Revisiting the Beltran Trade

With the Santana drama finally behind us - it was somehow appropriate that JoePo's satirical blast came just before the trade was finalized - I'm sure more than one fan here in the Midwest was reminded of the Royals' predicament at the turn of the century, when the Royals traded Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran largely because of budget concerns. Dipping into fansites and blogs over the last week would make one think it was 2000 again, instead of 2008, with real consternation about the fact that the Twins had to trade Santana. It's less of an issue now, but from the mid-90s on a pervading sense of loathing dominated our mindset as Royals fans, and indeed, the mindset of many fans across the country, with the cause being a profound sense of economic injustice. After some modest changes by MLB and the success of small-market teams in Oakland and Minnesota, that's less of a concern now, and certainly nothing like the issue it was then. Maybe the reason everyone missed or looked the other way on steroids was the fact that talk radio and column inches were dominated by endless recitations, often in the same purple prose we've come to expect from steroids sermonizing, of how unfair the game's salary structure was. Moreover, the ownership in many cities went out of its way to perpetuate this meme, to varying degrees of sincerity. As you may recall, numerous protests actually took place during Royals-Yankees games here in Kansas City, and a riot damn near broke out when Chuck Knoblauch (illustrious former Royal) returned to the Metrodome in 2001. I wasn't blogging then, but I was fairly active on a Royals yahoo-groups email list. After every losing streak, every trading deadline (whether the Royals were involved or not) and every major off-season signing, we'd flare up into a 15-email thread about how THE SYSTEM HAS GOT TO CHANGE!

By the time Carlos Beltran was traded in 2004, the anger of those times was fading. Moneyball had been out for a year, popularizing the legend of Billy Beane, and shifting the discussion from salaries to smarts. Of course, for the hyper-fandom that was already active online, everyone already knew about the A's. Better yet, the Yankees stopped winning every year, which seemed to help immensely. Yes, the Royals were in a tough spot, but if they were smart, if they drafted well, if they took the right chances, it wouldn't matter. At sites like Baseball Prospectus, people actually started to argue that having a small payroll was actually a blessing in disguise because you never killed yourself with a horrible Chan Ho Park type contract in the first place. So, for a variety of reasons - including the absolute insanity of the Red Sox-Yankees universe of hype that lasted from 03-05 - people started to focus on other things, including steroids.

Amazingly, first as a small-market apostate to the Yankees, then as an accused PEDs user, Chuck Knoblauch has actually destroyed our National Innocence twice.

 For that reason, the Beltran Trade was a hinge moment for Royals fans, connecting on one side to all the bad old days of the post-strike era and on the other side, reaching forward to happier times, including today. There'd been at least two solid years of whining and self-pitying regarding his inevitable trade or worse, empty free agent departure, a mood deeply tied to the team's previous experiences with Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye. Damon was the first to go, traded in January of 2001 to Oakland, and Jermaine Dye was traded in-season later that year, to, uhh, Oakland again. Aside from about a year long period from May 2003 to May 2004, when we all still loved Berroa, the fanbase was not only angry to see those players go, but bitter at how Allard Baird had been fleeced by Billy Beane. As horrible as it was to be a Royals fan in, say, 2005, when we were setting new records for losing EVERY season, I still contend it was actually much worse in 2002: the Royals had no money to spend and were being run by fools.

Of course, the complete randomness of 2003 threw everything off in everyone's mind for at least another two years. Its hard to imagine now, but there was actually an eighteen month period (or so) when Allard Baird was being supported by not only casual fans, but the hardcores as well, including the national smart set. He'd always had good scouting bona fides and had had some success finding bit players in strange places. Now, he'd embraced OBP and a Beane-esque drafting strategy. He choose Calvin Pickering over Ken Harvey (for about five seconds) and on and on. The ironic thing is this: by the time he traded Beltran, just about everyone had given up on him again, even though in hindsight, its hard to imagine a better move he ever made. When the Royals collapsed again in 2004, we were back at square one: we can't keep our good players, and we trade them for pennies on the dollar. It didn't help either when it turned out that, again, Oakland was involved as one of the trading partners.

So, in honor of the Santana trade, in honor of all these bad memories, lets look back at the Beltran deal, when the Royals said goodbye to likely the best position player the team had had since George Brett. The way we were, 2004.

The package:

Beltran traded as part of a 3-team trade by the Kansas City Royals to the Houston Astros. The Oakland Athletics sent Mike Wood and Mark Teahen to the Kansas City Royals. The Houston Astros sent Octavio Dotel to the Oakland Athletics. The Houston Astros sent John Buck and cash to the Kansas City Royals.

So the Astros got Beltran and the A's got Dotel.

