Buster Olney: Kansas City Royals

Matt MooreAP Photo/Orlin WagnerRays starter Matt Moore left Monday's game early with elbow soreness.
The Rays aren’t sure whether starter Matt Moore will need surgery, as Marc Topkin writes. But given what we saw the other night, with Moore recoiling from a pitch the way that Braves starter Kris Medlen did in March, it would surprise no one if it turns out he faces Tommy John surgery, and an uncertain future.

Looking back, it’s a good thing Moore signed that $14 million deal back in 2011.

Many of baseball’s best young players have been taking deals that buy out their first or second years of free agency, with an option year or two attached. Chris Archer did this recently, locking himself into a six-year deal that could become an eight-year deal and guarantees him $25.5 million. So did the Pirates' Starling Marte, who signed a six-year, $31 million deal.

This has spurred a lot of debate within the industry if the players are conceding too much, if they are leaving money on the table.

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Ervin SantanaAP Photo/Ben MargotThere really isn't a logical fit for free agent Ervin Santana at this point.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Ervin Santana fired agent Bean Stringfellow, according to Dionisio Soldevila of ESPNDeportes, and he will represent himself. It's hard to know exactly what will come out of this at this stage in the winter, with so many teams essentially operating with a closed budget.

There were teams interested in Santana in a moderate-sized contract early in the offseason -- something in the Ubaldo Jimenez salary range, three years at $35-plus million or four years at roughly $50 million -- but at that time, the asking price for Santana was over $100 million.

The Kansas City Royals, who had approached Santana about an extension in September, loved him last season, but it's unclear whether they have enough dollars to woo him back.

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Ubaldo JimenezBrace Hemmelgarn/Getty ImagesIt's looking more likely that Ubaldo Jimenez's best offer will come from the Indians.
Masahiro Tanaka has reportedly agreed to a record-setting deal with the New York Yankees, and the expectation will be, in some circles, that the winter freeze will finally end and the phones will start to ring for Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and others.

But what if this isn't the case? What if the bidding on Tanaka is almost completely isolated from the rest of the pitching market, as some team officials strongly suspect?

"I'm not in the camp that thinks [Tanaka] is related to the others," said one evaluator. Rather, he said, what will generally happen is that it will come out that "most of these guys were asking for too many years, and too much money."

The Los Angeles Dodgers, who wanted Tanaka, have a spot to fill in their rotation, but they might well pass on Garza, Santana and Jimenez.

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Top 10 teams in the majors 

December, 31, 2013
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Miguel CabreraMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWith Miguel Cabrera no longer out of position, the Tigers should be even better in 2014.
As 2013 becomes 2014, here's a look at the top 10 teams in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League -- by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors. The Tigers won the AL Central for the third straight year, and again they couldn't win the World Series, losing to Boston in the ALCS. And since the end of the season, Detroit GM David Dombrowski has gone about the business of plugging the holes.

He allowed Jhonny Peralta to depart, cementing Jose Iglesias' spot at shortstop.

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Top 10 defenses in the majors 

December, 29, 2013
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Manny MachadoMitchell Layton/Getty ImagesBaltimore's Manny Machado earned the American League Platinum Glove Award last season.
There probably has been more focus on evaluating and maximizing defensive efficiency than any other part of baseball in the last five years. If we're looking for explanations about why offensive production has been declining, increased defensive production might be responsible.

In Part IV of our series, we look at the top 10 defenses in Major League Baseball.

1. Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles posted pictures of their Gold Glove winners in their spring training facility, and with good reason: Buck Showalter’s club has continued the organizational tradition -- fostered by the likes of Paul Blair, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken Jr. and others -- of strong defense. The best of the group is third baseman Manny Machado (“The best at his position, and it’s not close,” said one evaluator), although we don’t know what condition he'll be in during his first months back on the field since having knee surgery.

