Kansas City, Mo. — Downstairs, in the visiting manager's office at Kauffman Stadium last week, Jim Leyland was talking about conversations he had while scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals. They were talking about the jewels in the Detroit Tigers' farm system.
Upstairs, about an hour later in the press dining room, a few scouts were tossing superlatives across the table at each other. They talked about the main jewel who created the buzz about the Tigers during Leyland's scouting days. They all agreed the game they had seen right-hander Justin Verlander throw the previous night was the best they had seen all year from any pitcher.
The question "Why the Tigers?" was what inspired Leyland to talk about the buzz.
"I knew there was talent here," said Leyland, manager of the biggest surprise in baseball. "I knew that the farm system picked up. The way it's done now, a lot of major-league scouts are responsible for entire organizations, and when you hear them talk, they talk about 'I saw their Double-A club they've got this kid, they've got that kid.' You kind of listen. And you remember those things."
Leyland also had a good relationship with general manager Dave Dombrowski from their days together as World Series champions with the Florida Marlins.
Dombrowski wouldn't have come to the Tigers four and half years ago if he didn't get assurances from owner Mike Ilitch that when the time was right, Ilitch would be willing to enter and win bidding wars for top free agent talent.
All of which brings us to the Kansas City Royals, on pace for the worst season in the history of major-league baseball.
First, the buzz regarding the Royals' farm system can't compare to that Leyland heard a couple of years ago about the Tigers. It's at the opposite end of the buzz spectrum.
Scouts are excited about the prospects of third baseman Alex Gordon, the Royals' first-round draft out of Nebraska in 2005, who is tearing it up at Double-A Wichita. Outfielder Billy Butler, the Royals' top pick in 2004 out of high school, also has caught the attention of talent evaluators from other clubs. He, too, plays for Wichita.
As for pitching prospects and middle-infield prospects, the farm system is barren. The Royals have been accused at times of drafting players based as much on their signability as their ability, always a prescription for disaster.
The Royals have the first selection in this June's draft in what is considered a year without any obvious top-level prospects. Still, the top pick will demand an enormous signing bonus based on being the first player chosen, and if the Royals want to keep from slipping deeper into oblivion, they will have to sign the player they draft. Andrew Miller, a 6-foot-6 left-hander out of the University of North Carolina, is the pitcher many predict the Royals will take. Embattled Royals general manager Allard Baird recently sat in the rain and watched Miller strike out 11 Boston College hitters.
Meanwhile, as Baird continues his duties as GM, he does so in the wake of the owner, David Glass, saying that a shakeup would be made, leaving most to believe Baird would be fired. Even a 13-game losing streak, snapped with a 7-6 victory Friday night over the Yankees in the Bronx, didn't seal Baird's fate.
Why hasn't Baird been fired?
Lack of interest in the job among potential replacements, according to one industry insider, could be prolonging Baird's stay in office. According to another baseball executive, Glass wants Baird's successor to be someone who has run an organization. The same executive said the names of former general managers Ed Wade (Phillies), Chuck LaMarr (Devil Rays) and Randy Smith (Padres, Tigers) have been recommended to Glass.
Former California Angels general manager Mike Port, a former assistant GM with the Red Sox now working in the commissioner's office, has a stronger resume than any of those candidates, but has one thing in common with everyone on the planet: He wouldn't be able to make the Royals competitive with their current spending habits.
Any change in the general manager's chair will be little more than cosmetic unless the man staring back at Glass in the mirror has an epiphany and realizes bringing a rubber knife to a gun fight is no way to expect to win.
Glass needs to ask himself this question: Does anybody who wants a job that is guaranteed to damage his or her (Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng one day could become the first woman to hold the position) reputation worth hiring?
Again, use the Tigers as a comparison model to assess the Royals' chances of going from worst-to-best in three seasons as has Detroit.
Much was made of Glass spending $22 million over the winter to acquire veterans Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek, Scott Elarton, Mark Redman and Doug Mientkiewicz.
Compare that to the free agents signed by the Tigers the past couple of seasons: Magglio Ordonez (five years, $75 million), Pudge Rodriguez (4/$40 million), Kenny Rogers (2/$16 million), and Todd Jones (2/$12 million).
No comparison, and in turn, no reason for Royals fans to be encouraged by the turnaround of the Tigers.