The Royals got:

  1. Mike Wood
  2. Mark Teahen
  3. John Buck
  4. Cash
Buck and Wood were added to the big league roster and both made their debuts with the Royals in less than a week's time. Teahen played out the rest of 2004 in Omaha (were his production immediately plummeted) and debuted as a starter in 2005. As for the cash, according to insiders, Christmas 2004 for the Glass family was among the best on record. If I may signpost rather robotically again, lets take a look at these parts one-by-one, save the cash.
  1. Mike Wood (stats). Wood gave the Royals 34 big league starts from 2004-6, as well as 53 additional appearances out of the bullpen. He was a bit below average in '04 and '06, but in '05 he posted an ERA+ of 99 across 115 innings, all while earning the league minimum. Nowadays, if a Dayton Moore pickup manages the same, we all take it as another data point in the merits of the Bravest Way to run a baseball team. (Just sayin'.) While Wood struggled with injuries - like 90% of young pitchers - there were scenarios in which he could have been a valuable swingman, especially if the team was developing a young rotation. The Royals were sorta trying to do this at the time, but nearly everyone turned out to be horrible. In 2006 Wood started strong but was inconsistent and sometimes terrible and his days in KC came to an end. Usually the throw-in guy in a trade is a C prospect who never does anything. In this case, Mike Wood was the throw-in, a low-ceiling type who nevertheless has shown enough that, barring major injury, he'll keep getting one-year deals and Spring Training invites until he's 35. If he strings together 30 good innings one year and lucks into a low-ERA, he'll retire with at least $10 million in his pocket. I must admit I was always irrationally partial to Wood, and am convinced the Royals misused him (see Affeldt, Jeremy) and only saw what he couldn't do, not what he could.
  2. John Buck (stats) Buck was a well-known prospect when the Royals acquired him, although his stock was falling after a rough season at AAA in 2003. Thanks to the Beltran trade, the Royals got four years of John Buck for around $1.4 million, not bad when you consider, despite some flaws, he's still an adequate, if not above-average catcher. (Catching is at a weird place right now, it seems like there's no middle class, just a few truly great hitters, then a million Paul Bakos.) This is, as Royals Authority put it, The Funny Thing About John Buck. Like his fellow Beltran-bountymate Mark Teahen, Buck is something of an enigma, mixing long stretches where he looks awful and topped out, with intense, brightly lit periods of incredible brilliance, like fireworks against a black sky. In '04, '06 and '07, his monthly splits were all over the place. He's nearly a lock to give you one month when he posts a SLG over .500 and another around .150, year after year. In 2004, as a rookie playing for no real reason, for example, his monthly SLGs went like this: .154, .231, .513, .538. In 2006 his monthly OPS breakdown was: .598, .674, .953, .550, .646, .844. Of course, in many ways this is normal for many players, its only more exaggerated with low BA guys. Still, its all part of the John Buck experience. All of that being said, for where he is on the pay-scale, with a nearly impeccable record of health, John Buck is an asset. Not a huge one, but still certainly an effective use of his roster spot.
  3. Mark Teahen (stats) Does anyone else have Teahen fatigue? In April of 2006 I wrote, in an interview with a Devil Rays blog, "it seems like I spend my whole life talking about Mark Teahen", which of course was BEFORE he became one of the most mysterious players in baseball. He's a fan favorite, seems to be a genuinely good dude, and has a well-rounded skill set and team-first personality that makes him someone you want to succeed. Yet, we still don't know what he's going to be, no matter how much we talk about it. Its ok Mark, he's only 25, and has been documented, men aren't exactly attacking their 20s with great brio anymore. I've got a few years on Mark myself, and my life is pretty pathetically nebulous. Basically, my fiancée sees potential and everyone else sees another random grad student. So I know how he must feel, minus the bank account and tribute videos on youtube. I get it. OK... lets run through this again: good OBP, solid BA, less than frightening power, especially for a corner outfielder. Power has made appearances before, it could come back, but, it might not. (Obligatory mention of the fact that he was an absolute man for the second-half of 2006.) Solid glove at multiple positions, reportedly one of the better baserunners in the American League. Was the team MVP in 2006. Injuries have played a role in uneven production. Has only cost the Royals close to the league minimum for three seasons.
So where does that leave us? The most legitimate criticism of the trade is that Baird didn't get back an elite player in return. There is a school of thought that would argue that the Royals would have been better off grabbing three 18 year old pitchers with a 1% chance of becoming elite players. (This was Sheehan's take, despite also being a somewhat old-school attitude.) What Baird did, quite obviously, was go the exact other way, walking away with three guys who nobody thought had any upside. While we could get into linguistic arguments about what makes an "elite" player, the rather incredible thing is that, actually, Teahen and Buck both have a larger chance of breaking out than most imagined for them when they were prospects. At the time, many were convinced that Baird was fixated on fitting certain positional needs, as opposed to finding the best players available. Two of his desired spots were catcher and third, where the Royals had almost nothing coming up in the system. Perhaps Baird could have pulled a better deal if he didn't think this way, but we'll likely never know. (Allard Baird's tell-all interview with RR, coming in 2011!)

