KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On his first morning here, James Shields went to Starbucks with his new manager, Ned Yost, who revealed something of an embarrassing secret. To the baristas who take his order, he was not Ned. He told them he was Frank, because after back-to-back seasons of at least 90 losses with the Kansas City Royals, he didn't want them calling out his name and drawing ugly glances from the other patrons.
"Well, James is sitting there," Yost said Wednesday, "and I think, 'I'm not gonna have to use Frank much longer.' I'm excited about that."
The last time there was this combination of optimism and chatter about the Kansas City Royals was a generation ago. The city did right by the All-Star Game, but that had nothing to do with the team. Zack Greinke won a Cy Young surrounded by mediocrity. Carlos Beltran got traded, and that was not a particularly optimistic moment. A 16-3 start in 2003 devolved into mediocrity. A drunk idiot and his son attacked the Royals' first-base coach, and that kept their name in the news for a few days. Basically, not since Bo Jackson was roaming the outfield, or even back to 1985 when they won the World Series, have the Royals permeated baseball's consciousness as they are right now.
Trading four prospects, including consensus minor league player of the year Wil Myers, for Shields and right-hander Wade Davis represented something wholly new for a Royals team more dedicated to building than a kid with an endless box of Legos. Kansas City wants to win, and it felt like the only missing pieces were in the rotation, so it traded for Ervin Santana, re-signed Jeremy Guthrie and plumbed its farm system to get a pitcher in Shields it deems frontline and one in Davis it sees as emerging.
All to much consternation across a baseball landscape where trading prospects is sacrilege, and where a small-market, low-revenue team trading prospects is heresy. It led, naturally, to a question about right field, where Myers was slated to take over at some point this season from Jeff Francoeur, who by a number of accounts was the worst everyday player in the major leagues last season.
The answer provided a greater insight than any into the Kansas City Royals, how they're run by general manager Dayton Moore and why antennae of doubt and dubiousness sprung up across baseball when the trade was consummated late Sunday night.
"We believe in Jeff Francoeur a great deal," Moore said. "He had a tremendous year for us in 2011. And what I know about Jeff is he's going to bring a great winning attitude every single day. He's going to bring a competitiveness. He's going to bring an energy and an expectation level that is essential for teams to compete over 162 games. He plays Gold Glove defense in right field. He has a terrific arm. The bottom line is, the more guys you can keep out of scoring position, the better chance you have to win games.
"Jeff Francoeur is a winner."
Jeff Francoeur is a lot of things. He is a nice person. He is quite handsome. He is a rocket-armed outfielder. He is the sort of guy who will toss fans a $100 bill with instructions to buy beer. He is appreciated and beloved by teammates. He is respected and admired by managers.
He is not a winner, not by any variation of the definition. Francoeur has been in the major leagues for eight seasons. He has been on three teams with records above .500. He spent a full year with only one winning team, the 2007 Atlanta Braves, who went 84-78. He does not have a World Series ring.
The Royals signed Francoeur to a two-year, $13.5 million contract extension in August 2011 after a strong first half. Since then, of the 90 players to garner at least 700 plate appearances, he ranks 85th in on-base percentage and unintentional walks and 69th in slugging percentage. Omar Infante has more extra-base hits than him. He is 7 for 17 in stolen-base attempts, the worst percentage by far of any player with at least 10 tries. His defense is not Gold Glove-caliber; scouts and advanced metrics agree he is a below-average fielder.
If Jeff Francoeur is anything, he is an exemplar of baseball's perception problem. Whether it's because he looks good in a uniform or brandishes his pearly whites around the clubhouse, Francoeur appeals to the baseball psyche of Dayton Moore. Such thinking has sunk many a GM. Of course, such thinking also has produced two of the last three World Series champions.
Throughout October, the San Francisco Giants spun the same Lazy Susan of explanations about their improbable run to another championship, and every reason had little to no quantifiability. In a game that has grown to put value on just about everything a player can do, the Giants relied on tropes that exist only in clubhouses and are often ignored for their intangibility outside: having a team of winners, and having good chemistry, and having the right culture, and having a positive feeling.
Nobody knows whether this is all psychological hokum, and if it is as much, whether it makes a difference anyway. What's evident is that the Giants aren't the only ones who buy into it. The Royals' belief that they needed a winner to lead their rotation comes from the idea that right now the players wearing their uniform don't exactly know how to win, and that by dint of his presence and example as much as his arm and its stuff, James Shields will make the Royals a better team.
