As July came to a close, everything was going according to plan for the alt-2014 Royals. Following the all-star break, the team went on a dramatic winning streak, pulling well ahead of the AL Central. The core of the offense–Hosmer, Burrell, Holliday, and Gordon–were finally firing on all cylinders. Meanwhile, Strike-O-Matic, Carlos Martinez, Kyle Zimmer, and Bartolo Colon routinely provided quality starts and saved the shaky bullpen from overexposure. It was starting to look like the Royals wouldn’t have any problem cruising to the playoffs.
It seemed as though Strike-O-Matic and Pat Burrell didn’t have much to worry about as the trade deadline approached. But then one morning, shortly before a press conference to honor him for yet another MLB Rookie of the Week award, Strike-O-Matic injured himself by trying to iron his shirt while he was wearing it. Of course, he was a machine, so this wasn’t really a problem. He just needed to repair the damage to his artificial skin and reboot. But in the process of restarting his internal computer, Strike-O-Matic regained all of the memories he had lost during the time travel process.
After all, Strike-O-Matic had been sent back from the post-apocalyptic future of 2099 to work with Mike Trout and the Angels to save baseball. He had only recruited Pat Burrell and joined the Royals after a memory malfunction. No one assumed this was a problem, since it shouldn’t have mattered which team Strike-O-Matic helped to win, as long as it both changed history and stopped the robot masters. But when Strike-O-Matic’s internal computer rebooted, he remembered a terrible truth.
With just three days before the trading deadline, Pat Burrell had discovered a terrible truth: in the fateful timeline leading up to the terrible robot wars of 2014-prime, the Kansas City Royals had won the American League Pennant. It had been an unlikely and last-minute run to the playoffs for the Royals, but they proceeded to dominate the playoffs up until the World Series and, somehow, set the stage for the horror to come. Strike-O-Matic was unable to explain how, since he had yet to be built the first time this all happened, but the surprise success of the Royals had been instrumental in the eventual downfall of Major League Baseball, the rise of the robots, and the war that followed. It probably had something to do with all the praise heaped on Ned Yost. Or maybe rolling over to Madison Bumgarner and the Giants.
Strike-O-Matic had learned that he was supposed to lead the Angels to defeat the Royals and prevent them from reaching the World Series. This left Pat Burrell and the Royals in a terrifying position. Either he could continue down their current path and attempt to guide the Royals to the success they thought would save the world, likely dooming it in the process, or they could do something else all together. They could change direction.
That’s right. There was one simple solution to the problem. Flags fly forever, but if the robots wipe out the human race there will be no one left to see them high above Kauffman Stadium. Pat Burrell and the Royals had to make sure that the team didn’t win the AL. On paper, this was a simple task. Losing games was way easier than winning them. Putting together a team of bad players and blowing the season should have been simple enough, but there were two problems facing the Royals.
First, the Royals had a 62-42 record on the day Pat Burrell learned that the Royals needed to actually lose, rather than win. The 2014-prime Royals finished the season with a 89-73 record. To end up with a worse record, Burrell’s Royals would have to go 26-32 for the rest of the season. To make matters worse, there didn’t appear to be any team in the AL Central able to threaten the Royals for the division crown. An 88-74 team might still take the division. In 2014-prime, the Royals snuck into the playoffs as a wildcard squad, but they already had a 8.5 game lead. Squandering such a lead and completely missing the playoffs would require an epic collapse. That wasn’t impossible by any means, but the alt-2014 Royals assembled by Burrell was an awfully talented squad.
Second, losing wasn’t just a simple matter of filling the roster with terrible players. Burrell didn’t want to trade away all the talent and cripple the squad for years to come. He’d come to appreciate the fans, his teammates, and besides he signed a two year contract as a player. Not to mention, he couldn’t make it too obvious that he was tanking the season. If he was caught intentionally losing, he could be banned forever from baseball. And there was nothing more important to him than picking up chicks at the stadium, even during retirement.
Perhaps he was making a deal with the devil, but Pat Burrell didn’t have a choice. The future of mankind was at stake. Only Jeff Luhnow could teach him how to lose the right way and still receive positive media coverage. The Astros organization had made something of an art out of failing in almost all respects while still maintaining a respectable veneer among the press. Following in their lead for a couple months, as much as it would make Burrell sick to his stomach, would solve his dilemma.
Unfortunately, this was 2014 and most of the revolutionary stats bloggers had already been hired by one of the several smart organizations throughout baseball. It seemed as soon as anyone popped up with a novel method of calculating value, especially on the side of fielding and pitching, they were snatched up and their methods turned into proprietary metrics for one team or another. Burrell had to scour the field (the internet) for someone who possessed the name recognition and who was still available. Except he only had a couple days until the trade deadline, so he didn’t really have time to do much scouring.
