On his first day back with the Royals, Melky Cabrera sauntered across the visitors clubhouse in the early afternoon, searching for a pair of spikes. He had reunited with his old teammates on a bus ride to the park, offering a first hug to Salvador Perez. Cabrera had unpacked in the corner of the room, discarding his old White Sox bag on top of his locker.
Yet, as he prepared to return to the Kansas City lineup, he realized he was without one important piece of equipment: shoes. Moments later, Alcides Escobar tossed a pair of blue spikes onto a leather couch and offered a quick review. Cabrera inspected the shoes and continued with his search.
There was little need for introductions Monday at Camden Yards. There was little need for a clubhouse orientation. Cabrera, acquired Sunday from the Chicago White Sox in a deal before Monday’s trade deadline, simply arrived and went to work. In some ways, it was like he never left.
“I know everybody here,” Cabrera said, speaking through translator Pedro Grifol.
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Cabrera started in right field in the series opener against the Orioles, which was expected. He batted third in the order, which was not. In the moments after the trade, Royals manager Ned Yost envisioned Cabrera batting second in the lineup, taking the place of Jorge Bonifacio between Whit Merrifield and Lorenzo Cain. After consultation with his coaches and Cain on Monday, Yost opted for a minor tweak.
Cain slid into the No. 2 spot behind Merrifield. Cabrera, for now, will bat third between Cain and Eric Hosmer.
“Speed at the top of the lineup,” Yost said.
For Cabrera, the trade thrust him back into the middle of a pennant race after three seasons in Chicago. It also offered a return to a familiar place. In the weeks before Monday’s deadline, he tried to ignore trade rumors, he said. He did not anticipate a return to Kansas City. When he heard about the deal on Sunday, the news delighted him. His phone filled up with texts from Eric Hosmer and other former teammates.
“I’ve watched these guys gain experience over the years,” Cabrera said through Grifol.
In 2011, Cabrera, then 26, revitalized his career in Kansas City, batting .305 with 18 homers and 44 doubles. In the process, he bonded with a group of young players, including Hosmer, Perez and Escobar. Cabrera was traded to San Francisco before the following season, but he never let go of the relationships he forged. To this day, Hosmer still calls Cabrera: “Mi Hermano.”
“When he came over here, he did what a good veteran guy would do,” Hosmer said. “He kept us loose. He showed us how to prepare for games. He just basically taught us, you got to keep everything loose, even during the game time.”
For now, Cabrera will start most days in right field, while Bonifacio will shift into a rotation at designated hitter with Brandon Moss. Left fielder Alex Gordon could also see more days off, allowing Bonifacio and Cabrera to both remain in the lineup. The situation is fluid. It could be dictated on performance, the club opting to ride the hot bats. But for now, the Royals continue to see value in utilizing Gordon’s premium defense every day in left field, even as his batting average hovers around .200.
“As a staff, we’re always discussing and talking, but I think everybody right now values Alex’s defense,” Yost said. “He saves pitchers pitches. Pitching and defense wins ballgames.”
Moments later, Yost pointed to a 9-8 loss to the Red Sox on Saturday night at Fenway Park. The offense put up eight runs, giving the Royals an opportunity to win. The game was lost as starting pitcher Trevor Cahill struggled and the defense suffered through an off night, including a miscue in right field by Bonifacio.
“We scored eight runs the other day, and the pitching and the defense — we lost the game because of it,” Yost said. “They scored nine, and part of the reason they scored nine was because we didn’t make the plays defensively.”
The plan, of course, could change. The lineup could be tweaked again. But for one night, Cabrera was back in a Royals uniform, starting in right field and batting third. He was happy to be back.
“I’m really happy that I’ve seen them having success,” Cabrera said of the Royals, speaking through Grifol. “They’re really good players. But I’m most happy I’m back here.”