They have Gold Glove defenders at shortstop (J.J. Hardy), center field (Adam Jones) and at catcher (Matt Wieters). Right fielder Nick Markakis and first baseman Chris Davis are solid defenders, and newcomer David Lough posted one of the best UZR/150 ratings among outfielders with at least 650 innings last season.

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10 biggest holes on contenders 

November, 13, 2013
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A year ago, Marlon Byrd was coming off a season in which he had been suspended for the use of performance-enhancing drugs and was limited to just 47 games, and he eventually settled for a make-good minor league deal with the New York Mets.

Now he's 36 years old and getting a $16 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, which speaks to the level of desperation in play for teams wanting to get better, needing to get better.

As baseball executives meet in Orlando this week for the GM meetings, these are the 10 biggest holes that have to be filled among would-be contenders:

1. Texas Rangers: middle-of-the-order bats

Josh Hamilton walked away a year ago, Nelson Cruz is prepared to walk away now, and the Rangers -- who have historically posted top-notch, productive lineups in the way Duke has had good basketball teams -- have a problem. With Cruz, they clubbed 176 homers last season, and without him, they will lack thump.

This is why Brian McCann could make sense for them, or Carlos Beltran, or both. This is why they could be the best match for the Dodgers for an outfielder trade. This is why rival executives believe that if and when Giancarlo Stanton is traded, the Rangers will be at the front of the line and sticking their elbows out.

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Mets' struggles creating value 

September, 28, 2013
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Sandy AldersonRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Mets' disappointing season has likely earned Sandy Alderson's club a protected draft pick.
The New York Mets’ loss Friday was the 87th of their season. And it was a really important loss.

With that defeat, the Mets moved back into position to have the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft -- and if this holds over the last two days of the regular season against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Mets’ first-round pick would be among those 10 that are protected against draft-pick compensation.

This past winter, the Mets’ pick was not protected, which affected their aggressiveness in trying to sign Michael Bourn and others. If they finish the year lined up for the No. 10 pick (or better), it could nudge them into pursuit of one of the better free-agent position players who will be available this winter. If they signed a Shin-Soo Choo or a Jacoby Ellsbury, the Mets would have to surrender only a second-round pick in compensation.

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Gold Glove winners, by the numbers 

September, 13, 2013
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Manny Machadooy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsHis bat has been the revelation. Everyone knew Manny Machado's glove would be good.
This is about the time of year when Gold Glove ballots are dispensed to coaches and managers, and based on my own experience in collecting the votes in past years, I’d say there are two different types of voting styles.

1. Some voters are devoted to turning in the best ballot possible, and will give lots of time and lots of thought to the process before picking their winners.
2. Some voters just want to get it over with and will pick out the first decent name that pops into their heads.

So, in other words, the Gold Glove voters are like the rest of the electorate in this fine democratic society.

Every week, I get an email from Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information noting the results of a conference call specifically held to talk about defensive metrics. He’s all over this kind of stuff, so I asked him to give me a pure statistical evaluation of who he thinks should be the Gold Glovers at each position, in each league.

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Mike Trout is ending the debate 

September, 10, 2013
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Mike Trout AP Photo/Alex GallardoMike Trout was loved by front-office types last year. But this year, the players also see it.
Before the season, Mike Trout talked about wanting to be more patient at the plate, about drawing more walks, because in his first full season in the big leagues he had shown some impatience and, naturally, he wanted to get better.

Well, a year later, Trout has increased his walk total -- by about 50 percent. He is on pace to draw 102 walks this season, as well as 203 hits, 78 extra-base hits, 110 runs, 95 RBIs and 36 stolen bases.

A longtime player was asked last week about the MVP vote in the American League. “Trout’s going to win it, isn’t he?” he responded. “There isn’t really any question about it -- he’s the best player in baseball.”

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Why MLB must ban plate collisions 

September, 7, 2013
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Prince FielderAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezA hard collision at home plate caused Giants catcher Buster Posey to miss much of 2011.
A talent evaluator who works in baseball imagined the future testimony aimed at a team -- or all of Major League Baseball -- in a lawsuit filed by a catcher seriously injured while blocking home plate.

