In June of 2006 the Royals traded for Joey Gathright. If it wasn't Dayton's first transaction, it was certainly in the first five, and from the beginning it was seen, in a way that in retrospect was basically wholly incorrect, as a symbolic beginning of the Moore Era.
Howell always seemed like a low-upside, low-downside guy to me, someone in the mold of Mike Wood on a good day. As the Royals got in the habit of doing, they rushed him to the Majors, having him make his first start against the Diamondbacks only a year after being drafted and becoming one of the first players from the 2004 Draft to appear in the Bigs.
Of course, the Royals took that low-downside that Howell seemed to possess coming out of Texas and pushed it down further than anyone imagined; culminating in a career 6.19 ERA. Still, Howell is still just 23, hardly cooked as a pitcher, much less as a pitching prospect. But then again, what would a tools-hound from the Braves want with a college pitcher? Better to bet on the 5% chance that Joey Gathright turns into Gary Pettis or Tom Goodwin, themselves pretty limited players. Right? If we can get some random infielder (Cortez) thrown in, all the better.
Still, its a pretty marginal trade all in all. But Howell nonetheless has a better chance of being an All-Star level player someday than Gathright, who's already 25.
On the positive side, with a somewhat fly-ball heavy staff, the Royals might do well to employ Gathright instead of Emil on some nights. Sure, the lineup will still suffer, but at least we might, just might have some decent outfield defense, and the Royals shouldn't be turning down opportunities to be decent at anything.
Ultimately, no matter what we thought at the time, the Gathright trade didn't signal a new emphasis on speed, didn't usher in a series of similar defense first moves, didn't even really initiate a youth movement. Nearly three years later, the Royals, offensively at least, are not really younger, faster or better defensively. In many respects, they're older, slower and more iron-gloved. (For a wider look at Moore's first set of moves, click here.) Point the finger at me, amongst others of varying influence. For two years I probably made five hundred jokes about Gathright's speed and how much Moore/Hillman over-valued it. Perhaps they did, in his specific case, but it wasn't enough of a fetish to really color other transactions.
No, what the move did show, in retrospect, was two tendencies that we've really come to understand this off-season. First, more specifically, Dayton Moore had his doubts about David DeJesus in center from the beginning. From where I sit, its a debatable concern, not unreasonable, but perhaps not worth the resources he's allocated to solve the problem. Those resources being J.P. Howell, Ramon Ramirez and Coco Crisp's salary. If it was a questionable move last month, it was certainly more questionable two years ago, when David was much better in centerfield. Secondly, the Gathright trade was an early glimpse at how Moore likes to operate: he trades relievers. A lot.
For me, the interesting thing about Gathright's time in Kansas City is that most of us seem to have always been wrong about it. Early on, the casual fans and the more old-school media seemed to have loved it, while internet types like me acted like it was the worst move ever. Post-acquisition the Royals started playing Gator pretty much full time, and in 2006 as a Royal he hit .262/.332/.328, an unacceptable line. Despite the assertions from guys like me that Moore would stick with Gathright, play him full-time in center, bat him leadoff and marry off one of his daughters to him in 2007, that 100% didn't happen. Gator didn't join the Royals until June, and when he did, he played almost exclusively in left, and mostly hit ninth. The negativity remained, but the funny thing is, he was damn near the only guy on the team trying to work the count and get on-base, supposedly the one thing us BP-clones thought was important. Gathright hit .307/.371/.342 in 2007 and hardly anyone gave him any credit for it. Weirdly, he was only successful on nine of seventeen stolen-base attempts, which may have contributed to the organization, and the casual fans, souring on him.
Enter Trey Hillman.
While most of us had missed it at the time, the arrival of Hillman was not further evidence of a Gathright ascendency, it was merely a minor uptick in an otherwise downward spiral. Hillman slotted Gathright in center with regularity in April, and through April 24, 2007, viewed him as the leadoff man. With Gathright hitting .266 (I'm going to be a smartass and assume that this was all Hillman looked at, or was motivated by) through the team's first twenty one games, Gator was demoted, and entered into a schizoid usage pattern: sometimes leading off, sometimes hitting second (!) but mostly working out of the nine-hole. Now, it must be said, these batting order positions are, in reality, largely irrelevent and ineffectual in terms of how the Royals perform. What they do reveal, however, is what the team thinks of the player. In this case, the Royals were beginning to see that Gathright wasn't the answer, a feeling further evidenced by the seemingly pointless callup of Mitch Maier in the season's final quarter. Gathright would hit .254/.311/.272 in 2008.
Sometime around mid-season 2008 however, with the increased attention to defense and a realization that, in a good year, Gathright might not be a terrible OBP guy, even an asset, many of us internet/saber-types became more positive on Gathright than the mainstream fans now were. And that's more or less where I stand today. Gathright can be a useful player and an asset to a team in the right circumstances. He's the baseball equivalent of a luxury item, like say one of those minauture wine refrigerators. Gathright has one fundamental limitation: he does not hit for power. I don't mean that in the sense that Mark Teahen or David DeJesus aren't power hitters. No, Gathright does... not.. hit... for... power. In any way. None. Gathight looks at Willie Harris with envy.
He does not hit homers, ever. He does not triple, ever. He does not hit doubles, ever. In 1239 big league PAs, Gathright has a total of thirty eight extra-base hits. He walks, hit hits singles, that's it, and on most team that just isn't good enough. He's one of the most extreme slap hitters in the modern era. Like the wine fridge, he's a waste of money (or in this case a roster spot) unless you have a good enough lineup around him and the right combination of slow outfielders who he can be a super-sub for. He's a National League player. Not because he's fast and the NL is the real baseball and yaaaaa speeeed, but because his attributes can be best used in games that feature lots of in-game roster machination due to the pitcher spot always coming up. On the Royals, he was like a wine fridge filled with $8 dollar bottles of Shiraz.
That the Cubs would sign Gathright so quickly after he was non-tendered, suggests that Moore severed ties with Gator in much the same way he began them: misjudging things. The man clearly had some trade value, but we shouldn't go too far in overstating these things. The Cubs seem like a nice fit for Gathright, but not a perfect one, since they already have a number of solid utility types and are already carrying one impotent outfield bat (Fukudome) anyway.
So, happy trails, Joey. You're one two-stolen base game in July way from being the hero to millions of Cubs fans for awhile, and playing for the Cubs is probably a much funner experience than being a Royal. And if you like drunk young women, albeit of a midwestern variety, then you're going to love Wrigleyville. You likely never read this site, or remotely heard of it, but know that many of the hundreds of in-game comments and snide remarks I made about you were not quite fair. If the Royals were better, I'd still want you around.