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January 9, 2000
An Early End to Spring
The Johnny Damon Trade
It happens every year. Every year I find some way to believe. Every winter I shed my analyst's glasses and look at my Kansas City Royals through the eyes of a fan. A fan looking for a ray of hope. A fan willing to overlook holes at half a dozen positions. A fan willing to forgive the lamentable decisions of seasons past. A fan willing to stand squarely in the face of reason and think that maybe, just maybe, this is our year.
And every year, the Royals do something so outlandish, so absurd, so oh-my-God-you-have-to-be-kidding stupid, that like a sucker punch to the groin it drops me to my knees, leaving me breathless, in a lot of pain, and embarrassed that I didn't see it coming.
Last year, the Royals ripped my heart out in a two-staged procedure. They dumped Jeremy Giambi for a pitcher who was last good in 1993, then sold Sal Fasano for enough cash to pay Rey Sanchez's salary for about four days.
This year, the Royals were kind enough to get the beating over with before spring training even started.
Anytime nine players--only seven of whom have been identified--change teams in a single transaction, the size of the deal makes it unwieldy to examine all at once. There's a good reason for that: it makes it very difficult for the average fan (or average journalist) to pin a GM down and say, "Allard really screwed the pooch today." There are just too many variables involved.
So let's get rid of some of those variables. I'll focus on this deal strictly from the Royals' standpoint, and break it down into three smaller trades.
Johnny Damon, Mark Ellis, and a player to be named later for Roberto Hernandez, Angel Berroa, and A.J. Hinch becomes:
Johnny Damon for Roberto Hernandez
Mark Ellis for Angel Berroa
PTBNL for A.J. Hinch
I'll work from the bottom up, clearing the scraps away from the table before we look at the meat of the trade:
PTBNL for A.J. Hinch
I have no idea who the PTBNL is, but out of respect for the Royals I'll assume it's no one who is any good. That makes him directly comparable to A.J. Hinch, who we already know is no good. With 550 major-league at-bats under his belt, Hinch's career averages are .225/.284/.342. In past seasons, at least, he scalded the ball in Triple-A. In 2000, playing the entire season in a good hitters' park in the Pacific Coast League, Hinch hit .266/.344/.374. When the A's signed Mark Guthrie a few days ago, it was widely assumed that they would release Hinch in order to clear space on the 40-man roster. It's pretty clear that Hinch's stock is trading somewhere in dot-com territory.
A player to be named later for a player about to be released. I'd call that a wash.
Mark Ellis for Angel Berroa
Mark Ellis and Angel Berroa are both shortstops who spent virtually all of 2000 playing every day in a fast-A league, making them directly comparable. In Berroa, the Royals get a player whose defensive skills are considered outstanding, but who made 54 errors last season. He also has some pop in his bat, hitting .277/.337/.434, but in one of the best hitters' parks in the minor leagues.
Ellis, on the other hand, has only adequate range and a so-so arm, but positions himself well and has very reliable hands, making him a potential Mark Loretta-type shortstop. Ellis hit .302/.404/.411, but in one of the worst hitters' parks in the minors.
Ellis is the better player at this point and would be able to contribute sooner, but Berroa is nearly three years younger than Ellis (21 vs. 24). This part of the deal is pretty even. The Royals can claim that the potential for Berroa to give them the long-term solution at shortstop they need gives them the edge, and they might be right. But Mark Ellis was the most underrated prospect in their organization, and the fact that Billy Beane managed to pry him loose at the same time that he got Damon speaks volumes.
It's also worth noting that there are seven hitters among the A's Top 10 Prospects according to Baseball America, and Berroa has by far the worst plate discipline of the seven.
Johnny Damon for Roberto Hernandez
If you think that the Royals couldn't have done better than acquiring a 36-year-old reliever who gave up more than a hit an inning last season for Johnny Damon, I have great news for you: you may be qualified for a front office position in Kansas City.
Does this help the Royals for 2001? Johnny Damon was the best center fielder in the league last season after Bernie Williams. Roberto Hernandez wasn't one of the five best closers in the league. Does trading an All-Star center fielder for a slightly above-average closer improve your team?
Does this help the Royals for 2002? How can it? If you accept the premise that the other four players in this deal are roughly comparable, then the Royals didn't obtain any prospects for Damon at all. True, Damon would walk after the season while Hernandez will still be under contract. So there's your future payoff: a 37-year-old closer for one more season.
No doubt some journalists will report that the Royals got exactly what they needed for Johnny Damon. They wanted an established closer, and they got one. They wanted solutions at shortstop and catcher, and they got those, too. How could they have done better?
Except that they didn't get a solution at catcher, they got a third-string failed prospect who could have been had for a song--a Backstreet Boys song. If Allard Baird thought A.J. Hinch was a solution to his catching woes, he could have waited until Billy Beane released him, or he could have worked out a sweetheart deal. Wasn't he paying attention last season, when Beane used the exact same tactics to extract Sal Fasano from the Royals? And they just traded one shortstop solution for another that was longer on defense but shorter on offense.
The Royals can spin this any way they want. They can point out all the ancillary benefits of making this trade. Damon didn't want to be a Royal anymore. Carlos Beltran should rebuild his confidence now that the team has given him a vote of confidence by returning the center-field job to him. The impact of a dependable closer should do wonders for the team's psyche. The Royals may actually have a quality shortstop prospect for the first time in history.
Those are all legitimate points. But they address the wrong question: will this trade help the Royals?
I don't know. Allard Baird doesn't know. Nobody knows exactly how this trade will end up, how all the repercussions will play out, whether Beltran will benefit from escaping Damon's shadow, whether Jeff Suppan will pitch better with the confidence that all he has to do is give the lead to his bullpen after seven innings, whether the Royals will grab the best available player in this year's draft instead of the best available shortstop.
That's a question that won't be answered for years.
But here's a question I can answer: was this the best possible deal the Royals could have made for Damon?
No. N-O. Not today, not tomorrow, not on July. There is no way on God's green earth that with the Mets and Dodgers desperate for a center fielder, with the Braves in the market for a corner outfielder, with the Mariners and Devil Rays and--as the A's showed--any number of anonymous teams interested in the best position player on baseball's trading block, that the Royals couldn't have done better than to fetch an old, fading closer who, at $6 million a year, can't even claim to help David Glass's bottom line.
This isn't the first blow I've taken as a Royals fan, and it likely isn't the last. But it might just be the cruelest, because of whence it came. I had learned to expect the unexpected and the inexplicable from Herk Robinson, and I could always remind himself that his days at the helm of the Royals' ship were numbered.
I had high hopes for Allard Baird. I believed that he would be everything that Robinson wasn't, that he would show more faith in his organization's own prospects, that he would have a better understanding of baseball's economics, and, above all, that he would be proactive, not reactive. He wouldn't wait until he had no leverage before trading Johnny Damon. He wouldn't wait for the best possible deal to come to him, he'd wear out phone lines and other GM's ears until he found the best possible deal wherever it might be.
Today, Baird showed none of that. He made a deal he didn't have to make because he thought he had to make it. He showed, frankly, that he isn't able to break out of Robinson's mold. And as long as Baird is stuck in that mold, the Royals are going to stay in the same rut they've been in for over 10 years now.
Baseball is supposed to be a game where hope springs eternal. But for some of us, spring has ended early this year.