"'I was told in spring training by my catching instructor that this is something I need to do,'" the evaluator said, imitating the words that any catcher could say. "'I didn't block home one day and he called me a -----, and he said that blocking home plate is something that every catcher is expected to do.'"

The evaluator jumped into another role, imagining himself as the catcher's lawyer: "'What happened next?'"

Evaluator as catcher: "'I blocked home plate, as I was instructed to do, and now I can't walk.'"

This testimony could be especially effective, the evaluator noted, if it comes from someone sitting in a wheelchair, and if you think that can't happen, maybe you should watch this video of the hit that Harrisburg catcher Brian Jeroloman took in a Double-A playoff game the other night, when he was run over by Erie's Brandon Douglas.

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An early preview of MLB free agency 

September, 1, 2013
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Ervin SantanaJamie Squire/Getty ImagesErvin Santana has pitched well for the Kansas City Royals this season.

WASHINGTON -- A lot of players will wait a decade for their shot at free agency, after being drafted and signing as an amateur, and then playing some years in the minors before accruing the six years of service time that makes them eligible to test the open market. Along the way, some have worked through injuries, had failures along with the successes and have seen their service time manipulated by teams looking to maximize their investment.

Reaching free agency, then, is a big deal, a right that the players like Curt Flood fought for. Some players never get to free agency because they’re not good enough or because they choose to sign as a very young player, and some, like Albert Pujols, get there only once.

For a lot of those players set to become free agents in another two months, the hope of spring training has been washed away. For others, the hope has been realized.

Here are 10 would-be free agents who have helped themselves so far in 2013:

1. Ervin Santana, P, Royals
At the time that Kansas City traded for him last fall, there was a lot of surprise within the industry that the Royals had been so aggressive, given Santana’s diminished velocity and brutal 2012 performance for the Angels. But Santana bounced back in a big way, lowering his ERA by almost two full runs. Now he’s 30 years old and is in position to get paid.


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Where Robinson Cano could go 

August, 25, 2013
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CanoAP Photo/Gail BurtonYankees second baseman Robinson Cano's 4.8 WAR is among the best in baseball.
LOS ANGELES -- If the Yankees don't make the playoffs, then as of this morning, there are 33 games left in the career of Mariano Rivera.

But everybody saw that coming. There may also be only 33 games remaining in Robinson Cano's tenure with the Yankees if he leaves as a free agent when the season is over. He is their best player and they need him, and yet in recent years, teams have held the line with their own superstars -- for instance, the Cardinals with Albert Pujols and the Rangers with Josh Hamilton -- and those choices have been quickly vindicated.

The Yankees have their own experience in deciding whether to invest in a long-term star (Alex Rodriguez), and that hasn't turned out so well.

Cano is represented by Jay-Z and CAA, and the expectation among executives is that they will be looking to plant a flag with their contract -- something in the A-Rod/Pujols neighborhood.

But a big question that has come up among some rival officials is this: What teams will compete against the Yankees to sign him to create that leverage?

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The art of killing time 

August, 18, 2013
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Chris StewartESPN IllustrationYankees catcher Chris Stewart takes the reader through a day in his shoes.
The typical baseball game consists of only about 14 minutes of live action throughout a roughly three-hour, first- to last-pitch competition. Players usually arrive at the clubhouse for a standard 7 p.m. game between 1 and 2 p.m. This five- to six-hour gap contains baseball rituals such as warm-ups, workouts, batting cage work, stretching, batting practice and final game preparation.

All of these rituals take a little more than three hours for most, so it makes one wonder: What goes on during the other two to three hours?

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Winter ball worries; top 10 moves

August, 9, 2013
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Puerto RicoAP Photo/Brennan LinsleyWinter ball has long been a place for vets to prove they still have it, or for players injured during the year to get valuable reps.
Every winter, teams encourage players to go to winter ball to learn, to play, and the vast majority of those who join a team in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or Mexico or Puerto Rico talk about how much they glean from the experience.

