent acquisition that could bring the team greater extended value than what would be given up in return.
Moore told The Kansas City Star recently, “We now have a very realistic view of the timeline for many of our (young) players (on the big league roster and in the minor leagues). So, if we are to make a deal with any of our major-league talent, we know exactly what we need to get in return.”
In the last week, the Royals have signed two former Atlanta Braves’ players to free-agent contracts. Outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur agreed to one-year contracts with the Royals. Cabrera played five years with the New York Yankees before being traded to the Braves, where he played last season. Francoeur, who Moore knows well from his days as assistant general manager for Atlanta, played four-plus years with the Braves, and was with the Mets and the Texas Rangers last year.
The Royals player on the current 40-man roster with the highest trade value is 27-year-old pitching ace Zack Greinke. On several occasions last season, Greinke, a home-grown product of the Kansas City farm system, was uncharacteristically vocal about his frustration over the direction the Royals were headed and his desire not to remain with the club long-term.
Greinke will be in the third year of a four-year, $38 million contract extension signed before the 2009 season. After his sub-par year in 2010 and his outspoken critical outbursts late in the season, rumors have been flying concerning Greinke’s trade status. Several teams reportedly made their interest in the Royals’ ace known to Moore at last week’s baseball winter meetings.
Perhaps the most prized free-agent this off-season, left-handed starting pitcher Cliff Lee, who played last season with the Seattle Mariners and most recently with the Texas Rangers, came off the market late Monday, signing a five-year guaranteed contract reportedly worth $120 million with his former team, the Philadelphia Phillies.
It was a move that totally surprised most of the baseball world because the two teams thought to be in the final running for Lee’s free-agent services were the Yankees and the Texas Rangers, the team the former Cy Young Award winner was under contract to at the end of last season. In fact, the Yankees signing offer was for considerably more money than what the 32-year-old veteran pitcher agreed to with the Phillies, for whom Lee played in 2009.
The significance to the Royals of the Phillies landing Lee, one of baseball’s best starting pitchers, out from under the Yankees and Rangers is that it is wildly rumored that the Yankees, baseball’s richest franchise both in terms of tradition and available resources, are very interested in Greinke. This probably is especially so now that Bronx Bombers lost out on adding Lee to their All-Star roster.
If all this is true, will the Royals seriously consider trading their No. 1 starter and fan favorite Greinke to the Yankees or some other team? Or should they? These are questions that weigh heavily these days on the mind of Royals GM Moore.
The price for moving a star player the caliber of Greinke certainly would be in the high end of the scale and, therefore, would be workable for only a limited number of major-league clubs. It would depend on “what the club (making the trade offer) has in their system, and what matches up with what we need,” said Moore.
The Royals GM has indicated that what he would be looking for in return for a player like Greinke would be two high-potential, high-impact prospects, ideally a starting pitcher and a middle infielder or centerfielder, and two other prospects capable of playing a supporting role. In other words, a four-for-one deal. This would be in full alignment with the Royals’ master plan of finding and developing young, high-potential baseball talent to add to an already deep and talented farm system.
Asked how he would handle the fan reaction that would be sure to follow if Greinke were to be traded before next season, Moore said, “Sitting in (my) chair, you grow attached to the players as well. (The reality is) you’re just not going to be able to keep them all. There’s only a few organizations in baseball that can. The economics are what they are.
“That’s why our farm system is so important,” the Royals GM said. “We have to always make sure we’re building the best farm system in baseball.”
Time will tell if the Royals’ master blueprint for future success will finally produce the desired results. It’s certain, however, that Zack Greinke will be a big part of it, one way or the other.
For more information:
Kansas City Royals official website
ESPN baseball news
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