March 30, 2014

Royals’ window of opportunity is brewing like Milwaukee’s

KC seems to be following direction similar to one Brewers took about a decade ago.

A couple of snowbirds are perched in the Scottsdale Stadium bleachers down the third-base line, watching their Milwaukee Brewers in a spring training game against the San Francisco Giants.

Like all baseball fans in March, they voice optimism.

“Getting Matt Garza was a good move,” said Greg Cumisky from Minocqua, Wis., who spends the winter months in Arizona and today is breaking down the team with his buddy Jack Zader of New Berlin, Wis.

They’ve been following Milwaukee baseball since the Braves days. Relief pitching is a question, as is what’s in store for Ryan Braun after his suspension-shortened seasons, and aw, geez, the NL Central is a killer division with three playoff teams last year.

“You’re from Kansas City?” Cuminski said. “I like what the Royals are doing. It kind of reminds me what the Brewers did a while back.”

Yes, in several ways, it does.

By coincidence in some areas, and with direct connections in others, the Royals seem to be tracking in a direction similar to that of the Brewers about a decade ago.

That can be good and not-so-good news for the Royals.

The Brewers have been where the Royals are desperate to go, the postseason. Milwaukee has made two playoff appearances in the last six years and was two victories away from a World Series in 2011.

By Royals standards, that’s approaching Nirvana.

But the Brewers also dropped to 74 victories last year, 23 games behind the first-place Cardinals, and appear to face an uphill battle to reach the playoffs this year.

Teams that aren’t the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and others north of a $150 million payroll talk about the window of opportunity, that period when several roster factors combine to enable a push for success.

The Royals, after many years, have put themselves in that window with a combination of young, homegrown talent throughout the lineup and pitching staff, along with key acquisitions, like last year’s trade that brought opening day starter James Shields to Kansas City for top prospect Wil Myers.

The Brewers’ window may be closing, although the taste of recent success has the organization hungry for more. A payroll of around $96 million suggests that Milwaukee wants to win now instead of rebuild.

Still, a review of the Brewers’ rise — which included several guys who wear Royals uniforms today, such as manager Ned Yost — could be instructive to see what might be in store for Kansas City.

Since 2005, the Brewers have posted records of .500 or better five times and played meaningful post-All Star break baseball four times — not sustained success, but better than anything the Royals have enjoyed since the final years of George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson.

The 2013 Royals experienced both for the first time in a decade under the guidance of Yost, who piloted Milwaukee’s course as the Brewers’ manager during 2003-08.

Yost, who was fired in September 2008 as the Brewers were battling for a wild-card spot, wasn’t around to enjoy the fruits of his labor. But he contends the current Royals are beyond the Brewers’ jumping-off point.

“We have more talent (here) than we had in Milwaukee,” Yost said. “We have a better core of guys. We had a really good core of guys in Milwaukee, but we didn’t have the balance we have here.

“We didn’t have a catcher like Salvy (Perez). We didn’t have the pitching like we have come up through the system.”

The Royals, Yost says, are being patterned by a model of baseball consistency, one that shaped his career as a coach.

“It’s more what the Atlanta Braves did,” Yost said.

Aim high — why not? The Braves went to the playoffs in 14 consecutive non-strike years starting in 1991, when Yost arrived as a bullpen coach. That’s also where Royals general manager Dayton Moore grew up in baseball before taking over in Kansas City in 2006.

Moore resists the temptation to compare the two organizations.

“Every situation is unique, and nobody outside an organization knows exactly what’s going on inside,” Moore said. “So, you focus on what you have to do, and what we’ve tried is nothing new, build from within, develop well, draft well, sign well, build our international program through scouting and player development.”

And it’s true that parallels in the Royals’ evolution could probably be drawn to other up-and-comers, like the Pirates, who reached the playoffs last year for the first time since 1992.

But in small-market economies, with organization-developed prospects as the foundation, the Royals and Brewers share common profiles, as well as some history. They entered the American League together as expansion teams in 1969, with the Brewers spending one season as the Seattle Pilots.

The Royals got to the World Series first, in 1980, and the Brewers were there two years later.

