There will be hugs.
Melky Cabrera, a veteran outfielder known for his switch-hitting prowess at the plate and on-field displays of affection, is returning to the Royals, the centerpiece of a three-player deal on Sunday afternoon.
On the eve of the non-waiver trade deadline, Kansas City sent minor-league pitchers A.J. Puckett and Andre Davis to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Cabrera, a free agent at the end of the 2017 season. In the hours before a 5-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox, the front office sent another bold message, landing another valuable rental player for the stretch run.
The trade reinforced the Royals’ desire to supplement a championship core with roster upgrades as a collection of players — including Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain — near free agency in the winter. The acquisition punctuated a 12-day period that featured 10 victories and two pivotal moves.
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On Monday, the club acquired starting pitcher Trevor Cahill and relievers Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter from the San Diego Padres in an attempt to strengthen its pitching staff. Six days later, the Royals turned their attention to Cabrera, a player who can bolster the lineup while playing a corner outfield spot or filling in at designated hitter.
“Perfect,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “We believe Melky is a perfect addition to our team.”
On Sunday evening, Moore spoke by phone from Cooperstown, N.Y., after attending the induction ceremony of former Royals general manager John Schuerholz, his longtime boss with the Atlanta Braves. As Moore spent the weekend catching up with old friends and colleagues, he hammered out a deal with White Sox general manager Rick Hahn.
The conversations began three weeks ago, Moore said. The Royals expressed interest in Cabrera but reiterated that their first priority was shoring up their pitching staff. When they executed the deal with San Diego, they shifted their focus to the position-player market.
The Royals were attracted to Cabrera’s production, his switch-hitting ability, and his infectious personality, one that would fit in seamlessly inside the Royals’ clubhouse. A few days later, Moore touched base with Hahn.
“Last night, I went back to the hotel room,” Moore said, “and we kind of hashed it out a little bit and got it done.”
The Royals will take on an additional $2.5 million in salary, a sign of good faith and commitment from owner David Glass. The White Sox defrayed some of those costs by covering more than half of Cabrera’s remaining salary. The 32-year-old outfielder is making $15 million in 2017, the last season of a three-year deal.
Cabrera will join the Royals on Monday as they open a three-game series in Baltimore. For now, he will play “mostly right field” while slotting into the second spot in the batting order, manager Ned Yost said.
The club could also test out other combinations as it searches for the right formula. Yost said rookie right fielder Jorge Bonifacio, who has been hitting second, could blend in more at the DH spot as he moves down in the order. Or perhaps left fielder Alex Gordon could see more days off against left-handed pitching. Some of the playing time could be dictated by performance as the team rides the hot bats down the stretch.
“The important thing is to focus on how he’s going to lengthen our lineup,” Moore said of Cabrera. “The fact is that we were searching for a hitter that could hit at the top of the order and get everybody in a more comfortable spot in the order.”
In his 13th major-league season, Cabrera remains a versatile run producer who has been an above-average performer in 2017. In 98 games for the White Sox, he is batting .295 with a .336 on-base percentage and 13 homers. His adjusted OPS-plus is 108, or eight percent above league average.
At the age of 32, Cabrera’s defensive skills have diminished. Yet as the Royals (55-48) prepare for a pennant chase and a possible playoff run, his bat was appealing.
“It’s a bat we can put in the two-hole in our lineup,” Yost said. “It’s a great trade for us. It just shows you how much Mr. Glass and Dayton are committed to giving us everything that we can. Not only us, but the city.”
Cabrera, who spent the 2011 season in Kansas City, projects as an offensive upgrade over Gordon, who is batting .202 with a .296 on-base percentage after finishing 1 for 3 with a two-run triple on Sunday.
Gordon, however, has remained one of the best defensive left fielders in the American League as his offensive skills have eroded. And the Royals’ formula under Moore still places a premium on such skills.
Bonifacio, a 24-year-old rookie, is hitting .258 with a .327 on-base percentage and 14 homers after finishing 1 for 11 with seven strikeouts in his last two games.
The addition of Cabrera could also siphon playing time from designated hitter Brandon Moss, who slumped horribly for more than three months before finding a groove in the month of July. Moss is batting .271 with an .854 OPS in 48 at-bats after the All-Star break. He hit just .193 with 10 homers during the first half.
To win the bidding for Cabrera, the Royals parted ways with Puckett, their second-round pick in 2016, and Davis, a 6-foot-6 left-handed pitcher with a big arm and upside. The loss of Puckett, their top pick last year, offered a measure of pain. Yet club officials emerged from the last week having acquired four players without giving up any of their top young prospects, a group that includes shortstop Raul Mondesi, outfielder Khalil Lee and pitchers Josh Staumont, Foster Griffin and Scott Blewett, among others.
“You’ve got to go win the negotiations for these types of players,” Moore said. “And Melky was somebody where other teams were interested and we had to step up.”
Puckett, 22, is 9-7 with a 3.90 ERA in 20 starts at Class A Wilmington. He has struck out 98 hitters in 108 1/3 innings while issuing 46 walks. Davis, 23, was an eighth-round pick in 2015 who posted a 4.83 ERA in 18 starts at low Class A Lexington this season.
In the end, the deal reunites Cabrera with a collection of former teammates from his first stop in Kansas City. Signed as a free agent in late 2010 after being released from the Atlanta Braves, Cabrera batted .305 with 18 homers and 201 hits in his only season in Kansas City. In one year, he invigorated his career and built lasting relationships inside the Royals’ clubhouse.
He was traded to San Francisco for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez before the 2012 season, a one-sided deal that was salvaged when Kansas City flipped Sanchez to Colorado for starter Jeremy Guthrie.
“He’s just always smiling,” Gordon said. “Nothing ever bothers him. With a game like this, it can get you down.”
Cabrera returned to Kansas City for the 2012 All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium and won MVP honors before being hit with a 50-game suspension for a positive test of testosterone in August of that year. The next offseason, he signed with the Blue Jays and spent two seasons in Toronto before heading to Chicago in 2015.
On Monday, the sequence will come full circle. Cabrera will be back in a Royals uniform, chasing a playoff spot with his old friends.
“It’s a good pick-up,” shortstop Alcides Escobar said. “Everyone knows he can hit. Good guy in the clubhouse and he want to play for us.”