Royals put their money on Meche

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Gil Meche's house in his native Lafayette, La., lies directly between the paths of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, so he was able to avoid the storm-related devastation that shattered the lives of so many Pelican State residents. Meteorologically speaking, he is a blessed individual.

If there were any further doubts about Meche's good fortune, they were dispelled in December when the Kansas City Royals rewarded him for six seasons of major league mediocrity with a five-year, $55 million contract.

There's no getting around it: The signing received worse reviews than Eddie Murphy's performance in "Norbit.'' Media critics either characterized Meche as a payroll bandit-in-waiting or torched Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore for spending so extravagantly on a starter with a 55-44 career record and a 4.65 ERA in a pitcher-friendly ballpark.

The most cutting (and humorous) assessment came from Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman, who observed that "Gil Meche" may be French for "money thrown down a toilet.''

Moore was so busy assembling his 2007 roster and doing meet-and-greets on the Royals' winter caravan, he was almost oblivious to the scorn that the deal generated outside Missouri. On a national level, Moore did the near-impossible by taking Angels GM Bill Stoneman off the hook for giving $50 million to Gary Matthews Jr.

Conversely, Royals fans were giddy that their team finally landed a player who was more than a free-agent afterthought or complementary part. When you've suffered through four 100-loss seasons in five years and the sight of George Brett dispensing tips at the batting cage is the annual highlight of spring training, you're thankful for small favors.

"I went to 30 functions, and everyone except for one fan in Johnson County was supportive,'' Moore said. "I had grown men come up to me with tears in their eyes, saying it was so exciting to watch 'SportsCenter' and see the Royals actually being talked about.''

As syrupy as that sounds, it's worth noting that two Kansas City fans approached Moore while he trolled the grounds at the team's Cactus League site and offered upbeat assessments and congratulations on the Meche signing.

"Thanks for bringing back the pride,'' one fan told Moore.

The focus of all this attention is a 6-3, 220-pound enigma. From the moment the Mariners selected him with the 22nd overall pick in the 1996 draft, Meche aspired to be a right-handed version of his boyhood favorite, Ron Guidry. But he's been more Cajun Conundrum than Louisiana Lightning.

Meche overcame two shoulder surgeries at age 23, and spent six years in Seattle interspersing tantalizing glimpses with aggravating setbacks. Things don't get much better than 2003, when Meche threw 15 2/3 innings of one-run ball in two starts at Yankee Stadium to register wins over Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

But Meche also walks too many hitters, fades badly his second and third time through the batting order and is capable of disappearing for extended stretches. As the always compelling analysts at the USS Mariner blog concluded, Meche is less staff ace than a competent back-end starter capable of extended runs of nice pitching.

Meche rarely logs on to a computer, so the Internet flogging barely fazed him. But his father and two sisters kept him informed over the winter, and more often than not, he had to calm them down rather than the other way around. He understands why people have questions about the Royals' staggering investment in him.

"I agree with everybody that I haven't quite achieved and put up the numbers that I'm capable of,'' Meche said. "That's why a lot of the opinions people had weren't shocking to me by any means.

"It really doesn't bother me. Media is media. If everybody wrote boring stories, not many people would read the newspapers and a lot of people wouldn't have jobs.''

Still, it's a misconception that Meche took the easy route by picking Kansas City over potential contenders in Toronto and Chicago. The Blue Jays and Cubs offered him four-year deals for $10 million plus annually, and Meche could have blended into the scenery behind Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett in Toronto and Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly in Chicago.

By signing with Kansas City, Meche made himself an instant target for attention and ridicule. He will spend the spring answering questions about his contract, then pitch the season opener against Boston in Kansas City. Once the Royals hit the road, attentive hecklers will no doubt take note that Meche's uniform number, 55, matches the total payout of his contract.

Meche's ability to take a punch will resolve the debate over whether he's an underachiever, passive and "soft,'' as many scouts suggest, or a pitcher who simply needed a change of scenery.

The critics would never question his passion, Meche says, if they could read his mind and see into his heart.

"In baseball terms you'll hear, 'This guy is a snapper. He throws things when he comes off the field,' '' Meche said. "I'm not a snapper. But if you read my lips when I'm on the mound, I'm pretty much saying words that a lot of kids shouldn't see. If I make a bad pitch or a stupid mistake and get burned, I'm furious.''

As a tantrum thrower, Meche is strictly an amateur. Several years ago, in Kansas City of all places, Meche left a game after a disappointing performance and vented by kicking a metal door. Fearful that he might have broken his foot, he vowed to refrain from similar displays of emotion.

"I agree with everybody that I haven't quite achieved and put up the numbers that I'm capable of. That's why a lot of the opinions people had weren't shocking to me by any means."
-- Gil Meche

Over the long haul, the Royals hope things click for Meche the way they did for fellow righty power pitchers Chris Carpenter, Jason Schmidt and Curt Schilling several years into their careers. Kansas City's scouts were on board with the signing, and Royals veterans Mark Grudzielanek and Mike Sweeney advised Moore to take the plunge because of Meche's top-of-the-rotation ability.

"It was a no-brainer for me,'' Sweeney said. "He definitely has the stuff to be a dominant No. 1.''

And as Moore points out, somebody has to eat innings. It'll be up to Meche, Odalis Perez and Luke Hudson to log a sufficiently heavy load for the Royals not to push prospects Luke Hochevar, Tyler Lumsden and Billy Buckner too quickly through the system.

To those who suggest that the Meche signing will detract from the Royals' principal mission -- developing players from within -- Moore counters that Kansas City will rank among the top 10 major league clubs in Latin-American spending after being dead last a year ago. Baseball America also ranks the Kansas City farm system, which was 28th best in the majors two years ago, at No. 11 this year.

"We have to be aggressive and take risks as an organization,'' Moore said. "I know you're evaluated on the decisions you make, and there's accountability to what we do. But I also know this: Looking at all the alternatives we had, Gil Meche was the perfect sign for us.''

In spring training, Royals pitching coach Bob McClure, Meche and catchers Jason LaRue and John Buck will concentrate on keeping things simple. The old Gil Meche was too intent on hitting the corner with strike one. The new Meche plans to focus on keeping the ball down and pitching to "halves" of the plate. Ideally, that approach should allow him to induce contact earlier in the count and keep his pitch count low.

Why does a pitcher with a sizzling four-seam fastball and a dominating knuckle curve waste his tools by thinking himself into a box? That's a mystery the Royals better solve.

"I hope he doesn't put too much pressure on himself, but I think he will,'' manager Buddy Bell said. "There are going to be times where that gets in his way. But I actually prefer that. Guys who really care and are sensitive about their jobs eventually do what you need them to do.''

Meche cares, for sure. He just bought a house in Kansas City and plans on becoming part of the community. Like Moore, he talks about the "challenge" of reviving a dormant franchise and giving Royals fans reason to care again. Even if it means answering questions about his new financial windfall, he'll oblige.

"I just like to go out there and do my job,'' Meche said. "That's the first thing you should know about me: I hate attention.''

It's three months and $55 million too late for that.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.