The Brewers have played eight more regular-season games in their history than the Royals, who have won 20 more. The Royals have suited 776 players, the Brewers 777.

Even their long slumbers coincide.

The Royals went 64-51 in 1994, the unfinished strike season. Kansas City spent much of the next two decades in the wilderness.

Milwaukee turned a winning record in 1992 and wouldn’t again until 2005.

“We had our growing pains, believe me,” said Doug Melvin, who became the Brewers’ general manager in 2002. “You take your lumps, but you have faith in your plan and stick with it.”

The Brewers’ improvement plan sounds strikingly similar to the Royals’ — starting with homegrown talent.

“A couple of years ago, we said the encouraging thing about our organization is we know who our first baseman, our third baseman and our catcher are going to be over the next several years,” Moore said. “That’s the formula, the beauty of growing your own talent. By 2012 and 2013, we wanted the majority of our major-league team to be homegrown talent.”

The Brewers said the same thing a decade ago, and fans in Milwaukee grew with Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy. Weeks and Hardy were 22-year-old middle infielders in 2005. Fielder, one year younger, joined them in the lineup the next season, and 23-year-old Braun completed the infield the next year. That was the nucleus of a 2008 playoff team that won 90 games.

Yost’s first year in Kansas City was 2011, when 22-year-old Mike Moustakas and 21-year-old Eric Hosmer became regulars, along with designated hitter Billy Butler, 25. Left fielder Alex Gordon, 27, was the elder statesman of the group, which was joined in 2012 by Perez, 22.

Homegrown, all of them.

“So, now with good young players like Kansas City has, you have to be patient, and that’s not always easy,” Melvin said. “Early on, Hardy is hitting .170 and the fans are saying, ‘Send him down.’ And Weeks is making errors, so send him down, too.”

That didn’t happen, and Yost defended the youngsters.

“Ned stood up and said if they’re going to be part of the turnaround then we’ll need to live with the ups and downs as they grow,” Melvin said.

That’s precisely what Yost insisted about his young Royals last year, especially as Hosmer and Moustakas experienced horrible April and May slumps.

“Players have to manage failure,” Yost said, and he stuck with them.

Instead of demoting the players, the Royals replaced their hitting coaches with living legend George Brett. And Hosmer and Moustakas responded.

In Milwaukee, the young lineup jelled in 2008, but the Brewers needed an ace. In July of that season, they traded for CC Sabathia, who went 11-2 in his 17 National League starts.

The Brewers imported another ace for their next playoff run in 2011, acquiring Zack Greinke from the Royals, who in return got their starting shortstop, Alcides Escobar, and center fielder, Lorenzo Cain.

The Royals’ acquisition of an ace last offseason came with an additional purpose. James Shields didn’t just bring No. 1-starter stuff with him from Tampa Bay last year but also a veteran clubhouse presence that was instrumental in keeping the team together through some early rough patches.

But Shields is a free agent after this season, and the Royals stand to lose a critical component after 2014. The Brewers had Sabathia for a half-season and Greinke for two before trading him to the Dodgers. As Melvin ran down the list of other players Milwaukee couldn’t keep over the years, he underscored how difficult it is to maintain Braves-like consistency in smaller markets.

“We just lost too many free agents in the past,” Melvin said. “Carlos Lee, Sabathia, Prince Fielder. We had to trade Greinke or we were going to lose him.”

That’s partly why the Brewers parted with right fielder Norichika Aoki, whom they traded to the Royals for pitcher Will Smith. Aoki, a former Japanese League star with a knack for getting on base, will become a free agent after this season.

The Royals were happy to grab him. They lacked a leadoff hitter, a table-setter for the bigger bats down the lineup, and Aoki filled that void.

The move worked for Milwaukee because young outfielder Khris Davis inspired confidence during limited duty last season, an opportunity that knocked while Braun served his suspension.

Move a player along for cost and open his position for a promising player — this is how teams that have won attempt to maintain. Acquire a player to fill an obvious need when many other pieces are in place — this is the action of a team entering its window of opportunity,

“You know what would be fun?” said Cumisky, the snowbird from Minocqua. “If the Brewers and Royals met in a good Midwest World Series. That would shake ’em up.”

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