Sam Mellinger

Royals trade for Melky Cabrera, make one more push toward one more championship

Five things to know about Royals outfielder Melky Cabrera

The Kansas City Royals reacquired outfielder Melky Cabrera on Sunday, July, 30, 2017, in a trade from the Chicago White Sox for minor-league pitchers A.J. Puckett and Andre Davis.
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The Kansas City Royals reacquired outfielder Melky Cabrera on Sunday, July, 30, 2017, in a trade from the Chicago White Sox for minor-league pitchers A.J. Puckett and Andre Davis.

In the last 12 days the Royals have won 10 games, gone over .500, shoved their way into a playoff spot and improved their rotation, bullpen and lineup.

That is a remarkable fact, a surge that many of us thought improbable for this particular group in this particular year, even with their particular history.

But here we are.

The Royals are 2  1/2 games clear of a playoff spot, two shy of the division, and clawing like hell to find one more autumn of magic.

Last week, they filled their biggest needs by acquiring Trevor Cahill — a motivated, talented, veteran upgrade for the fifth rotation spot — and two relievers.

Then on Sunday, general manager Dayton Moore made another significant improvement: old friend Melky Cabrera is back for a modest pair of pitching prospects, A.J. Puckett and Andre Davis.

This is the time of year for all contenders to be aggressive, but it’s hard to imagine any team improving itself more in the standings and roster over that time.

Whether Cabrera plays left field or DH, an offense that is currently 11th in the American League in runs will have seven of nine hitters producing above league average. The rotation is now filled with options that range from terrific (Danny Duffy) to improving (Jason Hammel) and what the bullpen lacks in cyborgs it makes up for in depth.

In a cold examination, they still aren’t as good as the 2015 Royals, or the 2017 Astros, but that’s never been the point.

Because anyone old enough to remember the 2014 Royals knows it doesn’t matter who looked better during the regular season but who plays the best through the pressure of October.

Who among us would bet against this group under pressure?

The five longest winning streaks in Kansas City Royals history have been at least 10 games. The 1977 Royals recorded two winning streaks of more than 10 games.

This core has rewritten a franchise’s sorry history for many reasons, not the least of which has been the grind, stubbornness and resiliency to find good breaks where the men who preceded them by a decade or so consistently found bad breaks.

Most obviously, that’s come with a knack for squeezing every drop from every bloop, but here comes one more.

The White Sox have long been in obvious sell mode. Cabrera is a reliable, veteran switch hitter who is currently hitting .295 with a .336 on-base and .436 slugging percentage. But a strong trade market never developed for him, allowing the Royals to acquire him for a relatively modest pair of prospects.

The deal was good enough that owner David Glass — who, despite his public statements has consistently refused to take on salary with midseason trades — agreed to add around $2.5 million in payroll with the deal.

The phrase “all-in” is shamelessly overused, but once again, the 2017 Royals are throwing elbows and fists for every advantage possible.

This is easy to forget now, after the ground shook at Kauffman Stadium on Sal Perez’s winner and Eric Hosmer bought a round of drinks and half the town showed up for the parade, but it wasn’t too long ago that 2017 was thought to be the most important season in a generation of Royals baseball.

The timeline shifted, and for good reason. Two years ago, the Royals shed four of their top pitching prospects to help what was already the best team in the American League, and those guys stomped their way to a dog pile and champagne party in Queens.

If this core never wins another postseason game they will leave Kansas City a forever success, and there have been times that’s felt like a virtual certainty.

And not just because of Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas running into each other in Chicago, or July 2016, or the Yordano Ventura tragedy, or April 2017.

The Royals have been running against the wind for much of the last two seasons. Baseball’s calibration makes consecutive pennants unlikely, and three consecutive pennants all but impossible.

The Royals’ farm system is generally viewed in the sport’s bottom third, which makes buyers’ trades complicated. Glass wants to win and rebuild simultaneously while limiting payroll, which put the Royals in a difficult spot.

So for the longest time, 2017 felt like the last race for a group that might be out of races.

That’s all changed.

The front office knew that blockbuster deals — like Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist two years ago — would be impossible and spent most of the summer believing that even middle-class deals would be prohibitively difficult.

That changed for at least three important reasons:

▪ The recent surge erased any lingering hesitation within the front office about this group’s readiness for a run and worthiness of support now that may subtract from the future.

▪ The Padres were willing to cover $1.5 million of what was owed to Travis Wood, which helped push the deal across the finish line, in part because it gave the front office the ability to keep shopping.

The Kansas City Royals acquired pitchers Trevor Cahill, Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter on Monday, July 24, in exchange for pitchers Travis Wood and Matt Strahm and minor-league infielder Esteury Ruiz.

▪ The lack of a strong market for Cabrera meant the Royals could afford the trade price, and the money saved in trading Wood meant they could afford the cash price.

The whole sequence is entirely and appropriately New Royals. They got more than they expected, gave up less than they thought they would’ve, for reasons that vary from their own timely success on the field to the sport’s trend winds blowing at their backs.

The Royals still have work to do. But the task feels more manageable than it did yesterday, and imminently more manageable than 12 days ago.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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