As shock reverberated through the baseball industry, a text message traveled from the phone of one former Tampa Bay Ray to another.
“Well,” David Price wrote to Royals starter James Shields, “I’m going to be seeing your face a little more.”
The note stung more than Shields expected. Detroit started the day with a five-game lead in the American League Central Division. By nabbing Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young award winner, as a last-minute acquisition, the Tigers dealt their second-place rivals a psychological blow and reminded the Royals about the financial gap between the two franchises.
Early in July, according to people familiar with the situation, the Royals engaged with Tampa Bay in preliminary discussions about Price. Kansas City felt it possessed the assets necessary to complete a deal. But they backed off because of an inability to afford Price’s contract, which will pay him between $17 million to $20 million in 2015, his final year of arbitration.
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A lack of financial flexibility plagued the Royals’ front office as it emerged from Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline without an addition. The team could have created a package comparable to the one Detroit forked over — outfielder Austin Jackson, southpaw starter Drew Smyly and shortstop prospect Willy Adames — in the three-team deal with Seattle and Tampa Bay. But the Royals never even exchanged names with the Rays.
The club intends to stay active in the trade market once players start to clear waivers in the coming days. But there was disappointment in an inability to execute any moves Thursday. “There was just nothing that really presented itself that we felt would work at the end of the day,” general manager Dayton Moore said.
Heading into this week, both Moore and owner David Glass indicated the team possessed the capability of adding salary at the deadline. On Thursday, Moore did not say outright that money was a reason a trade wasn’t made. But he at least obliquely referenced the financial divide between larger-market clubs and his own. Over the winter, the organization set a payroll budget at about $85 million, according to people familiar with the situation. They have already cleared that, spending at least $90 million, for a franchise record.
“We’re not going to apologize for our market, and what we can’t do,” Moore said Thursday. “But there’s certainly limitations.” He added, “There are certain players available to certain teams for a reason. It’s just the way it works in the game.”
As Thursday’s deadline approached, Moore instructed his baseball operations department to hunt for upgrades in every facet of the roster. But they could not consummate a deal, in part because of financial considerations, and in part because potential trade partners sought major-league players, not prospects.
The majority of the players involved in the three-team trifecta with Price were big leaguers. Oakland dealt All-Star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes for Boston’s World Series heroes, Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes. St. Louis procured John Lackey from the Red Sox for former All-Star first baseman Allen Craig and promising young starter Joe Kelly.
The Royals lacked interest in sacrificing their affordable, younger talent, such as starting pitchers Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, in similar deals. Moore stressed the team did not shop James Shields, who is a pending free agent like Lester. The Royals sought to retain strength in their pitching and defense, and flip prospects to repair their holes.
“It’s difficult, where we are right now, to subtract from our major-league team,” Moore said, adding, “Trust me: There’s a lot of teams that would have loved to have some of our pitching in their rotation. But at the end of the day, where are you going to get that pitching back?”
Even when other clubs expressed interest in farmhands, money crept into the picture. The Royals targeted Philadelphia outfielder Marlon Byrd and Texas outfielder Alex Rios. Each player possesses a no-trade clause blocking a move to Kansas City, and could apply the clause like a cudgel.
For Byrd, a 36-year-old two years removed from a drug suspension, that meant a likely guarantee of a two-year, $16 million extension past this season. For Rios, a 33-year-old with middling production, that meant a likely guarantee of a $13.5 million option for 2015. The price proved prohibitive for the Royals and other teams. Neither player was traded Thursday.
Negotiations with Philadelphia about veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett stalled because the Royals feared Burnett would return to pitch in 2015. His contract features a $15 million mutual option, which can become a $12.75 million player option if the team declined it.
Burnett could fit into the slot vacated if Shields, who will earn $13.5 million in 2014, departs in free agency. But the team did not want to commit that figure to a 38-year-old coming off a lackluster season (6-10, 4.15 ERA) in the National League. And even with Billy Butler’s $8 million salary leaving the books next season, the team faces raises in arbitration for Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and others.
Thus Moore circled back to a message he has spread for weeks. If this team means to contend, the production must flow from the 25 men already assembled in the big-league clubhouse. The group watched as their chief rival gained a sizable addition on Thursday.
“I was actually a little shocked, to be honest with you,” Shields said. “I’m not really too happy he’s in our division now.”
Price joined a rotation stocked with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. Detroit has wielded its financial might over the Royals for years. By now, Moore has grown used to it. So have some of his more experienced players.
“It was kind of at the last minute, too, so you’re just like ‘Is this really going to happen?’” Royals outfielder Alex Gordon said. “And it did. It is what it is, though. There’s nothing we can do about it. It just means we’ve got to beat one more Cy Young winner in that rotation.”