Now, this idea is full of presupposition. It's saying camaraderie isn't the organic byproduct of winning but rather something formulaic – that if you stick a bunch of good people together those good people will get along. And, more than that, if these good people do happen to get along, that it will somehow translate into winning.
"Sometimes," Yost said, "it's as easy as getting one player who has been through it to guide 'em along, show 'em what it takes."
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As obtuse as this may seem to an outsider – that these professional athletes who have millions of dollars and mountains of glory and their entire livelihoods with minuscule shelf lives on the line would need to see how another person does his work to muster up the proper motivation or acumen to achieve similar success – athletes swear by it, and it is what helps attach labels to James Shields and keep Jeff Francoeur an everyday player when his production warrants that designation at Triple-A. The athlete's mind is a mystery, a nebulous place where logic runs into landmines and platitudes pass for wisdom.
Just look at the 2012 Giants. After arriving from Philadelphia in a midseason trade, another player who looks good in a uniform and can rally a clubhouse took over the Giants' right-field job. Hunter Pence was terrible during the regular season for San Francisco and even worse in the postseason. And though this may speak ill of baseball players' understanding of how their game works, every single one who will wear a ring from this season agrees wholeheartedly with this statement.
There is no way the San Francisco Giants would have won a World Series without Hunter Pence.
Much as this trade will define Dayton Moore's legacy as Royals GM, his feelings about Jeff Francoeur define his mindset. Nobody questions Moore's ability to build a farm system. What they do wonder is: If he thinks Francoeur is a winner, and being that sort of a winner is important, what does it say when he gives up the best hitter in the minors because he's searching for another winner?
The strength with which Moore backs Francoeur isn't strictly to keep his value up as the team tries to deal him (which it has); there is legitimate fondness there, for person and player, and the belief that the former greatly influences the latter is deeply embedded in the Royals' value philosophy, even as history has proved definitively there is no link. Too many baseball men fixate on the intangibles, attempting to jam a square peg into a hole with a shape that nobody can figure out.
"This team really reminds me of that transformation," Shields said, comparing his new team to the '08 Rays that upped their win total from 66 to 97 and stole the AL East crown. "The Royals are right on the brink of really becoming successful. They've done the right things to be successful. I think we developed a chemistry from '07 to '08, and I think we can do that here."
There's that chemistry again. This is not two hydrogen atoms bonding to one oxygen and sustaining humanity. It is a red herring, proven false by so many teams that have despised one another and won nonetheless. Winners in baseball are products of teammates; victories, contrary to what Yost seems to believe, are not some sort of PED.
"These two guys," he said, glancing at Shields and Davis, "have winning flowing in their veins."
Unlikely though it may be to show up in their blood test this spring, the winning – or the idea of it – captivates an old baseball man like Yost. It's everywhere in sports, really. Francoeur is to Moore as Tim Tebow is to so many football fans who mistake his team's record as something that usurps his functional ineptitude.
While Moore comes from that school, he fights it. He tries hard to understand what advanced metrics say. He solicits advice from Mike Groopman, the Royals' director of analytics, who surely told him Shields' 200-inning arm and growing strikeout rate matter far more to the Royals' success than a little gray in his sideburns or dirt on his uniform.
All the talk of winners and culture led Moore to try and explain what it meant through an anecdote. He didn't cite Shields or hope his predilection for complete games turns contagious. Actually, he brought up Greinke. At 22, he quit baseball, subsumed by an anxiety disorder. In Moore's first season, Greinke made a successful return. Three years later, he won the AL Cy Young award. He is now the highest-paid right-hander ever, the ink on his $147 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers not yet dry.
The culture, Moore said, helped Greinke's return. The media were respectful, the fans supportive, the environment nurturing. In those respects, the Royals organization does have a good culture. Employees like working for the team. Moore's underlings think he is a good, fair, honest, smart boss. Players respect Yost. That part of the culture works.
And yet there was one thing missing, one point integral to the baseball worldview of Moore, Yost and so many others like them. As great as the culture might have been to helping Greinke return, it couldn't do anything to keep him around. He requested a trade following the 2010 season.
When asked why, Zack Greinke said he was tired of losing.
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