Major League Baseball teams have spent more than $2 billion on free agents this winter, according to MLBTradeRumors.com. The defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals account for more than $175 million of that, with deals for Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Joakim Soria and Chris Young.
But as we assess the offseason winners and losers — biased, of course, toward teams that wrote the largest checks — it’s important to remember that the Royals became a paragon in the industry because of bonds built in the minor leagues, rather than the superstars they signed.
Lineup cornerstones Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez first played together in 2008, with the Idaho Falls Chukars of the rookie-level Pioneer League. Three years later, Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain opened the season in the same Triple-A lineup at Omaha, Neb.
In 2013, the Royals finished with a winning record for the first time in a decade. Among the seven players who appeared in at least 100 games that season, six — Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, Perez, Alcides Escobar and Alex Gordon — started Game 5 of the World Series at Citi Field last Nov. 1.
That night, the Royals came from behind to win for the eighth time in the 2015 postseason. That tied a major-league record, according to research by STATS LLC.
You might describe the Royals’ character as "intangible." But the opposition knows it is there. I was reminded of that this week when, after the Detroit Tigers signed Justin Upton, I asked Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos where his team stands in relation to the Royals.
"We can definitely play with anybody — our talent level speaks for itself," Castellanos told me, during an interview on MLB Network Radio. "What the Royals do so good, is they’re very good at coming together. They know how to win. They don’t give up. If they’re down, if they’re up — it doesn’t matter. Everybody goes about their business great. Everybody knows their role.
"To be honest, they all love each other. That’s a huge deal. They have great clubhouse camaraderie. They go out together. They have a good time together. I know this because I went to high school with Eric Hosmer. He talks about the friendships they have in the clubhouse. When you have those good friendships, it’s a lot of fun to play together."
I asked Castellanos whether it’s possible for a team like the Tigers — with an older core, consisting of many players who didn’t come through the minors together — to emulate what the Royals have.
"I think it can definitely form," Castellanos said. "It’s one of those things that has to happen naturally with the personalities you have in the clubhouse. You can’t force team chemistry. You really can’t force friendships.
"We have pretty good team chemistry, too. But the Royals, I guess, have a deeper connection because that whole nucleus came up together and played together. They stayed up together. They learned how to win together. They went through all the ups and downs, and it shows in how well they play the game now."
Again: MLB clubs have spent more than $2 billion this winter. That is great for players, managers and optimistic fans across North America. But it is impossible to buy what the Royals have.