Royals keep sights on October after trade for Oakland’s Ben Zobrist

Oakland Athletics Ben Zobrist during Friday's baseball game on April 17, 2015 against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Oakland Athletics Ben Zobrist during Friday's baseball game on April 17, 2015 against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

A Royals official gathered a collection of letters and numbers, preparing to stamp them onto yet another new jersey. The number was 18. The letters, jumbled together like a Scrabble board, form the latest star to join this club’s expanding constellation: Z-O-B-R-I-S-T.

Two days after acquiring Reds ace Johnny Cueto, the Royals on Tuesday completed a second blockbuster, this one recouping two-time All-Star Ben Zobrist from Oakland in exchange for pitching prospects Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks. Kansas City received $2 million in the deal from Oakland, according to a person familiar with the situation. Already owners of the American League’s best record, the Royals have shown little inclination to coast in October.

“You’ve got to believe there’s going to be a lot more wins coming in the next couple months,” Zobrist said in a conference call with reporters. “So I’m super-excited about it.”

The maneuver stunned some rival executives with its aggressiveness and impressed others with its demonstration of the Royals’ resolve. This group finished last season 90 feet short of the tying run in the seventh game of the World Series. In the last few days, they jammed their poker chips into the center of the table, flipping a quartet of young pitchers in exchange for perhaps the two best players available on the trade block.

“It’s a very rare opportunity,” manager Ned Yost said. “You try to take full advantage of it. You never know when the opportunity is to come again.”

The Royals had been pursuing Zobrist even before they traded for Cueto, Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. The team identified the duo as its top two targets. Zobrist’s arrival lengthens the Royals’ lineup, helps mitigate the temporary loss of Alex Gordon, deepens their bench and heightens their expectations.

“It makes for a dangerous team,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “Especially in October.”

Zobrist, 34, may be the most versatile player in baseball, able to handle both corner outfield positions in addition to second base. Since 2009, heading into Tuesday’s games, he ranked third among active players in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement, trailing only Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera and Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen.

After undergoing knee surgery in April, Zobrist rebounded with strong offensive numbers. He is hitting .268 with an .801 on-base plus slugging percentage, an impressive mark for the depressed hitting environment of Coliseum. Though Yost intends to bat him sixth, Zobrist could also aid his new club as a table-setter, given his career .354 on-base percentage.

“He’s probably the best utility baseball player in the game,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “If not one of just the best players in the game. He can hit. He can play defense. You know what you’re going to get from him every single day. He’s going to play hard. He’s going to grind it out.”

Added reliever Wade Davis, who played with Zobrist in Tampa Bay, “He’s a really good guy. He’s probably one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. He competes.”

Zobrist planned to join the team on Thursday in Toronto. He was with the Athletics in Los Angeles. He had left his passport (which he’ll need for Toronto) back in the Bay Area, so he was unable to reach the Royals for Wednesday’s matinee in Cleveland.

When Zobrist arrives, he will serve mostly as the team’s regular left fielder until Gordon returns from the disabled list in September. Zobrist will also spell Alex Rios in right field and Omar Infante at second base as Gordon rehabilitates, Yost said. He will likely bat sixth.

“It’s a real luxury,” Yost said. “You can do so much with him. He can play outfield, he can play infield. He’s played, I think, every position on the diamond except pitcher or catcher.”

In a conference call with reporters, Moore indicated the Royals likely were done making major moves before Thursday’s trade deadline. In truth, there now appear to be few holes on this club. The decisiveness from the Royals created a marked contrast to their inertia at last year’s deadline.

Heading into last August, the team spun its wheels while hunting for incremental upgrades such as outfielder Marlon Byrd or pitcher A.J. Burnett.Alex Rios, then with Texas, invoked his no-trade clause to nix a deal. The Royals possessed the prospects to net then-Rays ace David Price, but lacked the financial capacity to handle his contract. The Royals attempted to move designated hitter Billy Butler, in part to clear his salary from their ledger, but found few interested takers.

This is the difference a World Series berth makes. The Royals are already on track for a new attendance record. Their first American League Central crown is in sight. The destination is October, and Moore opted to fortify the roster en route.

“Certainly the play of our team and how our players have responded gives us more motivation to make moves,” Moore said. “But we’ve always tried to do whatever we could at the deadline to make our team better for the second half, even when we weren’t competing.”

The cost to obtain Zobrist was sizable. The Royals doled out a $3.55 million bonus to sign Manaea after selecting him No. 34 in the 2013 draft. Manaea, a hulking, 6-5 lefty from Indiana State, dominated in the second half of 2014 for Class A Wilmington. But he dealt with a series of nagging injuries this season, and club officials considered him raw for a college pitcher. Brooks profiled as either a fifth starter or a long reliever.

The Royals completed both trades without sacrificing valued prospects such as infielder Raul A. Mondesi, outfielder Bubba Starling or pitchers Miguel Almonte, Scott Blewitt or Kyle Zimmer. They did part with three talented lefties, Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed, to acquire Cueto. But Yost scoffed at the idea that the Royals may have mortgaged part of their future in these past two days.

“Come on,” Yost said. “We’re trying to win a World Series.”

The team expects Zobrist to join the fray with ease. He played in a Fall Classic for Tampa Bay in 2008, his breakout season. Zobrist trained himself to become the game’s best utility man. He made an All-Star team in 2009 and again in 2013.

As part of their latest remodeling effort, the Rays shipped Zobrist to Oakland this past winter. Aboard that sinking ship, Zobrist watched his team tussle with his future mates in April.

“Obviously, they’ve got some moxie,” Zobrist said of the Royals. “We had some interesting conversations across the field with them earlier in the season.” He added, “They were tough. Tough to play against. Every guy in the lineup had tough at-bats. The pitchers never gave in. And they’re fighters. You can tell that. They’ve proved that.”

To that mix now comes Zobrist, a player compared so often to a Swiss army knife that the metaphor has become a cliché. But his versatility maximizes his value. The best team in the American League has just acquired perhaps the best hitter on the market.

“These guys are already a good team,” Zobrist said. “I’ve just got to try not to screw it up.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4730 or send email to Follow him on Twitter @McCulloughStar. Download True Blue, The Star’s free Royals app, here.

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