More than ever, each team has a chance to compete
PHOENIX -- This was the offseason when the Kansas City Royals decided that the team had to stop building and to deliver.
"A winning culture is established only when you win," general manager Dayton Moore said on Monday during Major League Baseball's Spring Training Media Day at Chase Field.
In the end, it's that simple.
"If we want our young players to turn into the players we need them to become, we've got to start winning games," he said.
In seven seasons on the job, Moore has built a first-rate baseball operation. He has hired good people and given them the resources they need to do their jobs. In fact, Moore has done everything he told owner David Glass he would do. He said he would do things right and take no shortcuts.
However, Moore said that when the Royals were good again, they had a chance to be good for a long, long time. So this winter, he decided that the time had come to put the finishing touch on that promise.
The Royals have had one winning season since 1995 and haven't made the playoffs since 1985. Moore saw this offseason as an opportunity on several levels.
First, Kansas City's best offensive players were in the big leagues, but the development of pitching lagged a year or so behind. Second, Moore saw baseball's landscape shifting. Suddenly, payroll no longer decided postseason berths.
In just the last two years, 13 of baseball's 30 teams have made at least one postseason appearance. Nine franchises have won the World Series in the past 12 years, and their average payroll rank has been 10th.
Such big-money clubs as the Yankees and Red Sox have been in the playoffs, but the clubs with the second-lowest payrolls in both 2011 and '12 -- the Rays and A's -- have also made it.
There's still a smaller margin of error for the small-market teams, but more than ever, every team has a chance to compete. That point hit home with a lot of GMs when 20 of 30 teams were within five games of a playoff berth at the All-Star break last summer and when Oakland and Baltimore grabbed postseason berths.
And with a second Wild Card added in each league, pennant races have a wide-open feel.
So this offseason, the Royals went all in, trading one of baseball's best hitting prospects, Wil Myers, to the Rays for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. Likewise, the Mariners, Indians, Red Sox, Blue Jays and others made moves designed not to win in 2014 or '15, but now.
Club executives assessed their rosters and saw an opportunity. They believed that if the A's and Orioles could do it, they could, too. They have no idea how long-term success can be sustained, but playoff berths build credibility among fans and reward years of hard work.
First, the Royals.
Moore opened the offseason by obtaining veteran starter Ervin Santana from the Angels. He then re-signed veteran Jeremy Guthrie and finished the work by obtaining Shields and Davis.
Suddenly, all those homegrown offensive players -- Billy Butler and Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and others -- see the 2013 season as one of opportunity.
"Our entire camp has a more stable feel," Moore said. "It's just more of a sense of stability, because the rotation has a presence to it. I think we have a lot of talent on the field, but it's still very young. The one thing that's going to allow those young players to mature at their own natural rate is good starting pitching. If you have good starting pitching and a good defense, which potentially we do, I think we can compete more effectively from the first day to the last day."
If it works out the way Moore hopes, he'll never forget the patience that Glass showed through the tough times.
"We're fortunate, because Mr. Glass told us he was going to be patient, and he has allowed us to do the things we needed to do in building our organization from the ground up," Moore said.
The Royals are the most dramatic example of how the Rays competing every year with a low payroll and of how the A's and Orioles making the postseason in 2012 has affected every other club.
Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has followed a similar blueprint to the Royals'. His team has drafted smartly, but with his young guys still struggling to establish themselves, he shored up his roster with veterans Kendrys Morales, Mike Morse, Kelly Shoppach, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay.
Now Zduriencik's young guys will be surrounded by players who have significant track records, and thus will not be forced to assume the burden of carrying a franchise. They, too, can continue to grow in a different kind of environment.
"I do think we're in a little bit of a new landscape right now," Zduriencik said. "There's such a premium on young players. Players get to the big leagues quicker. We're asking them to do a lot of things in a hurry.
"I think the second Wild Card has given a lot of other clubs a fighting chance. We're still a young club, but we brought in some veteran leadership. I'd never tell our guys we were fighting for the second Wild Card spot, but it's there. With what Oakland and Baltimore did a year ago, it's given a lot of clubs hope that this could happen. If players have good years and you make the right additions, you've got a chance."
Every GM cautions against overstating how much baseball's landscape truly has shifted. They point out that only the Rays have have had long-term success with a low payroll. The Orioles and A's gave a lot of other teams hope, but will they be able to sustain their success in 2013?
"I think it's the definition of parity, and competitive balance is important," Indians GM Chris Antonetti said. "We'll continue to find examples of small-market teams having success one year here, one year there. Tampa Bay has been the one smaller-market, lower-revenue team that has a period of sustainable success. It's challenging for other small-market teams to have any sort of sustainable success."
Nevertheless, it's a start. It's not perfect, but the playing field at least seems different than it was just a few years ago.
"Baseball now is more like the NFL has been," D-backs GM Kevin Towers said. "You can be at the bottom and the next year be at the top. A few clubs are a long ways away, but most of us think we have a chance."
Or, as Padres manager Bud Black said, "Anything can happen, and we're reminded of that every year. If you go talk to the teams expected to win, they'll tell you that you still have to play. Because you never know."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.