The Royals' direction would be so much clearer if they just stunk. General manager Allard Baird would trade center fielder Carlos Beltran, the youth movement would be accelerated, and the team might be interesting by, oh, 2005.
That plan still makes the most sense, but suddenly there's a twist: The Royals might contend all season in the weak American League Central. Trading Beltran is the best way for Baird to acquire young position players to develop in unison with his young pitchers. But even tightfisted owner David Glass is excited by the team's fast start.
Rather than move Beltran, who can become a free agent after next season, the Royals might even go the other way, fortifying themselves for -- ahem -- a pennant race.
"With where our payroll is right now, we'll lose money," Glass says, referring to the Royals' opening-day figure of $40.5 million. "But I am so obsessed with winning in this market, if we remain in contention and the opportunity is there for us to help ourselves, we certainly would step up and do it."
Chances are, the Royals will turn back into the Royals and stage their anticipated dumpfest before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. But the other view is this: The Twins and White Sox aren't that good. Eighty-five wins might take the division. The Royals might as well keep Beltran because they can't get what they want for him, anyway.
"This is their window," one G.M. says. "They almost need to go for it now."
The Royals' starting pitching is too inexperienced for the team to remain in contention. Beltran's value diminishes each day he gets closer to leaving as a free agent. Heck, even if the Royals somehow win the division, what would be the point? They probably would get crushed in the playoffs, then lose third baseman Joe Randa and left fielder Raul Ibanez as free agents.
"It does no good to win this year and then dismantle it," one executive says. "Then you've just teased the fans."
To achieve lasting success, the Royals' only option is to add to their young core and stick to their original plan. "If there's one team that we're trying to mirror, it's the Minnesota Twins," Baird says. "They basically started here" -- Baird holds his hand down -- "and had everyone come up at the same time."
The problem is, the Royals began the week in first place after losing 100 games last season. They've already cut their '02 payroll by nearly $7 million, and Baird still needs to trim perhaps another $3 million. Yet, Glass wants to win. And his best player is Beltran.
One of the more amazing things about the Royals' start is that Beltran appeared in only 18 of their first 34 games because of injuries and entered the week batting only .235. Beltran, however, is a switch hitter with power and speed, entirely capable of getting hot and carrying a team for a prolonged stretch.
The A's seldom trade potential free agents, such as Miguel Tejada, and the Royals received too little in return when they dealt Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye. And the depressed baseball economy is limiting the market for Beltran. Teams no longer are willing to absorb high salaries and part with top prospects in trades.
"If we don't get value, we'll keep him and let him walk," Glass says. "He's too good of a player. We're not going to give him away."