With these requirements in mind, Burrell settled on recruiting Dave Cameron, managing editor of Fangraphs.com, to head up a newly-minted “advanced metrics” division in the Kansas City front office. Cameron was well-known enough among the baseball media that few people would be able to guess that he was being hired as part of an effort to lose more games. And, perhaps more importantly, he would actually give the well-intentioned bad advice that the Royals needed.
Alcides Escobar was correct: recruiting Dave Cameron should have been a simple task. As a proponent of both UZR and pitch framing, Cameron was undoubtedly a fan of the alt-2014 Royals and would relish a chance to offer his suggestions on how to fix the team. So Pat Burrell drafted an engagement letter and had the legal department forward it along to Cameron. Unfortunately, just like how the sabermetrics department had been staffed solely by Alcides Escobar until now, the legal department was assigned to the simple giant, Eric Hosmer.
Hosmer did his job as best he could and found an address for Dave Cameron. He managed to get the offer out via e-mail by the end of the day. Really, it was a far better effort than anyone should have expected from him. But, of course, something went wrong.
Indeed, the Kansas City Royals had accidentally engaged the services of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, rather than the founder of the Seattle baseball blog USS Mariner. Dissatisfied with merely dismantling the welfare state in the British Isles, the wrong David Cameron thought it might be fun to apply his theories of austerity to a sports team.
There wasn’t any time to go out and recruit the proper Dave Cameron or pick out another sabermetrics blogger, so Pat Burrell decided he might as well give the U.K. Prime Minister a shot. The price for Jeff Luhnow’s help was some sort of trade that would send Alcides Escobar to the Astros. This left the Royals without a shortstop and if Burrell wanted the team to maintain an air of respectability, they couldn’t just start Nick Punto there.
So Burrell gave David Cameron a simple quiz: if the Royals needed to get a new shortstop, who should they go out and trade for? Not a simple question.
Of course, the problem was that Brad Miller wasn’t on the trading block. Sure, that didn’t preclude the Royals from acquiring him. But it would make it harder. Of course, it the process of acquiring Carlos Martinez Pat Burrell had learned that merely adding a player from the trading block would make putting together a trade easier. But who else from the Seattle Mariners should the Royals acquire?
Everything David Cameron was suggesting was a terrible idea but that was the point, wasn’t it? Acquiring Brad Miller and Jesus Montero wouldn’t make the team any better, but it was the sort of thing that would make them look smart and innovative in the short term–and thanks to the weirdness of the trading block, not too difficult to acquire. Swallowing his pride, Burrell put together a deal.
Meanwhile, the Royals were not the only ones making deals. Several other squads made some incredibly headscratching trades as the last few days leading up to the deadline stretched on.
The Royals, of course, weren’t done. There was still the matter of the debt to Houston Astro’s GM Jeff Luhnow, who only agreed to advise Pat Burrell how to respectably lose in exchange for Alcides Escobar. The trade still had to look relatively fair, though, so once again Burrell relied upon the expertise (or lack thereof) of new hire David Cameron.
All of this was well and good, but Pat Burrell couldn’t help but shake the feeling that he’d failed to make the team measurably worse. Granted, Brad Miller was Brad Miller. And he’d committed to trying to turn Jesus Montero back into a catcher even though Sal Perez was on the roster, which had to have terrible results. But there really hadn’t been a major subtraction of talent.
Miguel Sano was an excellent prospect, especially in alt-2014 where he was still healthy. But there were questions about his defense, and especially his contacts skills. He was striking out at a historic rate in the minor leagues, which even comps like Adam Dunn didn’t do. This was the sort of trade that would have looked excellent for a team at back end of a division, completely unable to make the playoffs. But for a squad leading its division?
As expected, a number of sabermetrics blogs took the move as a stroke of genius. Trading your closer at the time his value was highest–in the middle of a winning season? It was a daring move, so counter to “conventional wisdom” that plenty of people got onboard the hype train, especially those that didn’t realize that the David Cameron employed by the Royals was, in fact, the UK Prime Minister.
And maybe the trade would have been good, except for one thing. David Cameron wasn’t done with Miguel Sano, whose ability to hit even AA pitching was in question.
All of these trades ended up with a hole in the bullpen, specifically at closer. Once again, Burrell acted to seem unconventional and cutting-edge…or at least unpredictable enough to fake being unconventional and cutting edge. Bartolo Colon was installed as closer and Jason Vargas moved to the rotation. Burrell looked to the minors to find someone to replace the long reliever. He wanted to pick someone who would lose games, but could conceivably be a reasonable promotion. Fortunately, this fellow was there:
And so the game was afoot. No longer looking to win, and rather looking to prevent the World Series appearance that would somehow lead to the end of the world at the hands of the robots, the Royals set out on a new mission: fail to make the playoffs after opening up a huge lead in the AL Central. Their lineup and rotation looked something like this: