How the Salvy Splash became the Royals’ winning tradition
The baseball logic is sound. In a high-stakes industry where competitive edges are built on subjectivity and interpretation, here comes a cold and uncomfortable and airtight point straight from the mouth of a rival scout.
"If your club was serious about rebuilding," he said, "they'd trade the catcher."
The reference is to the Royals and their star Sal Perez, and the implications are enormous. Perez is by now a homegrown icon, signed as a teenager from Venezuela, still just 28 years old but already a five-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner, World Series MVP, and a lock for the team Hall of Fame.
He is the Royals' most valuable commodity, among the best in the game at a premium position. He has always been the franchise's energy, and with Eric Hosmer gone, now he's also the face. He is owed about $44 million through the 2021 season — which in major-league baseball terms is robbery.
The big-league team is pacing for 110 losses. Kelvin Herrera and Mike Moustakas are expected to be traded before the July 31 deadline. Even after a deep draft the Royals are considered by most to have one of the game's worst farm systems.
The big-league team stinks, and the immediate future could be worse. The Royals are in desperate need of young talent. The very things that make Perez valuable make the potential return in a trade tantalizing.
The Royals are, at the moment, stuck. Their surest way out includes a move that would shake the fan base and worsen an already bleak next few seasons. A second rival scout said the Royals could expect "multiple top prospects" in a trade for Perez.
"He's such a rare find," the scout said. "Catcher, prime position, made himself into a hitter. Probably a fifth or sixth hitter on a championship team, pop, such a great leader."
This is how rebuilding often happens. A year ago, the Rangers dealt Yu Darvish. The White Sox traded Jose Quintana. The Tigers sent Justin Verlander to Houston. The Yankees strengthened themselves two years ago by trading away Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.
Trades are difficult, and delicate. They require two willing parties and enough motivation to work through imperfection. No team should be expected to take any deal, and particularly with so much long-term and club-friendly control, the Royals' price for Perez should be high.
There is no rush to trade him now. No rush to trade him this offseason. But along with the potential return in trades for Moustakas and Herrera, a consensus exists that the best way to stock a farm system desperate for talent is to trade the most valuable big-leaguer.
Because the Royals are highly unlikely to compete next year, or even in 2020, baseball decisions should be made based on what's best for the Royals in 2021 and beyond. Perez has played 892 games and caught more than 7,000 innings. He'll be 31 in 2021, and who knows how much longer he'll be able to catch? The prospects who might be available in a trade could be approaching their primes.
Strictly from a baseball perspective — again, assuming the right return — the logic is difficult to refute.
But it's never that simple, and the Royals' worldview makes this particularly complicated.
Few if any general managers value the sentimental side of baseball as much as Dayton Moore. He talks constantly of seeing the game through the eyes of young people. His evaluations of players often include a boost for those he believes approach the game "with innocence."
His favorite individual success story is Alex Gordon, not just because he pulled himself up from a third base bust to the game's best left fielder for a time, but because he did it with a humility and perspective that never robbed his joy.
That stance is shared throughout the front office. Gene Watson, Royals' director of pro scouting, decided to leave a stable job with the Marlins in part because during his interview here he watched a team on the path to 100 losses suffer another drubbing while a family behind him chanted "LET'S GO ROYALS" into the late innings. He admired that connection.
Moore wanted to give Eric Hosmer a free-agent contract last winter so big that owner David Glass refused, and kept touch with Moustakas through a tumultuous winter and provided a landing spot here despite the contract not being in the budget.
This stuff matters to the Royals in a real way, is the point. This is not posturing for leverage. This is a fundamental point with which the organization pulled itself up. It held onto Gordon when he struggled, believed in Moustakas when he fell behind, and has been fiercely protective of and loyal to nearly every player who's come through.
But this is a different time in the organization's development. Before, the Royals stood to benefit from that protection and loyalty in a way they simply don't now.
The most optimistic timeline for the Royals to contend again is likely 2021, which also happens to be the last year of Perez's current contract. The more realistic scenario is a team ready to win sometime after that, which means that if he's still here Perez would be into his 30s with more wear on his body and on a new contract that is likely to more closely reflect his elevated status in the game.
There are other reasons the Royals should at least listen if an offer comes. One AL Central scout who has watched Perez closely over the years believes the catcher's personality makes him a particularly good fit for a winner and an unknown for a loser.
Perez plays with such joy, the scout was theorizing, that being a central part of a non-contender right now could sap his energy. The scout said he started to wonder about this after Perez admonished White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson early this season.
Look, the Royals are in a good position here. They are not under pressure or a deadline to trade Perez, the way they are with Herrera (who is owed more than $4 million the rest of the year) or Moustakas (who cannot bring back a compensation pick through free agency).
So they can be patient. They can wait for the right deal. But at the moment, there is little indication the Royals are even open to the idea of trading Perez. That's fine, if the goal is to give fans a reason to watch a struggling team the next few years.
But not if the goal is to give fans a winning team in the future.