Baird has options ... and holes to fill

Well, better late than never.

After losing in Oakland on May 23, the Kansas City Royals stood 13-28, and 11 games behind the first-place Chicago White Sox. The Royals, as an organization, right then should have started thinking about 2005 (and beyond), because teams with that record and that distance between themselves and first place simply don't win anything.

But this team opened the season with big hopes, and it's hard to give those up before Memorial Day. Royals general manager Allard Baird said he wanted to give his team a chance to get back in the race, and after May 23 the Royals did win six of their next 10 games. No, they weren't back in the race, but at least they were finally showing signs of life. But then came four losses in five games, including an embarrassing doubleheader sweep Thursday at the hands of the woeful Expos. In Kansas City.

That was a wake-up call that Baird couldn't sleep through, so now the bazaar is open for business.

Yes, Carlos Beltran is available. But he's not the only one. There's simply no reason to keep veterans making any money at all, which means that Beltran's on the block, and also Juan Gonzalez ($4 million salary this season), Joe Randa ($3.25 million), Benito Santiago ($2.15 million), and Matt Stairs (a bargain at $1 million). Shoot, Mike Sweeney's probably available, too.

The problem with Sweeney -- and most of the other guys, for that matter -- is that while the Royals don't want them, it's not clear that anybody would, either. Sweeney's got a long-term deal that pays him $12.5 million per season if he's traded, and his recent performance simply doesn't justify spending that kind of money. Gonzalez hasn't been particularly healthy, and when healthy he hasn't played particularly well. Randa and Santiago have looked old this season. And Stairs ... well, of course he can hit. But he's nobody's idea of a defensive stalwart, and lefty-hitting first basemen aren't all that hard to find.

Which leaves Beltran, and a lot of teams could use somebody just like him. And if somebody really, really wants Beltran, maybe they'll have to take Randa or Gonzalez in the deal, too. For the Royals, the nice thing is that they don't really have to worry about filling a particular hole. With the exception of shortstop and first base, they're soft everywhere. Looking ahead to 2005 and 2006, the Royals need a second baseman, a third baseman, two or three outfielders, and three or four starting pitchers. Oh, and did I mention the farm system is practically destitute?

When the 2004 season opened, the Royals had a wonderful opportunity: to win their first division title in nearly 20 years.

That didn't work out so well. But now they've got another opportunity. And what Baird does with this opportunity will tell us a lot about the long-term fortunes of the franchise.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.