Every once in awhile, a team that is generally laughed at, pitied, or not taken seriously will come along and surprise you. This is the dream for small market teams.
For instance: since 1998, when Billy Beane took over as general manager, the Oakland Athletics have been to the playoffs on six separate occasions. They are headed towards a 7th birth under his watch this season, which is impressive as they operate under the fourth lowest budget in baseball entering the 2013 season at $60,664,500.
Then there are teams like the Kansas City Royals, who in the last 25 years have mustered just five winning seasons. The last time the Royals tasted the playoffs was in 1985 when they went on to win the World Series in seven games over the St. Louis Cardinals.
The key for small market teams like Oakland and Kansas City is building through the draft, making all or nothing trades at crucial moments, and hoping the prospects you do end up keeping pan out for a couple of years before you either have to trade them or you lose them to free agency.
Until this season, the Royals have not had much go their way. We have now entered August, and the Royals have earned a record of 57-52 to this point while remaining only 4 games behind the Texas Rangers for the second wild card playoff spot in the American League.
So, how did they do it? Can they hang around until the end of September to clinch that second wild card spot? They lack experience in the big games that they will face down the stretch, but first we should take a look at how this 2013 Kansas City Royals team came to be.
This year, the Royals entered the season with a modest payroll $81,491,725, but still in the lower half of the league, ranking 19th. During the off-season, they traded highly-rated prospects Wil Myers (OF) and Jake Odorizzi (SP) to acquire Tampa Bay Rays' pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.
Wil Myers was the consensus minor-league player of the year in 2012, batting .314 while adding 37 home runs and 109 RBI. He's going to be a star, no question. In 39 games with the Rays this season, his slash numbers are .329/.379/.533 while hitting 8 home runs and knocking in 30 runs.
This is part of the all or nothing trades aspect hinted at earlier. When asked about trading Wil Myers, Royals' General Manager Dayton Moore said “No, it’s not easy to give up prospects, but it’s important that we start winning games.”
That's just it -- when you haven't reached the playoffs in 27 years, you need to take risks. Wade Davis has struggled, posting a 5.42 ERA in 21 starts. On the other side of the coin, James Shields has brought much-needed success and stability to the Royals' rotation, posting a 3.08 ERA over 23 starts.
The trade Kansas City made for Shields is similar to the trade the Milwaukee Brewers made in December of 2010 to acquire Zack Greinke, as the Associated Press reported then: “The Royals announced Sunday that they acquired shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and right-handed pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress from the Brewers in exchange for Greinke, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and cash considerations.”
Two of those men, Cain and Escobar, have gone on to become every day players for the Royals, while Odorizzi was used as a piece to acquire a solid top of the rotation man in Shields.
Another move the Royals made during the off-season was acquiring Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels. Despite being successful in previous seasons, Santana struggled in 2012, posting a record of 9-13 to go along with a 5.16 ERA.
He seems to have returned to form this season, however, which makes this seemingly smaller move that much more significant for Kansas City. In 22 starts Santana has posted a 2.97 ERA, providing more balance to a rotation that has lacked consistency from its starting pitching for the better portion of 25 years.
Lastly, the Royals have built well through the draft over the past decade. If you run a team marred by failure, at the very least you get high draft picks out of it. Some teams cash in on those opportunities, while some prospects just never pan out.
From 2004-2009, the Royals' 1st round draft choices have been: Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Mike Moustakas, Mike Montgomery, Eric Hosmer, and Aaron Crow. All but Montgomery, who was another trade chip included in the deal for Shields, have become main fixtures for the Royals this season.
The Royals have plenty of potential going forward, but outside of veterans like Shields, Santana, and even Butler, potential is most of what they have. This team is young and still developing, but contains plenty of raw talent. They have had success in the draft for a handful of years now, and have made necessary risks at an attempt to compete for a playoff birth.
The Royals will never have the money to go out and buy players; they'll always need to apply a smarter, sometimes riskier approach. Who knows? Maybe in a couple of years the Royals will be a little more established and we'll look at them similarly to how we look at the A's in Oakland.
Regardless, baseball fans, enjoy it. Right now, they have the pieces necessary. Right now, there's excitement over baseball in Missouri again.
And this time, it's not about that team in St. Louis.
By: Shaun Ranft