The What-Have-You-Done-For-Me-Lately Factor is not higher anywhere than it is in winter ball, because the teams do not care if you’re a former first-round pick or a veteran of 10 years in the majors. If you don’t produce, you’re going to lose your job during the short and intense season.

Winter ball veterans who grew up in the U.S. or Canada talk about the benefit of being out of your comfort zone, and being forced to adapt to a new culture, as Latin American players do when they first sign with teams in Major League Baseball. But this year, it’s not a sure thing that MLB will allow players under its umbrella to participate in winter ball.

Here’s the issue: The Caribbean Federation is welcoming Cuba back into its championship series for the first time since 1960, as first reported back in June. This is a problem for Major League Baseball, which, like all businesses, is under pressure from the federal government here to not fuel a revenue stream into Cuba.

Under U.S. law, MLB is restricted from entering into any agreement with a league that includes Cuban membership without proper authorization. MLB and the Caribbean Confederation had a meeting about this Wednesday in an effort to reach a new agreement, according to a source with knowledge of the talks. The discussions will continue.

Notables

• The Orioles are said to be the most aggressive in placing waiver claims, which makes sense, given their current position in the standings, with the sixth-best record in the American League. The Orioles trail in the wild-card race by 1 1/2 games, and therefore can control access that any of the teams above them have to players on waivers.

Bryce Harper would have liked to have seen a little retaliation after he got drilled the other day.

He was on Comcast and said this:

“I think if I’m the pitcher on my team, I think I’m gonna drill somebody,” he said of the lack of retribution on Tuesday. “It’s something that’s part of the game, you know, yesterday, and it’s also something that I think could light a fire for us. But, like I said, we’re 14 1/2 games back and we don’t need anybody getting ejected or doing anything like that. We got a great team and we gotta push to the end.”


• There was a moment in Max Scherzer’s start Thursday in which he seemed to lose the strike zone, for just a moment. So he circled behind the mound and took a deep breath and gathered himself, something he didn’t always do in past years, when sometimes he couldn’t stop an inning from snowballing.

Then Scherzer climbed back up the hill and applied the last bit of wrecking ball to what remained of the Indians. When the series began, it had been possible for the Tigers to be overtaken in the standings, and instead, Detroit buried Cleveland, seven games deep, and the Indians finished the series with Ryan Raburn on the mound.

From ESPN Stats & Information: Scherzer became the first pitcher in Tigers history to be 17-1 after the first 18 decisions and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the fifth pitcher in MLB history with at least 17 wins in his first 18 decisions of a season. He joins Rube Marquard (1912), Roger Clemens (2001), Roy Face (1959) and Don Newcombe (1955). Marquard had 18 wins, the others 17.

Entering Thursday, Scherzer ranked fifth in MLB with 78 strikeouts using his fastball. On Thursday hitters were 1-for-14 against that pitch, but he didn't record a single strikeout with the fastball and his Miss Percentage (3.7) was his the third-lowest since 2009. So how did he have so much success with his go-to pitch? Scherzer used his defense -- his In-Play Percentage of 51.9 was his highest since Aug. 2, 2011. His defense responded by not making an error while he was on the mound and the only hit he gave up via the fastball was a bases-empty, two-out single in the sixth to Jason Kipnis on a tough pitch down and away.

• The Indians will hang in there, Terry Francona said after the game. They’ve been awful against the Tigers and really good against the rest of baseball.

The news wasn’t all good for the Tigers: Alex Avila returned to Detroit for concussion tests.

• Meanwhile: The Royals won again, and now are just 1 1/2 games behind the Indians and 4 1/2 games out of the wild card.

• Mark Melancon’s cut fastball has become a significant weapon, with a late, hard downward break, down and in to left-handed batters -- with so much movement that hitters are mostly flailing at pitches out of the strike zone. Melancon is throwing the pitch about 60 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs, more than double his use of the pitch in 2012.

