As a Royals fan who loves to micromanage and nitpick my favorite team, I tend to look to other teams for examples of what the Royals should and shouldn't do. In the last week, the Royals have played a pair of teams that lead their respective divisions.
This is a list of things that a team like the Royals can learn from these two organizations. Any underperforming organization can take these things to heart. Heck, some successful teams can do a lot better with some or all of these items.
First we talk about the Milwaukee Brewers, who have recently emerged from two decades of inept management to become relevant in the NL. Here's what the Royals can learn from the Milwaukee Brewers.
1. Pick wisely at the top of the draft. The Brew Crew have first round picks starting at 1B (Fielder, 2002), 2B (Weeks, 2003), 3B (Braun, 2005), SP (Sheets, 1999), and a second rounder at SS (Hardy, 2001) and another second rounder at SP (Gallardo). That's their entire infield and 2/5 of their starting rotation.
2. Dump trades are great, but only if executed properly. The Sexson trade that sent him to the Snakes gave them another member of their rotation in Capuano, who at the time was a talented, but underperforming arm and a decent 1B in Overbay that they then flipped a while later when Fielder was ready. The Overbay dump trade gave them a capable 4th OF (Gabe Gross), ANOTHER member of the rotation (Bush), and a midrange pitching prospect (Z. Jackson). When they flipped Carlos Lee, they got their closer (Cordero) and half of their OF platoon (Mench). These are make-or-break moments in the history of a franchise. The Royals have been remarkably bad at this over the course of the last 10 years. The Dye and Damon trades were franchise killers.
3. Worry about your closer when you get good, not when you're losing 95 games a season. Bad teams don't need expensive relievers. In fact, they can use it as an opportunity to audition players and flip pitchers who overperform. They gave Dan Kolb a chance to close, he did so capably for a season, after which they flipped him to the Braves for more talented players who weren't "proven". Kolb predictably returned to being Dan Kolb and was soon back on the Brewers roster, costing nothing. They probably should have flipped Derrick Turnbow before he turned into a pumpkin, but all things considered, they could do worse for a short reliever in a 7th/8th inning role than him. Now that they're relevant, the closer role is relevant and Cordero is doing fine. The difference between 60 and 70 wins isn't very meaningful, but the difference between 85 and 90 is huge.
4. Get your stopgaps out of the way when somebody is ready to take hold of an opportunity. The Brewers have cleared room for Bill Hall, Corey Hart, and Ryan Braun to become regulars and have profited from it. This isn't something that Royals have been terrible at per se, but their degree of dedication to keeping Mark Grudzielanek around while Esteban German has proven capable of being a regular (if defensively challenged) 2B.
5. Don't be afraid of non-traditional solutions. They have 2 veterans who have always been full time starters platooning in an outfield corner. Their other corner outfielder and leadoff hitter is a 6'6" converted first baseman. Their center fielder is an ex-middle infielder who suddenly started hitting for power a couple years ago. And scouts have been saying that Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks are outfielders waiting to happen since they were drafted.
The second team we look at is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They don't have the sob story that the Brew Crew has, but they definitely have some lessons to share.
Here's what the Royals can learn from the Angels.
1. Don't be afraid to pay out for premium talent, especially at a discount. Vladimir Guerrero's 5 year, $70M contract that the Angels inked him to back in the winter before the 2004 season could be the best value of recent free agency vintage. There were some concerns about a back injury he struggled with in 2003, an injury that limited him to 112 games. The Yankees passed and sign Gary Sheffield instead. Vlad has been a tremendous player over the past few years and he is the fulcrum upon which the Angels offense rotates. He makes $13.5M this season, a relative pittance for a player of his caliber.
2. Keep David DeJesus because he's relatively cheap and effective. The Angels gave Gary Matthews Jr an exorbitant, $50M, 5 year contract this off-season in what is the opposite of the Vlad deal. They even gave him a full no trade clause. Matthews isn't a poor player. He's a capable defensive center fielder, and despite my concerns that his 2006 season was a complete fluke, he's been an acceptable .285/.342/.452. So his salary this season is reasonable. But that contract is going to be ugly in 2010 and 2011, when he's making 11M and 12M and his skills will have eroded. DeJesus is also a capable defensive center fielder, and competent bat. He's also signed to a relatively modest 5 year, $13.8M deal. His power has dipped slightly this season, but his walk rate has increased and his strikeout rate is in line with his previous numbers, telling me that he's a good bet to repeat his performances of the last 2 seasons.
3 and 4. Here are two lessons that are complimentary in nature. Prospects sometimes fail. When they fail, it pays to have a good bench. The Angels had a lot of hope invested in Dallas McPherson and when he failed due to injury and strikeout rate, they were a bit stuck. Luckily for them, they have one of the better selections of infield reserves in baseball, headlined by super-utility archetype Chone Figgins, but supported by corner infield lefty-masher Robb Quinlan, and Maicer Izturis's glove. They've weathered injuries and ineffectiveness at every infield position over the last few years and I think part of the reason for that is their mix of versatility and usefulness on the bench. The way that they use Quinlan and Figgins in particular is something I think could be a model for the Royals in the future, as Esteban German has been an underutilized asset over the last 15 months. As for Quinlan, not enough teams carry around a player who specializes in punishing lefty junk.
5. Once you get good, it is possible to "reload" and not "rebuild" while also not paying $200M per year in salaries. The only significant players remaining from the Angels World Championship season of 2002 are Francisco Rodriguez, who only appeared in 5 regular season games that year, John Lackey, who was a 23 year old rookie himself at the time, and Garret Anderson, who if he comes back this season, will probably be relegated to a bench role. They've turned over every single starting spot in the field and all but one rotation spot. In that time, they've dipped below .500 exactly once, and that one time was in 2003, when they finished with 77 wins. They've been to the playoffs twice in that time and have averaged 88 wins per season, a mark which they are pretty certain to blow by this year with plenty of room to spare. Keep the farm system going even after you start winning and you too can make it a regular habit to compete for division titles.