The Royals traded for an outfielder who hit 35 home runs the year before last, and under any circumstance that’s worth a conversation.
The Royals traded for a power hitter still owed $1.836 million fewer than two weeks after the owner wouldn’t add payroll, and that’s worth much more than a conversation.
Josh Willingham’s arrival in the Royals lineup on Tuesday represents much more than an upgrade from Raul Ibanez as the team’s primary designated hitter for as long as Eric Hosmer is on the disabled list and Billy Butler is at first base.
For starters, it’s a flashing neon sign of a reminder about how quickly things can change in baseball. When David Glass wouldn’t budge from a franchise record $92 million payroll at the July 31 trade deadline, the Royals were five games out of the second wild card and four games out of first place in the American League Central. There was a feeling among some that if the Royals were going to make a trade, they should sell, not buy.
Think about it like this: two Thursdays ago, the Royals made no moves at the trade deadline. They had advanced conversations for a trade involving Willingham, actually, but needed to clear Butler’s salary to do it. They found no takers.
It will have been 12 days since all of that went down when Willingham bats as the Royals DH against Jon Lester and the A’s on Tuesday. In those 12 days, the Royals have played 11 games and won 10. Butler has gone from generating zero trade interest even in a salary dump to the American League’s player of the week. He is hitting .350 with seven extra-base hits since being passed on by all 29 other teams.
The Royals beat the A's 3-2 on Monday. Alcides Escobar drove in two runs, Alex Gordon made a diving catch, and Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland shut down the last three innings. They have won eight in a row, a streak that has altered the Royals’ season beyond changing the standings. That success convinced ownership to green light additional payroll for a 35-year-old rental who will become redundant when Hosmer returns to first and Butler goes back to DH.
Now, there is more to all of this, of course. Most significantly, the Royals had less urgency (and less space) at the trade deadline to add Willingham because Hosmer was healthy. But without this winning streak, it’s entirely unlikely that the front office would’ve had the payroll flexibility to add Willingham.
And in that alternate universe, the Royals are still giving their DH plate appearances to Erik Kratz, Nori Aoki and Ibanez instead of Willingham, whose weighted on-base-plus-slugging percentage is higher than every Royals regular except Alex Gordon.
The move comes at a time when everything is going right for the Royals, and everything wrong for the Tigers. In the last four days, the Tigers have lost three games and three pitchers (Anibal Sanchez, Joakim Soria and Justin Verlander are all hurt). On Sunday, the Tigers needed 213 pitches and 13 innings from their bullpen, and still lost. On Monday, they needed 128 more pitches and seven more innings from their relievers, and lost again.
The Royals have 45 games left in the regular season. So much can still happen. But even with last year’s pseudo race, and the five-month fluke of 2003, the playoffs have never been more realistic this late in the season since the strike in 1994.
And in that context, they got appreciably better on Monday. Hosmer’s injury — and the Royals aren’t sure when he’ll return — created a hole in the roster. The lack of a quality right-handed bat shone brightest when the Royals faced left-handed pitching, and Willingham arrives to face Lester on Tuesday and Scott Kazmir on Wednesday.
But Willingham is nearly as effective against right-handed pitching as lefties, and this season has a higher OPS against both sides than Ibanez. His presence brings more balance and flexibility to the Royals lineup and, for it’s worth, longtime baseball people always talk of the morale value in contending teams adding players and salary.
None of this was realistic such a short time ago, before the 12 days that changed a critical season.