Like Mariano Rivera, Melancon can run his cutter in on the hands of left-handed hitters, as he does on this pitch. Left-handed batters have posted a .344 OPS against him this season, with two extra-base hits in 94 plate appearances.

• The Dodgers: You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

Best moves
[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsThe addition of Ervin Santana has been a coup for the Royals.

Jerry Crasnick has a piece that will post later today about the best moves of the offseason. Here’s my Top 10:

1. The Royals’ deal for Ervin Santana. At the time, some teams passed on Santana because they thought he was in irretrievable regression, but he has given K.C. exactly what they had hoped to buy.

2. The Atlanta blockbuster for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson. Not only did they get the middle-of-the-order slugger they wanted in Upton, but Johnson is leading the league in hitting.

3. The Orioles re-signed Nate McLouth for $2 million. McLouth made this deal happen in the 24th hour.

4. The Indians’ signing of Scott Kazmir, who rediscovered his velocity and hard slider.

5. The Rays’ low-budget signing of James Loney. They always manage to find one or two gems every year.

6. The Pirates’ signing of Francisco Liriano.

7. The Cubs’ signing of Nate Schierholtz.

8. The Tigers’ signing of Matt Tuiasosopo.

9. Shawn Kelley for the Yankees. They made a minor deal for him, and he has been excellent.

10. Cleveland’s acquisition of Yan Gomes. They got him, along with Mike Aviles, as part of a deal for Esmil Rogers, and he has been a real plus for them.

A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez returns to Yankee Stadium tonight. He says he’s looking forward to it.

According to Chris Matcovich of TiqIQ.com, the secondary ticket market for this game has erupted. He notes: On July 31, the average price for Friday’s game was $80.14. It has increased 39.94 percent since then to $112.15. Quantity is down 46.78 percent from Monday to about 5,000 tickets available.

The current get-in price is $49 (up 104.17 percent from Monday afternoon, when it was $24). The next-highest get-in price during the weekend series is Saturday, at $26.

It’s probably not a good thing for a ballplayer when the New York Times is doing favorable/unfavorable polls on you -- and the results for A-Rod are not favorable.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Mark Reynolds just stopped hitting, and he was cut by the Indians. Reynolds is owed about $1.7 million by the Indians for the rest of the season, so it’s hard to imagine that he would be claimed on waivers.

2. The Rangers did not come close to making a deal for Alex Rios before the trade deadline, so it’s hard to imagine they could get something done now. The bottom line is this: Other teams see Rios as somewhat overpriced at $12.5 million and weren’t willing to give up much in a trade for him, and the White Sox have been looking for solid return. Before the deadline, writes T.R. Sullivan, the White Sox wanted a package of three players for Rios -- so it’s hard to imagine they’d just give him away now.

3. Mike Rizzo must soon decide who to pick as a replacement for Davey Johnson, writes Amanda Comak, and she mentions that Washington could target Bo Porter, who is currently the manager of the Astros. Some of Rizzo’s friends in the game believe he will pick Matt Williams.

4. Ruben Amaro is taking a huge chance in re-signing Chase Utley, writes Bob Brookover.

Two things: First, these are decisions that are made at the highest level of the organization, so whenever we talk about the Phillies’ choices, everything -- the good and the bad -- shouldn’t be dropped at Amaro’s feet alone. And second, the part that I don’t get is essentially reinvesting in a team product that has been steadily regressing for two years. As the old saying goes: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Utley could earn $75 million.

5. The Athletics claimed Adam Rosales, as Susan Slusser writes.

6. Oakland is injecting Sonny Gray into its rotation.

Dings and dents

1. Omar Infante could be back soon.

2. The Cubs lost a reliever for the rest of the season.

3. Rickie Weeks landed on the disabled list. He is under contract for $11 million in 2014, with an option for $11.5 million in 2015.

