KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s no point crying over spilled Melk, is there?
Melky Cabrera was expendable; the Royals needed starting pitching. Unless Felipe Paulino can somehow function on two days rest, they still do.
Of course, nobody talks about that much now. Fans are so busy shaking their fists or banging their heads against the wall that they tend to forget the original point. So let’s recap, shall we? Last November, Cabrera was traded from Kansas City to the San Francisco Giants for major league lefty Jonathan Sanchez and minor league righty Ryan Verdugo.
At the time, most pundits called it a draw: Sanchez, while often injured and inconsistent, possessed salty stuff and already had a no-hitter under his belt. Cabrera, having just turned 27, was coming off a career year with a .305 average and 44 doubles. He also was slated to become a free agent after the 2012 season; the Royals had stockpiled a slew of young outfielders — Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Wil Myers — they felt were ready to step in and contribute.
The pitching cavalry, well, that was going to take a while.
Ergo, general manager Dayton Moore dealt from a position of depth to try and shore up a position of weakness. Without the benefit of hindsight, nine out of 10 of us would’ve done the same thing.
“You know, we thought we made a good deal, and Sanchez had a great career (to that point),” Royals slugger Billy Butler offered before Kansas City’s 1-0 win over Minnesota on Tuesday night. “So, I mean, that’s the bottom line.”
Trouble is, it’s also been a fairly ugly line, at least to this point. Sanchez made six largely forgettable starts with the Royals, posted a 6.75 ERA, and went on the disabled list May 9 because of tendinitis in his left bicep. Cain also went on the shelf, having strained his left groin during the first road trip of the season.
Meanwhile, Cabrera poured salt in an already festering wound by going Rogers Hornsby all over the National League. As of Tuesday afternoon, he was the circuit’s second-leading hitter with a .364 clip. His 51 hits in May set a franchise record, breaking the old mark held by Willie Mays. He’s inspired grown men to come to the park dressed as old-school milk men — they call themselves the “Melk Men” — and become a cult hero in one of the country’s largest media markets.
Does it gall you, Royals fans? Sure. Do the early returns look good? Oh, no. Heck, no.
But you know what? It was absolutely the right call.
Look, Melky has a plus arm, but he’s also a corner outfielder at heart. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Cabrera had the worst range factor (2.28) among in the American League center fielders in 2011 who made at least 100 starts at the position. Melky’s best position is left or right; the Royals have a Gold Glover to man the former in Alex Gordon and one of the best arms in the game in Jeff Francoeur patrolling the latter.
Besides, long term, you’re not going to bash your way back into contention. Moore knows this. The most successful turnaround jobs start on the mound and in the field: Atlanta, 1991. Tampa Bay, 2008. Minnesota, 2002. In 2000, the Twinkies gave up 880 runs and won 69 games. Fast forward a couple summers, and the runs allowed are down to 712 while the victories are up to 94. It ain’t brain surgery.
Good hitting teams can lose 12 in a row. Teams with good starting pitching usually don’t.
Mind you, veteran, proven pitchers are expensive as all get-out on the open market, especially if you’re shopping on a budget. Was Sanchez a risk, given his dubious health? No question. But he also reportedly made $4.8 million in 2011 and was slated to make $5.6 million in 2012.
Thrifty clubs are better off, long term, growing their own, the way Atlanta did in the early ’90s and the way Tampa does now. Moore knows this, too.
Alas, the Royals’ best young pitching prospects linger, for the moment, in the seasoning stage. Left-hander Mike Montgomery is just 22 years old, but is also allowing more than a hit an inning at Triple-A Omaha. It’s the same story with Jake Odorizzi, another 22-year-old on the big-league radar. Their time is coming, but it ain’t here yet. Sanchez is in a contract year; assuming the bicep heals, the former Giant is, at worst, as a short-term place-holder — one that could be moved at either the trading deadline or after the season.
“It was a fair trade at the time,” Butler continued. “Melky’s just having an All-Star year.”
You think? In what might be the most painful twist of the knife, Cabrera, barring something unforeseen, will probably be back at Kauffman Stadium in a month — as a member of the National League All-Star team. In the first official tally of fan balloting, released late Tuesday morning, the Melk Man ranked fifth among National League outfielders, with 714,642 votes.
“I sure as heck hope Melky would be on that team right now,” Butler said. “Everybody loved the move at the time. So it’s easy to sit back and say, ‘It’s a bad (deal)’ now. But you can’t.”
Hey, you’d love to get your Facebook IPO money back, too. But you can’t.