On Tuesday, Chris Antonetti proved that he is not only considerably smarter than Royals general manager Dayton Moore, but that a team can jump-start its building process without sacrificing the long-term growth of his organization. Rushing things often doesn't work.
Growing up, my parents asked my sister and me to make detailed lists of what we wanted for Christmas. My parents never bought everything on the list, though I like to think we did a good job of making lists of incredibly practical items like books rather than Power Wheels and video games. Every few years I'd ask for a big item like an Easy Bake Oven or a basketball hoop, but mostly I wanted things that could be wrapped in shirt boxes or stuffed in a stocking.
Once I was old enough to start analyzing the holiday spending of my elders, I noticed a pattern. There was always one relatively big item missing from my Christmas list, which was intentional. Since my birthday is just 35 days after Jesus', my folks would just take one item I asked for and set it aside as my birthday present. It seemed like cheating, but I became a birthday gift clairvoyant and would build up anticipation of receiving the item I'd hand-selected a month earlier. For my 11th birthday, it was a pitching backstop for our backyard, which permanently absolved any member of my family from trying to catch my sliders. For my 13th, it was supposed to be a guitar.
I asked for a jewel blue Ibanez electric guitar and I didn't ask for much else because I knew that purchasing a guitar, case, amp, and lessons-I wasn't naturally gifted at the guitar-would be a big investment. I knew (spoiler alert) that Santa Claus wasn't real, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be getting that guitar for Christmas. My parents were never flush with cash, but a $500 price tag for the instrument, amp, and guidance seemed feasible. "Who can put a price tag on our kid's happiness, anyway?" my mom would say in the music store with her credit card in hand to my father, a few feet from the counter with his arms crossed, though secretly he was fine with the purchase because he'd get to see the smile on the face of his youngest on Christmas morning. I assumed it would be under the tree and that I'd be noodling like Jimi Hendrix before brunch.
It didn't happen. I threw a tantrum of epic proportions-the brattiest display of entitlement in my entire life*. Sure, I got some really great CD box sets with the complete works of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but I was furious that I didn't get to be a rock star, too. I asked to go to the guitar store the day after Christmas to drive home the point that, "Oh hey, you forgot my guitar," and hoped being in the store might jog their memory. They both acted as though they had amnesia, and I assumed it was because they were withholding the guitar for my birthday gift.
*I guess I do have a history of bad behavior on Christmas. I can't recall how old I was, probably just six or so, but I yelled at my grandmother and started crying after opening a package that contained an Indiana University sweatshirt instead of one from the Ohio State University. She'd been horribly confused about affiliations since we moved often, and I felt the need to throw a tantrum and my loving grandmother under the bus. We had a similar problem in 1989, when an aunt gave all of her nieces New Kids on the Block posters and I was given Donnie Wahlberg instead of Joey McIntyre, as though I had been a complete after-thought, because who the hell liked Donnie Wahlberg? Surprisingly, I kept it cool that year.
My entitlement and impatience cost me big time. I didn't get a guitar for my birthday; in fact, I didn't get anything. Thanks to child labor laws I couldn't afford my own guitar, so I was at the mercy of parents who were hell-bent on teaching me a lesson. No amount of wishing materialized my desires -- I was a miniature Dayton Moore terrorizing my family all winter, petulantly demanding that they give me what I wanted, asserting that as soon as I got lessons I'd be as good as those I idolized. My parents, much more rational and able to take a level-headed approach to virtually everything, didn't cave until sometime the following summer, when I finally admitted I was wrong through months of repenting and routine confessions to Father G. at church. By July I had blisters on my fingertips from learning how to play "The Guns of Brixton."
The Indians and Royals have been kindred spirits in the waiting game for several seasons, hoping their prospects would mature, knowing that someday they'd be rewarded, not with a guitar under the tree, but with a sub-3.00 ERA or a .400 on base-percentage from someone in their farm system. Each year they both have waited for the talent to unveil itself. Both produced prospects on the position side, but the pitching didn't come along at the same pace. The waiting game creates a tension between aggressive moves and waiting for improvement from within. Despite broadly similar plights, they two teams have sought completely different solutions this offseason.
The Royals have clearly reached the tipping point where they have decided that they can no longer wait and took matters into their own hands, but their moves have been so haphazard that they are trying to improve their team's leaky bucket by plugging some holes while creating bigger ones. Last week, manager Ned Yost said that he wanted, a "change of philosophy" that will result in more power hitting -- which is a lot like trying to actualize change through the power of positive thinking given the Royals will have mostly the same lineup they did in 2012, one that ranked 13th in the league in home runs. As the saying goes, If wishes were horses, Ned Yost would ride.
Simultaneously, Dayton Moore decided that the pitching they had wouldn't be enough and forced improvement by acquiring an almost entirely new rotation, climaxed by the James Shields trade*. The sudden movements of the Royals could mean a harsh reality for the Indians: The Royals might have the pitching to best them in the AL Central standings next season. Nevertheless, take heart -- we all know the story of the tortoise and the hare.