At the very least, the Royals received, roughly, nine seasons of adequate performance, at the league-minimum salary from Wood, Teahen and Buck in exchange for half a season of Carlos Beltran. If either Buck or Teahen had truly flamed out, then I think we'd have to evaluate the trade differently, but of course that didn't happen. Getting low-upside guys is bland and not generally the way to go. But when you get THREE low-upside fellas who actually do alright, well, that's a different story. It's the low-upsiders who stall in AAA that kill you. Without Teahen and Buck, we'd have been cursed with even more low-level FA types that would have done nothing but waste the team's money and time. Considering what catcher has looked like, especially, this is something to be thankful for. In a pure baseball sense, Teahen's ridiculous two-month run in 2006 was about a good as Beltran ever was, so he replaced the elite production we'd lost to that trade right there. Of course, it doesn't work that way, but, there you go.

While you can't compare the environments for deals precisely, I think its safe to say Allard Baird got more for half a season of Carlos Beltran than the Twins got for a year of Johan Santana. More importantly, somewhat amazingly, the trade actually has become something of a cornerstone of the franchise. Buck and Teahen haven't become All-Stars, but they are foundational members of the roster, and have kept the Royals afloat simply by not being major disasters. There is a secret merit in simply not being terrible, in any field. Remember this my children.

The Beltran trade ended one era and began another. Unfortunately, Allard wasn't going to be part of that new age, but I think all parties are at peace with that now.  And so, Royals Review nods approvingly in the general direction of the memory of Allard Baird's time in KC. Towards Boston I guess, or wherever Allard is tonight. The Beltran trade was that rarest of creatures, a ménage a trois in which everyone, Houston, Oakland and Kansas City, left happy.



---------

Postscript

Finally, a personal note. Back in 2004, when the trade hit, I was pecking away on Blogger, long before anyone had dreamed up what would become Royals Review. The night the trade was made, I was staying at my grandparents' house. They actually had internet access, but it was a) dialup on a b) ancient computer with no memory. The kind of situation where you click the "text-only" option if you see it on a website. Sometime after dinner I saw the trade announcer on ESPN, and immediately retired to the den to post something on my blog. This was news! The world waited for me! I mean, I was gonna get like 50 hits tonight alone!

Despite also passing along Neyer's approval, I'm struck by how negative I was. But, returning to the beginning of this post, those were pretty dark times for us in Royals land. Incidentally, the trade came just as the always-frightening Cardinals series loomed, and they were, uhh, kinda awesome in 2004. Well, the Royals would be swept in that series, but that's neither here nor there. My first major post (I won't quote the whole thing) said this:

Its finally happened. Damn, the most important day of the season and the best I can do for internet is a pretty sketchy dialup on the road.

[...]
I'll focus tomorrow on what the Royals got, right now its time to think about what they've lost, and what they once had. Carlos Beltran, when you factor in his defensive value at a critical position (on a flyball staff) has to be one of the top 6 Royals ever, and probably the most complete player since Brett's retirement. Of course, I was pretty high on Sweeney once, and since then he's slid closer and closer to league average.

Finally, I guess it goes without saying that Beltran wasn't going to be resigned. Allard went for it this season, and largely because of a) the offense completely tanking and b) sporting perhaps the worst starting 5 in the AL it didn't work out. When all was lost, he started trading.

More tomorrow.

Seacrest Out.

That's the kind of brilliant analysis you can only get from a blog, huh!

Here was what I said the next day, when I really bought into the Sheehan line.

I think, in a nutshell, Sheehan's isolated the most critical issues here, and part of what became the Beltran Paradox: As noted before, and above, Beltran's an elite level talent, but, at the same time, because of his pending free agency, his trade value is somewhat hard to define. In Allard's defense, the Royals were able to get "something" out of the situation, as opposed to the compensatory pick and a bag of chips that they would've got otherwise.

That being said, is there anything else positive that can be said about this trade? Its hard to say that the ROyals really added a piece to their puzzle, or did anything that will drive them closer to a championship. They're quite high on Teahen, and, after whats happened with Berroa, perhaps that should mean a tad more than it once did. Sheehan seems to be echoing something of a stathead consensus on Teahen, namely that he's got no ceiling and limited upside. Fair enough. We can return to the original point that the Royals needed something, and in so doing, we complete the rhetorical circle.

Still, this move doesn't make the Royals better. Not better today, not better in a year, not better in 3 years. The team with the worst record in the American League just got worse.

BELIEVE

I may have to bring back the sarcastic closing-line of BELIEVE in 2008. Unfortunately, I think the Royals won't lose enough to really make it pay off.

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