Window opening for Marlins, Pirates, Royals
When you're in the limited world, it's all about windows. Tampa Bay opened and managed theirs brilliantly, winning two American League East titles in three years. Now, more than 40 percent of the team is in the free-agent market.
The Indians, in one of the three smallest urban markets in baseball, were within a game of the World Series in 2007 when theirs slammed shut. The Twins traditionally managed their windows and doors and have grown into what might be a top-eight franchise in payroll and revenues.
Now, we see how the Marlins and Royals are dealing with the opening of their windows. Florida -- or Miami, 2012 -- is preparing for the opening of the downtown stadium year after next. "We have been gearing for the opening of the park for a couple of years now," said Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest. So, while Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson are signed long-term, if Dan Uggla refuses the four-year, $48M offer tendered him and walks toward free agency at the end of the 2011 season, he likely will be traded, sooner than later.
"We have to be fully prepared to be up and running as a contender next season," said Beinfest. They can pay the man who's averaged 31 homers and 93 RBIs his five Major League seasons, they can allow him arbitration or they can trade him, with the arbitration scenario the least likely.
It's not as if Beinfest's Marlins have to rock-climb into contention like the Royals or Pirates. They were two games under .500 this past season, have had winning records in five of the past eight years, are 23 games over .500 in that period, and have done so finishing last or second-to-last in attendance and payroll every season from 2005-10.
On the other hand, if you aren't closing in on 50 and live in the Kansas City area, you probably don't remember how great it was in the Royals' 10-year heyday from 1976 to 1985, when they were in the playoffs seven times, won two pennants, one World Series and had one of the greatest players who ever lived spending his baseball life as a Royal. Since 1993, they have finished above .500 once, and that 83-79 season under Tony Pena was such a franchise-turner that since then they've lost 100 games four times and last year saw Bruce Chen lead them in wins and Yuniesky Betancourt in homers and RBIs. And yes, it's been since Barry Bonds left after the '92 season that the Pirates were a .500 team.
GMs Dayton Moore and Neal Huntington are respectful of their fans' impatience. They each believe they are within ladders of their windows, but they are experiencing what Bobby Cox understood when he left the Blue Jays to become general manager of the Braves. Cox predicted it would take five years to begin seeing the fruits of his labors with pitching, seven years with position players. And today it is even more difficult because of the gap between rich and poor franchises.
Moore and Huntington are trying to build not with stopgap signings -- which kept Pittsburgh panting after .500 like the coyote after the roadrunner, seemingly forever mediocre -- but with long-term investments based on good judgment. The Royals are among the top five teams in terms of Draft and international signings the past three seasons. The Pirates are right near the top, and Huntington chose to go above slot on a number of high school arms in 2010, which will not appease their short-sighted followers (or luxury-taxed big markets, who do not see the wisdom in putting revenues aside for when the team is good and can try to tie up players without arbitration for five or six years).
The Marlins should be able to crawl out of their window by the time they move downtown, next season. They would be better off with Uggla, who will be 32, paired with the All-Star Ramirez, who even in an OK year batted .300 with 21 homers, 32 steals and an .853 OPS. First baseman Gaby Sanchez is coming off a rookie year in which he hit 19 homers with a .788 OPS. Mike Stanton, in right field, is an emerging 50 home-run superstar off his 20-year old rookie season. Logan Morrison, in left, had an .837 OPS in 62 games. Beinfest believes Matt Dominguez will take over at third "and give us the best defense we've had there since Mike Lowell."
The immediate plan is to try Chris Coghlan in center field, where Beinfest acknowledges he won't have flair but should run good routes, with Scott Cousins and Bryan Peterson as alternatives.