*This deal sent Jake Odorizzi to the Rays, which is ironic considering that he is one of the few pitching prospects they had that seemed to be on his way to being something. There's a debate about short-term gains vs. long-term gambles on prospects, but this could easily be as regrettable as letting Wil Myers go in the long-term.
If you look at the current rotation for the Indians, they don't have much big-league pitching, especially with a struggling Justin Masterson and flailing Ubaldo Jimenez. The team's prospect ranks are thin for pitchers, and though the addition of Trevor Bauer in Tuesday night's trade certainly helps, it didn't solve the problem on its own. Despite their upgrades, the Royals' rotation is remains equally questionable. James Shields is an innings-eater, but he's certainly not an ace, and he's coming from one of the best pitcher's parks in the league. The Royals also acquired Ervin Santana, who struggled tremendously in 2012 with a 5.16 ERA giving up a league-worst 39 home runs. Bruce Chen is average at best, while Luis Mendoza, Jeremy Guthrie, and Wade Davis are suitable for the back end of the rotation. It's mind-boggling what the Royals have given up in depth (see: Baseball's top prospect, Wil Myers) to attain such a milquetoast rotation. There's a greater potential in 2013's roster when compared to past seasons, but the Royals are by no means a lock for even finishing third in the AL Central, which will likely be a battle between them, the Indians, and the Twins.
The Royals' decision to leverage the future for the vague hope of immediate success might have seemed to put pressure on the Indians to hurry up and get better, and the fear of being basement dwellers has been enough to send lesser organizations into spending frenzies (see: 2010 Boston Red Sox, 2011 Miami Marlins, 2012 Los Angeles Dodgers). Yet, the three-way trade that involved nine players from the Indians, the Reds, and Diamondbacks beat the Royals at their own game in that the key that unlocked the deal for the Indians, Shin-Soo Choo, had to be moved regardless.
Until Tuesday night, the Indians hadn't made any sizeable moves, but that didn't mean they weren't trying to fix the lineup to improve over last season's 94 losses and managerial regime change. In his press conference at the Winter Meetings, manager Terry Francona said, "The one thing I think we all agreed is that we need to get better. We want to do it in a way that makes sense. We're trying to be realistic, and again, there's teams out there proving that you can do it without a payroll."
For the most part, the Indians have done exactly what Francona suggested: Keep payroll low, look for veteran players to help develop the younger talent, and improve the pitching. The Indians' moves this offseason, albeit smaller than the Royals', certainly have the potential to add value over the course of several seasons-after all, they still have spending flexibility and all of their top prospects safely tucked away on the farm. So what if the Royals become momentarily relevant in 2013 (which might not even happen), their upgrades might buy them 82 wins next season, and that's not even the goal. The goal is to win it all.
Over the past five years, the typical winner of the AL Central had 91 wins, but given the weak state of competition, the average needed to come in first was 86. If you don't get all the way there, there isn't a prize for getting close, no trophy for "Most Pseudo-Improved." The Royals' method may not be sustainable given the price they paid; there is no substitute for actual pitching prospects in the end, and you can't keep dealing off the Wil Myers of your system for veterans.
The Red Sox have offered a similar contrast to the Royals this winter. They have solid prospects coming on the position side, but not much on the pitching side. They've acquired a few veterans like Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino so as to buy time and stay respectable. but have not gone overboard on mid-range pitchers while they try to figure out if Daniel Bard will rebound and just how good Felix Doubront might be. A year from now, the Red Sox will have a much better idea where they stand with the parts they have and can reassess. Then perhaps spending can play a part.
The Indians have upgraded their manager; they will continue to seek a few veteran players to help with the growing pains, but they won't splurge on fixing the rotation or spend on big free agents (or even worse, make foolish trades) until they have the infrastructure to support it. Perhaps once Francisco Lindor and Dorssys Paulino are ready it will be time, but instead of grasping for marginal wins next year like the Royals, the Indians are doing it the right way by building a foundation. There's no point in having an ace or a sole slugger until your team can support them -- just ask Felix Hernandez what it's like to be an ace in an inadequate lineup.
The Indians may not win the division next season. In fact, unless they fill a few more gaps, they will be lucky to finish in the top three, but systematically building a roster is certainly more sustainable than the Royals, who will soon realize there's no prize for winning 85 games. One could look at the Choo deal and the arrival of Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs as not addition by subtraction but addition and subtraction, and thus by its very nature inadequate, but being slow or even still is often better than being impulsive. It's hard not to want things like wins or guitars. It's hard not to throw a tantrum and demand better pitching, power hitters, and an Ibanez under the tree -- electric, acoustic, or Raul -- but even when it seems like they aren't moving fast enough, take a look at the Royals' record at midseason, and thank Antonetti for keeping the roster, especially the prospects, intact. You'll need them to contend in 2014.