The inner contradiction of Dayton Moore has never been pulled and stretched and contorted the way it is at this very moment.
Moore is a hopeless baseball romantic. He has told the story many times of driving with a friend to watch the 1985 World Series from the hill behind left field of what was then Royals Stadium. He would not have taken the job as general manager if he did not feel a boyhood connection to the Royals.
Throughout a two-year obstacle course that included some calling for his job and a World Series championship, he was simultaneously dedicated to planning and building an urban core baseball academy that he has called as important as anything he does for the Royals.
But Moore is also doggedly pragmatic. He believes in order and grimaces at excess. He flies Southwest, downsized when he felt his house was too big, and has punctuated most of his talk this offseason on spending smartly.
Two days after the parade: “You keep it professional. Business is business. It’s about the Kansas City Royals.”
At the end of the winter meetings: “Just because clubs are spending money, a lot of money, doesn’t mean that they are good business decisions.”
This is the inner organizational conflict that is largely holding up the Royals’ offseason. They are pursuing options for the starting rotation, but otherwise remain in something like a holding pattern.
This is the small-money team’s place in a big-money baseball world that gives a dependable and decidedly average starting pitcher (in this case Mike Leake) a five-year, $80 million contract.
The Royals finished last year with baseball’s 12th highest payroll. Baseball does not release these figures, but even in a year of record attendance and another postseason the spending ranked higher than revenues among all teams.
This is the world in which the Royals must decide Alex Gordon’s worth — not his sentimental worth, but his actual worth.
Moore has expressed frustration with the exponential inflation of the free-agent market, and as national television revenue continues to increase, so does the value of talent. More teams are signing updated local TV deals, which is also driving up costs far beyond the Royals’ comfort.
For instance — the Cardinals, who signed Leake to that big deal, are buoyed financially by a $1 billion TV contract that also includes an equity stake in Fox Sports Midwest. The Royals’ outdated TV deal runs through 2019.
There are a thousand factors that go into each free-agent contract, and no two deals are exactly the same. But one simple way to think about it is in terms of cost per win, which can be roughly translated into dollars per Wins Above Replacement. Even if you don’t understand or don’t like advanced metrics by WAR, this is probably the easiest way to analyze it.
So far, free agents are getting around $7 million and often more per WAR. That’s the math that means Gordon is worth — in major-league baseball terms — $80 million to $100 million over a five year contract.
If that is indeed the price, Gordon does not fit in the Royals’ T.J. Maxx budget. But, like any other negotiation, there are specific factors that eliminate certainty.
For the Royals, the most important is a sort of gravitational pull Gordon may feel to stay with the only organization he’s known — the one three hours from his offseason home in Nebraska. He has made lifetime friends and created an undeniable legacy here. That can be a powerful thing.
But if you’re holding out hope he surprises the baseball world and signs with the Royals, you need more than that. Guys sometimes take less money to play where they’re happiest, but they don’t take $20 million less.
Even after Jason Heyward signed with the Cubs, teams looking for top left fielders can choose among Gordon, Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton. Signing Cespedes, unlike Gordon and Upton, does not require the surrender of a first-round pick.
It’s enough that you can imagine the scenario that leads Gordon back to the Royals — the top money goes to the younger Cespedes and Upton, driving Gordon’s price down to a sweet spot where he takes slightly less than he’s offered for a contract slightly bigger than the Royals are completely comfortable with.
Every day that passes without Gordon, who turns 32 in February, signing somewhere else is another day that Royals fans can hope that the team’s strategy of patience ends with a franchise cornerstone player returning.
But the truth is the obstacles remain substantial. The Cardinals, Giants, Red Sox, Tigers and others could use a top corner outfielder. That’s a lot of money available.
You might remember that in the offseason between 2011 and 2012, Gordon and the Royals worked on a contract extension. Those talks — much like his market this winter — were kept private. Gordon’s agent, Casey Close, is famous in baseball circles for staying out of the press and the Royals were just as quiet. When the deal was announced at the end of spring training, Gordon said that at the beginning of the negotiations he told Close he would sign whatever contract was offered.
There exists the possibility that he has told Close the same thing this time, but that would be stunning for many reasons. Ballplayers often trade full market value for the security of a long-term contract extension, but they don’t often take less money twice.
Also, Gordon had a $12.5 million player option for this year that he declined — after once saying he would pick it up — and turned down an administrative one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer. Accepting either deal would’ve been borderline insanity for Gordon, but this is a situation that was easy to see coming and neither side made serious overtures for another extension.
Moore loves Gordon as a baseball player, a role model, and a man. Moore has earned owner David Glass’ trust, and by all accounts has freedom to build the roster and the credibility to occasionally push the budget.
But barring a major surprise, it’s hard to see where Gordon’s open-market potential fits into the Royals’ financial reality. This isn’t even about saving money for a possible bid on keeping the younger players in Kansas City long-term.
The conflict could not be more stark. Gordon embodies the Royals’ rise from the punchlines, and his style personifies everything Moore wants his team to represent — relentlessness, talent, athleticism, humility and hard work.
But signing Gordon would require something the Royals have sworn off — a long-term, big-money contract to an aging player, the kind of deal that almost never ends well for the team.
This is where Moore’s inner-conflict will be tested. He likes to follow his heart. But, like he said, business is business.