Beinfest's offseason priority was to improve a bullpen whose 61-percent save record was second-worst in the league, after Arizona. Hence the Cameron Maybin deal to San Diego for Ryan Webb, who the Fish see as a future closer. Clay Hensley (77-29 K-BB ratio in 75 innings) and Brian Sanches (2.26 ERA) are holdovers. The way they figure, the rotation of Anibel Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad, behind Johnson (2.30 ERA, 23 of 28 quality starts), will get better. They still hold out hope for Sean West; 22-year old Alex Sanabia was 5-3 with a 3.73 ERA; and they have two of what Beinfest considers "the best prospect starters in the Southern League" in 24-year-olds Elih Villanueva (14-4, 2.26) and Tom Koehler (16-2, 2.61).
Owner Jeffrey Loria gave all his baseball people long-term deals, and when other clubs have come calling to interview Mike Hill and Dan Jennings for vacant GM jobs, those deals have excluded them from interviewing. Smart business. Tough but smart business, and this organization has a proven history of identifying talent.
Will they be ready in 2012 when their window is supposed to open? Probably so. The East by then may be well-balanced. The Phillies have tried to walk the line between now and the future, but as good as their current core may be, the road cannot go on forever. The Braves have all kinds of pitching coming, but the current ownership has given indications that they're watching costs for a future sale; the fact that they're not interested in extending Frank Wren long-term after the job he did last season has been taken by many in the organization as a bad sign. The Mets will be represented, but Sandy Alderson has work to do. The Stephen Strasburg/Bryce Harper era in Washington will be in its infancy.
"If Florida's young pitching comes on," said one GM, "with Stanton and the rest of their young players, they can be really good. But Nolasco, Volstad and Sanchez must get more consistent."
The Royals' window is most likely to reopen midway through the 2013 season, with 2014 the target. Problem No. 1 -- when and for whom do they trade Zack Greinke -- will have to be resolved. Moore has him signed for two more years, but it is unrealistic to expect that he'll be around in 2013, so he'll be marketed this winter, unless a team like the Rangers -- who have the young power arms, ownership wanting to win, a market private enough for Grienke and a $3 billion television deal in a state that leads the country in attracting Fortune 500 companies -- has made it clear to the Royals that they want Greinke and Cliff Lee.
Problem No. 2 is that by mid-2013 they need to find out whether Alex Gordon is ever going to be close to what they once thought he would be, and whether Kila Ka'aihue is going to hit.
For 2011, they have to hold the payroll at close to $60 million (hence the David DeJesus deal) to ensure that they can continue in the Draft and international markets and be able to hold onto their own good players when they are in their second and third years in the big leagues. This past season, first baseman Eric Hosmer shot from Class A Advanced to Double-A with a .338 average and .977 OPS. Moore believes in "bringing young players up a little late than too early," so after Hosmer's impressive performance with Team USA, he may start in Double-A. Third baseman Mike Moustakas (36 HRs, .999 OPS between Double- and Triple-A) may begin 2011 in Triple-A Omaha. Shortstop Christian Colon and catcher Wil Myers will be on the fast track from A-ball toward a 2013 landing in Kansas City.
This will be an important year for the Royals' talented left-handed arms to get close or into Kansas City. The Royals could see Mike Montgomery, Chris Dwyer, John Lamb and Danny Duffy in the big leagues this season while they try to straighten out the delivery of former first-round pick Aaron Crow.
Kansas City is, along with Cleveland and Milwaukee, one of the three smallest urban areas in the sport. So if they are going to have a three-to-five-year window, Hosmer, Moustakas, Colon, Myers and at least three of the left-handers have to hit.
By mid-2013, Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen could well be stars of different kinds, Tony Sanchez could be a front-line defensive catcher and, if all goes well, the Pirates will be starting to see the fruits of their search for power arms, as opposed to the mediocre pitchers they selected at the top of the Drafts in the past decade.
This window business is difficult to open and even harder to maintain. The Yankees and Cubs, Tigers, Red Sox and Rangers don't have to worry about them while dealing with the different expectations. The Marlins' ETA is 2012 -- their 20th season -- and they appear to be in position to contend.
Whether Miami will notice is another matter, entirely. It's a long way from the 3.4 million fans the Marlins drew in their first season, but this may have been the only way they could have found their way home.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.