Royals grabbed Maldonado off free-agent scrap heap, now he’s with championship contender

The stars aligned for both the Royals and Martin Maldonado. They just aligned at different junctures of this season.

Ultimately, the short marriage between the Royals and Maldonado benefited both sides, ended amicably, and they’re able to share sincere hugs and handshakes as they crossed paths this weekend at Kauffman Stadium.

Maldonado, a former Gold Glove winning catcher, landed in the Royals’ lap in March in the aftermath of Salvador Perez’s season-ending elbow surgery.

Two trades later, the 33-year-old backstop finds himself in the middle of a World Series push with the Houston Astros, the favorites to win the championship and the franchise that Maldonado finished last season with after a mid-season trade.

With Maldonado still on the free-agent market being uniquely-suited to fit the hole in the Royals roster, the two sides came together on a one-year contract worth $2.5 million (plus another $1.4 million in performance bonuses).

“To have him still on the free-agent market was a blessing for us, not so much for him I’d say,” Royals veteran starting pitcher turned closer Ian Kennedy said. “It’s nice to have that, you get a veteran catcher of that caliber of glove and game calling. It would have been nice to get him earlier in spring and him get more time with the guys. But that doesn’t happen. It bridged the gap.”

Royals catcher Cam Gallagher entered the season slotted as Perez’s backup. Meibrys Viloria garnered a September call-up last season, but hadn’t played a season above High-A in the minors prior to this year. Viloria, 22, joined the big league club after Maldonado’s departure.

The Royals entrusted Maldonado to handle a group that included Brad Keller in just his first season as a full-time starter as well as staff that featured young arms like Jorge Lopez, Heath Fillmyer, Glenn Sparkman, Richard Lovelady, Kyle Zimmer and Scott Barlow, none of whom had appeared in more than 20 games in the majors coming into this year.

Now, Maldonado has got an Astors staff that has recorded the most strikeouts in the majors this season and features past Cy Young Award winners in Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke as well as as a top contender for this year’s award in Gerrit Cole (along with Verlander and others).

“Here he was in the mentor role, and I feel like a lot more is put on him because he’s go to guide them,” Kennedy said. “He’s got two different pitching staffs. He’s got one of the best over there, World Series candidates. ... (Brad) Keller starting his first opening day. You’ve got (Justin) Verlander who’s started I don’t know how many opening days and just threw his third no-hitter. It’s just different. Brad will do special things later on. It’s just a lot different when you have a full staff like that.”

In July, the Royals traded Maldonado to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery. Montgomery, who began his professional career in the Royals farm system, immediately went into the club’s starting rotation and figures to be there going into next season.

“I really enjoyed the time there,” Maldonado said. “It was kind of crazy. I had a rushed spring training. That’s something that you don’t want to have. I know when you’re in spring training, you realize spring is probably too long. Now that I didn’t have much spring training, I feel like it’s worth the time you’re at spring training.

“I enjoyed every moment in my uniform in Kansas City. The guys there are hungry. They want to learn. They gave me the chance to play every day. From the front office to coaches, training staff, I think they are really, really, really good.”

The part of the trade that surprised Maldonado was that he went to the Cubs instead of the Astros. Maldonado said Royals general manager Dayton Moore had been open with him about the fact that the Astros reached out about acquiring Maldonado.

However, once in Chicago, the front office there led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer was also upfront about their plans to find a spot to move him where he could get more playing time after catcher Willson Contreras came back from injury.

“I was very happy when we got Martin back, and I was a little nervous when he went to the Cubs first because I thought that would close the door with us,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said.

The Astros traded outfielder Tony Kemp to the Cubs in exchange for Maldonado on July 31.

“I would say, probably, this is the team I should’ve started the year with,” Maldonado said seated in the visitors clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium. “Everybody knows I turned down an offer here (with Houston) early in the winter thinking I was going to get something the same or better. Just to be back here, I think, shows me how grateful they are with the job I did last year.”

In 20 games with the Astros this season, Maldonado has batted .246 with four doubles, six home runs and a .904 OPS.

He caught every inning of the team’s combined no-hitter against the Mariners on Aug. 4, the second combined no-hitter in Astros history and 14th in MLB history.

Maldonado also carries a reputation as one of the best catch-and-throw guys behind the plate in the majors. He came into this season with the best caught stealing percentage of any catcher in the majors since the start of 2012 (37.7 percent) with a minimum of 400 games.

Even though Maldonado didn’t re-sign with the Astros during the offseason, he and Hinch remained in contact. After finishing the season with the Astros last season, Maldonado always saw the organization as more than a short-term fit.

Hinch, a former catcher, pointed to the familiarity with the pitching staff as well as the way the Astros game plan and Maldonado’s prowess stopping the running game, as reasons why his return was important for a club with championship aspirations. It doesn’t hurt that he has the respect and trust of pitchers such as Cole, Verlander, Roberto Osuna, Will Harris, Hector Rondon, Joe Smith, who were all part of the staff last year.

“There’s an immediate comfort with the catcher,” Hinch said. “So if you’re just going to add a catcher, that’s one thing. If you’re going to add a catcher that is already months and months ahead of the transition, that was really big.

“On top of it, I think he really wanted to be here. That meant a lot to me, (general manager) Jeff (Luhnow), to the organization that while he didn’t sign back here and went through free agency, ends up in Kansas City, ends up with the Cubs for a little cameo, I think he always wanted to be an Astro. That meant something to us as we’re giving him a lot of responsibility.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.