4. Tim Wood’s comeback is officially over.

5. Andrew McCutchen is dealing with some shoulder discomfort.

6. Chris Archer expects to make his next start.

7. An Astros rookie is set to return.

Thursday’s games

1. The Cardinals are not faring well in a series of games that is testing them, writes Derrick Goold.

2. Jeff Samardzija was hit around.

3. For the third straight day, the Pirates came back to win.

4. Dillon Gee closed out a sweep.

5. Tim Lincecum had a great outing.

AL East

Dylan Bundy says he feels fine and is right where he wants to be.

Manny Machado continues to grow as a player.

Jacoby Ellsbury is back to pulling the ball with authority, writes Brian MacPherson.

• Mike Rutsey asks: What should the Blue Jays do with Adam Lind?

AL Central

• The Twins want to maximize their spots in the Arizona Fall League.

AL West

Mike Trout is unlikely to be part of the MVP debate given the Angels’ struggles, writes Alden Gonzalez. I’d respectfully disagree and here’s why: Miguel Cabrera has been dealing with some nagging injuries and if Detroit maintains its sizable lead in the AL Central, he might get more days off than he usually does, giving Trout an opportunity to build a significant statistical advantage.

I believe this, too: If Cabrera hadn’t won the Triple Crown last year -- if he had led the AL in hitting and RBIs but not in home runs -- I think Trout would have won the MVP. But once Cabrera became the first player in 45 years to get a Triple Crown, voters looked past Trout’s overall statistical advantage.

The same split of opinion among baseball people remains in place, I think -- the folks in uniform think Cabrera is one of the greatest players of all time, while a lot of front-office types believe Trout is the better player, and not by a small margin.

Brad Miller continues to learn, writes Ryan Divish.

• Without Nelson Cruz, the Rangers are a pitching team now, writes Gerry Fraley.

NL East

Matt Harvey says his knee is fine.

Jose Fernandez was really good, but the rest of the Marlins, not so much, as Andre Fernandez writes.

• The Braves are putting it all together, writes Mark Bowman.

NL Central

• Mike Matheny’s policy doesn’t make sense, writes Bernie Miklasz.

Jonathan Broxton is excited to be back with the Reds.

NL West

Randall Delgado is on a learning curve, as Nick Piecoro writes.

• The Rockies are broken, writes Mark Kiszla.

• A Padres reliever is having a breakout season.

Carl Crawford looks back on his days with the Rays with some fondness, writes Marc Topkin.

Other stuff

• The Twins’ CEO is noncommittal about the future of manager Ron Gardenhire.

• Some Blue Jays put the Latin drug connection into context, as Richard Griffin writes.

• It has not been a good summer for Vanderbilt basketball.

And today will be better than yesterday.

The great white-flag debate 

July, 25, 2013
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Ervin SantanaJim Rogash/Getty ImagesShould the Royals sell Ervin Santana and store more assets, or hope he'll keep them in contention?
Before the trade deadline in 1996, then-Orioles general manager Pat Gillick assessed his team and decided to blow it up. He arranged trades of Bobby Bonilla and David Wells, believing that Baltimore’s organization needed an injection of prospects for its depleted farm system.

When you looked at that through the prism of the standings, it made complete sense: On July 28, 1996, the Orioles were 12 games out of first place.

But Baltimore owner Peter Angelos had a completely different perspective -- as someone who was focused on selling tickets, selling hope. And he thought it was a bad idea to raise the white flag on the season with more than two months to play because of what that said to paying customers.

That the Orioles surged back and advanced all the way to the American League Championship Series didn’t necessarily mean that Angelos was right and Gillick was wrong, because there have been plenty of examples of owners stepping in and killing deals for the same reason only to see their team fall out of the race.

But that example should underscore the reality that Major League Baseball teams aren’t run like Strat-O-Matic teams: They are businesses. Sure, the chances of the Kansas City Royals and the Philadelphia Phillies, who are both eight games out of first place, look really bad, and the same goes for the Seattle Mariners, 11 games out in the AL West.

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