Sam Mellinger

In trading for Ben Zobrist, Royals’ front office again has players’ backs

Ben Zobrist’s addition to the clubhouse is the latest sign that Royals management is all-in when it comes to not just returning to the playoffs, but the World Series.
Ben Zobrist’s addition to the clubhouse is the latest sign that Royals management is all-in when it comes to not just returning to the playoffs, but the World Series. AP

This was a year ago, and the Royals had just come up with bupkis. So much has changed since then. Everything has changed, really. Especially this week. The scene resonates.

This was at the trade deadline last year. Royals officials wanted to improve their team. Tried to improve their team. Nothing worked. The Tigers and A’s, two of the Royals’ chief rivals for a playoff spot, had each traded for No. 1 pitchers.

The Royals got nothing, unless you count rotten luck. A few hours after the deadline passed, Eric Hosmer aggravated a hand injury, and would miss a month's worth of games. The Royals were three games over .500. Many fans and media thought the Royals should be selling pieces in the face of a lost cause.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore has granted many Royals fans' wishes by trading for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. What other wishes do fans want Moore to fulfill?

In a quiet spot at Kauffman Stadium, it was suggested to a club official that at the very least, it would’ve been a nice look for the Royals to add someone for the playoff push. Let the players know the front office has their back.

“How about they have our back?” the club official said.

You know how that story ends. The players had the front office’s back in a magical, beautiful, franchise-changing way. They won 17 of their first 21 games after the empty trade deadline, worked their way into the playoffs, won an epic AL Wild Card Game and played all the way to the seventh game of the World Series.

A team, a franchise, a city — all changed.

A year later, the Royals are among the top stories in baseball. They are the best team in the American League, by a fair margin, but a franchise once obsessed with ending the longest playoff drought in major American sports is now very clearly chasing higher goals.

On Sunday, they filled their biggest need, sending three prospects to the Reds for ace pitcher Johnny Cueto. Already the betting favorites to win the World Series, the Royals strengthened their outlook enough that they’re now being asked about complacency.

Two days later, they filled their next-biggest need, sending two minor leaguers to Oakland for Ben Zobrist, an energetic veteran with some pop in his bat and the ability to play virtually every position. For now, he will play left field. When Alex Gordon returns, Zobrist becomes a potential upgrade in right field and second base. He can also give Alcides Escobar or Mike Moustakas days off.

A year after the players had the front office’s back, in other words, the favor has been returned.

The Royals were a virtual lock to win the AL Central before these trades. They are a heavy favorite to win the American League now.

These moves do precious little to help the Royals’ chances of making the playoffs. They could be the difference in how the Royals do in the playoffs.

This is the strongest and most obvious symbol yet in a franchise makeover, from one used to trading away its best players, to one now trading for other teams’ best players.

The Royals have paid a significant price here. Brandon Finnegan, the centerpiece of the Cueto deal, was a key in the team making last year’s playoffs and beating the A’s in the Wild Card Game. John Lamb is having a promising year at Class AAA and is due a big league promotion soon. Cody Reed is more projectable, in baseball terms, than either.

To get Zobrist, the Royals gave up Sean Manaea, perhaps their top remaining pitching prospect. Aaron Brooks also goes to Oakland.

The Royals may someday regret not having one or some of those pitchers. Their farm system, always the most important thing for small-money teams like the Royals, is thinning.

But at the moment, this is a hungry franchise taking the training wheels off and making a very clear statement about what’s important. It has been nine years since Dayton Moore was hired and the Royals — finally — started operating like a big-league organization.

Most of those nine years have been about developing, and waiting, and patience, and more waiting. That’s all finished.

The Royals may very well have been good enough to advance in the playoffs with the team they had at the end of last week. But, sometimes, you know a burger will fill you up but end up going for the steak anyway.

The Royals’ growth from punch line to power has been fascinating to watch. There is a sort of muscle memory built up that is slowly changing, from expecting the worst to expecting the best, and from constantly worrying about three years from now to being solely focused on right now.

This is a team operating at the height of its collective power, but it is also a roster that is soon to face transition. Gordon could be a free agent after this season. Wade Davis, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland are part of a core that will become significantly more expensive.

Watching the Royals closely, one of the things you notice most is a strong bond both with each other and their fans. That’s true of the players on the field, and it’s just as true of the men who work in the front office.

A championship has become more than a professional pursuit. Players and executives talk about things they hear from friends around town. One club official smiles when he mentions signs his neighbors put in his front yard, like he was a high school football player going to state.

The Royals could have played this more conservatively, perhaps making themselves better in 2018 or 2019. But why not go for it now? Who can be sure what any of this will look like in four years anyway?

Moore grew up in professional baseball with the Braves. Manager Ned Yost spent 12 years coaching in their system. They both often talk of the lessons learned there, almost always in the context of how to build a consistent winner.

But there is another lesson they’ve learned, one that neither talks much about, at least publicly. Those Braves won 14 consecutive division championships. Baseball may never see a run of success like that again.

But they won only one World Series.

Moore and Yost know how precious these opportunities can be. Their players will figure that out someday, once enough time passes and they have that perspective. In the meantime, the Royals are doing everything the can to maximize this chance.

The front office is doing everything it can to have the players’ backs.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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