The Royals as a Warning
Since apparently the Mariners have no interest in The Pirates as a Blueprint, let’s try another franchise, and conveniently, the one who happens to be in town playing at Safeco right now. The Royals are currently the most similar franchise to the Mariners; long time losers pitching hope to their fans based on the prospects coming up through their farm system, but with a GM in place who hasn’t yet shown he can put quality Major Leaguers around said prospects. Like with Jack Z, Dayton Moore had a strong background in player development, coming over from the Braves after running their farm system, but like Jack Z, he’s spent his entire tenure as GM presiding over lousy teams because the things he values in a big league player aren’t the things that win you baseball games.
Last winter, Dayton Moore decided it was time for his team to stop losing. He was ready for a winning season, anxious to prove to everyone that his plan could work, and needed some kind of proof that the organization was on the right path. To that end, he identified the team’s pitching staff as the primary problem, and then went all-in on the off-season in an effort to fix their pitching problems. And that decision led them to trade Wil Myers — yes, that guy who is going to win the AL Rookie of the Year award after posting a 131 wRC+ as a 22 year old in Tampa Bay — and a couple of other prospects for James Shields and Wade Davis. Shields is an excellent pitcher, but only under team control for two seasons, so the Royals essentially swapped a quality young big leaguer for a short term rental in an effort to prove that Dayton Moore’s plan could actually work.
Shields has been very good, as usual, but the Royals weren’t actually ready to win, as they just had too many holes on their roster to keep up with a very good Detroit team and overcome the better AL Wild Card contenders. They’re going to finish the year with 85 or 86 wins and will watch the postseason at home, only now, they don’t have a terrific young right fielder to build around, and Shields is entering the last year of his contract. The Royals gave up a significant asset to try and win with a roster that wasn’t ready to win, and the end result was a mediocre team that now has fewer young talents to build around.
But you’ll hear people still defending the trade, noting that the Royals have had a winning season and reminded the team’s fan base what it was like to see a good product again. They’ll point out that the fan base has been reinvigorated, and that’s good for business, since an active fan base means more money for the team to spend in the future, and that money can be spent to raise the team’s payroll and improve the product again.
Here’s where facts get in the way, however. Here are the Royals attendance numbers from 2012 and 2013, and these are final, since KC has played all 81 of their home games this year.
2012: 1.74 million, 21,480 per game
2013: 1.75 million, 21,614 per game
The exciting new Royals, the one that has put a spark back in the fan base, managed to draw an extra 135 fans per game to the ballpark this year. The team’s attendance to watch James Shields and Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie pitch was almost identical to what it was to watch Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza, and Luke Hochevar. The big bold moves by the front office didn’t result in any gain in attendance.
Oh, but maybe it stemmed a big loss, right? It’s not just about adding fans, but keeping the ones you already have, which has certainly been a problem for the Mariners. What was their attendance in 2011, and did the trade stop a huge downwards trend that could have been disastrous for the franchise’s revenue base? Nope, they drew 1.72 million in 2011 too, and 1.62 million in 2010, and 1.80 million in 2009. This is the Royals established “watch the team lose” fan base, and the Royals didn’t see any kind of spike after punting a key part of their future to try and win in the present.
By the way, the Mariners attendance for this terrible product is actually up 382 fans per game, or about 20,000 total fans over the first 77 home games. They only need to draw 40,000 fans total to their final four home games to match 2012’s attendance, and with Fan Appreciation Night coming up on Friday, they’ll almost certainly blow by that total over the weekend. This team is about as painful to watch as any the Mariners have put together in recent history, but they’ve seen a larger boost in attendance than the Royals have after “going for it”.
With Jack back for one final “prove you can win” year, the potential for a Wil Myers trade type of scenario is absolutely there. Remember, last year, Jack tried to give Josh Hamilton $100 million with several vesting options, and then he tried to trade Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin, and stuff for Justin Upton. We’ve already seen that this front office is willing to make the franchise’s long term future worse for a chance at making the short term slightly better. And now, Jack absolutely knows that this is his last shot. Win or he’s gone. The incentive to steward the franchise is gone, and now, the mandate is very clearly to win in 2014.
The amount of damage that could be done this off-season is staggering. The Mariners are basically in the same position that the Royals were in a year ago. This roster isn’t particularly close to being a winner, but they have money to spend and young players to trade. Cover your eyes. This could get ugly.