The Pittsburgh Pirates gave $10.5 million to Clint Barmes this offseason. It was the first time they spent more than $10 million on a free agent since Pat Meares in 1998, which was the first time since Steve Buechele in 1991. Every ten years or so, the Pirates will emerge from the ground like cicadas, drunkenly spend money on an infielder with a career on-base percentage around .300, and disappear for the next decade. It's almost beautiful.
The Kansas City Royals often get lumped in with the Pirates, as both have been.500-challenged since before Playstations existed. They're also lumped in together as small-market teams, which makes sense, as both teams play in some of the smallest markets in baseball. But the Royals can't be lumped in with the Pirates as free-agent misers. The Royals will pay for free agents when the mood strikes.
The players they attract, though, are a bit of a problem. They've paid Gil Meche, Juan Cruz, Ron Mahay, Jason Kendall, Kyle Farnsworth, and Jose Guillen a combined $120 million dollars over the last five years. Read that again. Linger over the specifics of each name. That list has to make the teams who have to pay into revenue sharing feel good -- why mail a check when you can go to the methadone clinic and lend cash in person? And it doesn't even include Rick Ankiel or Jeff Francoeur. Mike Jacobs made more than $3 million when he was a Royal, and then he played seven more games in the majors.
And this offseason, it seems like the Royals are stuffing their cash into the same pneumatic tube to nowhere. They spent close to $10 million to retain Bruce Chen, and they also spent a wad of bills on the luxury of baseball luxuries -- the expensive setup man. Jonathan Broxton will presumably be the eight-inning guy for the Royals. You know, for all of those leads.
Jokes! Everything's funny with the Royals! Stop and point at them, everybody! Stop and point!
Except spending money on mid-range free agents is exactly what the Royals should be doing. They might toil in stink for another two decades. But they could also get really good, really quick. And if they do, having players like Chen and Broxton around could be a total blessing.
If not Chen, then who? The lefty has had above-average ERA+ totals for each of his two years with the Royals, and he seems perfectly competent. In his absence, the Royals would probably have to rush a young player up before he's ready, or start whatever flotsam would drift by and agree to a one-year deal.
Those options would have been cheaper, but the Royals have to start operating under the assumption that Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Mike Moustakas will comprise a beastly middle of the order soon; the team did have one of the few above-average offenses in the AL last year, after all. It could get better, and there's no reason to waste those runs on Armando Galarraga or a wide-eyed Will Smith.
Broxton gives the Royals another option in the rotation by default, as the Royals are tinkering with the idea of Aaron Crow in the rotation to join Chen, Jonathan Sanchez, Danny Duffy, and Luke Hochevar. Aside from Chen, that's a rotation filled with combustible upside guys, and it's just crazy enough to work. And Ned Yost could also use Broxton and Tim Collins in a semi-platoon situation, seeing as Collins will be orbiting Broxton most of the time.
It used to be the case that a team that wasn't expecting to contend would have been better off pooling their money on the draft, or with international free agents. The new CBA eliminates that -- mostly because we were all so tired of the Pirates spending money on Pedro Alvarezes instead of Steve Buecheles -- so there isn't any secret shame in allocating those budget chunks toward the major-league roster. And the Royals are close to a tipping point, where overpaying veterans who aren't blocking MLB-ready prospects is probably a pretty good idea.
I'm not suggesting that the rest of the AL Central should panic. The Royals lost 91 games last year, which is sort of what nature seems to have planned for them. For the first time in a long time, though, you can look at a lot of the players on the team that lost more than 90 games, and see how they could help a team ready to contend. When that happens, bring in the Broxtons. Keep the Chens. Throw money at the mediocre or formerly good players, and see what happens if they can support the real talent, especially if you can't throw it at amateur players anymore.
The Royals eclipsed the Pirates as active free-agent participants a few years ago. It looks like there's an actual reason to keep doing it, too. Now let's all sit back and patiently wait for the next good Royals team.