Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: Royals owner David Glass wants to win while rebuilding and saving money? Good luck

The Royals, under owner David Glass, have been in the middle of the pack for major-league teams in payroll the past three seasons.
The Royals, under owner David Glass, have been in the middle of the pack for major-league teams in payroll the past three seasons.

David Glass has owned the Royals long enough that he can, without stretching the memory, remember a time when the following words would’ve made as much sense as him walking to the moon.

“I think we’re going to win it,” he said. “That is my expectation. Oh, yeah. Don’t plan anything for October.”

The Royals are talented, and balanced, with a better rotation and more power. You don’t have to squint too hard to see them getting back to the playoffs, and after that, who knows?

But here is the fundamental conflict of Glass and the 2017 Royals: They are willingly, and now openly, choosing the more difficult and less efficient way of getting back to baseball’s mountaintop.

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Respect the ambition, but if it’s the difference between being good enough to hope and in a few years being good enough for another pennant or two, we’ll all remember this as the moment the Royals made the wrong choice.

Glass knows the stakes of this season, of course. No matter what, and depending on how you look at the Marlins, Glass will have owned the smallest-market world champions since the 1990 Reds — an effectively unprecedented accomplishment in modern baseball.

But he also knows that 2017 represents something of a crossroads. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar will all be free agents. Wade Davis was traded in the offseason.

Royals owner David Glass on the possibility of re-signing Eric Hosmer 

The personality of the team is changing from frat house to business casual. The Royals would not have been the first team to ride the natural life cycle of a homegrown talent wave aging into free agency to bottom out and kick-start the next wave.

The Astros did this. The Nationals, too. The Phillies invested too much money and too much time into an aging core, and it led them to disaster.

The Royals, then, are attempting what might be the most difficult balance in professional sports — to win now, build for tomorrow and do it without adding payroll in a baseball world that includes more revenue sharing than in the past but still leans toward the richer clubs.

Still, Glass is going with the other path.

“Our objective is to win,” Glass said. “I have a theory that losing’s for losers. Saying you’re going to forget about this year, and work on the future, is something we have trouble doing.”

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There is so much behind what Glass is saying. Maybe he’s a product of his circumstance, but he believes the connection between payroll and winning is overstated by fans and media. He makes this point often, both publicly and privately, and you can see where he’s coming from.

In 2014, when the Royals won their first pennant in 29 years, they ranked 17th in payroll, according to USA Today’s database. In 2015, when they won the World Series, they ranked 16th. And last year, when they went 81-81, they ranked 15th, and spent more than $50 million more than the Indians — who won the American League pennant.

“It’s not what you spend,” Glass said. “It’s what you get for what you spend. That’s the way we look at it.”

That’s all true, but so is this: The best and most efficient way for the Royals to acquire top-shelf talent is through the draft and international amateur signings. The draft has always benefited the worst teams, given them first shot at the best players, and baseball’s current CBA tilts it even more with spending limits based on the previous season’s record.

Hosmer, Moustakas and Alex Gordon were each selected in the top three of their respective drafts. That kind of talent is off-limits to teams that aren’t near the bottom of the standings.

Wil Myers signed with the Royals for far above what his third-round selection would’ve normally been worth, and he keyed the trade that brought James Shields and Wade Davis. The new rules essentially prohibit teams from overspending their draft slot.

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The Royals needed every good decision and every lucky break to win their sport’s ultimate prize from one of the smallest markets. What they’re now trying to do is even more difficult.

“You’ve been around,” Glass said. “If I said to you, ‘We’re going to do all of the above. We’re going to transition, we’re still going to be competitive and we’re still going to win every year, and not go all the way backward to build forward, you’d tell me that’s impossible.’”

Please allow me to interject. I don’t think it’s impossible. I do think it’s very unlikely — even less likely than winning the 2015 World Series. I believe their smartest move would’ve been to go all out for 2017, let the free agents walk, collect the compensation picks, and build back up with three or so years of picking high in the draft.

Even the Dodgers and Yankees and Red Sox can’t win every year. The Cubs lost 101 and 96 games in consecutive years in their rebuild and got Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber with those high picks.

So, yes. I believe this other way is more effective, with a higher chance of success. And I believe the path the Royals have chosen is, well, not quite impossible. But close.

OK, back to Glass:

“I don’t think it is,” he said. “I think if we do it the right way, if we’re able to manage it the right way, we can be competitive with this group we have this year. We’re not going to have some of them next year, but I think we can be competitive next year as well.”

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For the record, Glass does acknowledge that stepping back for a few years would make for a simpler path toward future success.

“You probably make it easier to do that,” Glass said. “But I can’t stand losing. I have an aversion to that. So you wouldn’t enjoy it. Maybe you’d accomplish something, but you wouldn’t enjoy it. We went through tough times getting to where we are with this group of players. We can do that again, but just because you’re going to lose some of them doesn’t mean you can’t replace them and be competitive.”

There’s a lot to take in from that quote. Glass is saying the other way — bottoming out in order to better zoom back to the top — is easier.

But there aren’t many owners who’ve been through more hopeless seasons than Glass, and that could be motivating him to stay away from industry punchlines, even if it could mean getting back to the top quicker.

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Glass is a businessman before he’s a baseball man, and a business element is likely at play here, too. Bottoming out in Kansas City is much easier to do in the abstract than in reality, because even after the remarkable push to baseball’s mountaintop, Royals fans have seen many more rebuilds fail than succeed.

The Royals are popular in Kansas City again, with the sport’s best local TV ratings, and finally with interest that rivals the Chiefs. The two biggest season attendance figures in franchise history are the most recent two.

From a business perspective, it’s hard to let that go. Hard to trust you’ll have it back.

“The fans in Kansas City deserve a winner,” Glass said. Starting back in 2013, ’14, ’15, and even ’16, they were unbelievably supportive. And they deserve a winner. We have a responsibility to them to do everything we can.

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“If we said to them, ‘Look, we’re going to cut all the way back, and we’re going to get high draft choices, and we’re going to lose for a while until we can rebuild,’ that’s not fair to them. We’re not going to do that.”

Glass’ true motivations are not that altruistic. If he’s doing this for the fans, he’s doing it for their ticket-buying habits. There’s a solid case to be made that this is the right business decision, too, particularly with negotiations to on the next television contract due to begin in the next year or two.

But it’s worth noting that Glass believes this is the more difficult road. That he agrees the better baseball decision may be to tear down in order to build back up.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger