As we approach the trade deadline, our countdown takes to one of the more overlooked major trades the Royals conducted in the 1980s - #45 Danny Jackson for #46 Kurt Stillwell.
I just watched "Charlie Wilson's War" and although the movie was pretty mediocre, there is a great parable told by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as they celebrate the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Gust Avrakotos: There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, "how wonderful. the boy got a horse" And the Zen master says, "we'll see."
Two years later The boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "how terrible." And the Zen master says, "We'll see."
Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can't cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful."
Charlie Wilson: Now the Zen master says, "We'll see."
In this case, he was illustrating how a victory like the win in Afghanistan can suddenly turn out to be a burden when the freedom-fighters you train later turn into Western-hating Muslim extremists who overthrow their government and plot to bomb American targets.
A less dramatic example might be the Danny Jackson-Kurt Stillwell trade. When the trade was made, it seemed like the Royals had made a great deal, trading an 18 game loser for a promising young shortstop, a position the Royals had failed to effectively fill since the days of Fred Patek. A year later, Jackson won 23 games for the Reds, and it looked like the Royals had repeated the tragedy of the David Cone deal. When their careers were all said and done, however, the Danny Jackson-Kurt Stillwell deal was pretty even. Both ended up being pretty mediocre, but solid players who never quite fulfilled the potential many saw in them.
Danny Jackson was a left-handed pitcher from Aurora, Colorado. He attended the University of Oklahoma, but after one season, transferred to Trinidad Community College. He was taken in the January Secondary Phase of the 1982 Draft first overall by the Kansas City Royals. He immediately pitched well, winning seventeen games between A ball Charleston and AA Jacksonville with a 2.50 ERA. In 1983, at the age of 21, he posted a 3.97 ERA in Omaha and earned a cup of coffee with the Royals.
The Royals opened 1984 with a very young team. They were missing injured players like Dennis Leonard and George Brett, as well as suspended players like Willie Wilson, serving time for violating federal drug laws. They started three outfielders - Butch Davis, Pat Sheridan and Darryl Motley, all of whom had yet to spend a full year in the big leagues. And their rotation featured two rookies - Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson. Jackson started well with a five inning, one run performance against Milwaukee, but he lost his next five starts before being demoted to the bullpen. By June he was back in Omaha, where he posted a 3.67 ERA in sixteen starts.
The Royals summoned Jackson in September for their surprising post-season run and inserted him into the rotation. He lost a tough complete game when he allowed a walk-off home run to Alvin Davis in a 2-1 loss, but pitched effectively overall as the Royals went on to win the division, aided by another rookie Royals pitcher - Bret Saberhagen.
To begin the 1985 season, the Royals trusted a trio of young, second year pitchers - Saberhagen, Gubicza and Jackson, as well as relatively inexperienced older pitchers Bud Black and Charlie Leibrandt.
"Jackson could really help us. I really saw a lot of improvement in him last September. I liked what I saw. If we see a tad more improvement, there is no reason he shouldn't move in and be a starter for us."
-Manager Dick Howser
It was a bold step for a team coming off a division title, but it would turn out to be a smashing success. Jackson got off to an amazing start, tossing complete game shutouts in his first two starts. He tossed another complete game shutout against the rival Twins in June and blanked the Indians a few starts later. He ended the year 14-12 with a 3.42 ERA, third on the club. In thirty-two starts, he gave up just seven home runs. The Royals, with their young rotation, were AL West champs.
In the 1985 American League Championship Series, the Royals got down three games to one against Toronto, needing a win to stave off elimination. They turned to Jackson in Game Five. Jackson had dominated the Blue Jays that year with a 1.99 ERA in three starts. That track record carried into the post-season, as he pitched brilliantly with a complete game shutout in a 2-0 Royals victory to keep them alive.
''Danny had a rough time in the middle innings. Some guys might look to the bullpen in that situation but not Danny Jackson. He wanted the ball.''
''I think Jackson is one of the best left-handers in the league. Give him credit. He got the outs.''
-Blue Jays outfielder Jesse Barfield
The Royals would battle back and defeat the Blue Jays to advance to the World Series against the cross-state Cardinals. Jackson would take the ball in Game One, and would give up just two runs in seven innings. But he would be a hard luck loser as the Royals could manage little offense in the 3-1 defeat. Jackson would get the start again in Game Five, again with the Royals down three games to one. And once again Jackson rose to the challenge with a complete game victory. The Royals would storm back and win the World Championship.
"Danny has done it in the past when we needed a big win. If I had to pick one pitcher to come through for us in a game we had to win, I'd pick Danny Jackson."
-Royals catcher John Wathan
Lowest Post-Season ERA in Royals History (min. 10 innings)
Danny Jackson 1.04 (26 IP)
Renie Martin 1.84 (14 2/3 IP)
Bret Saberhagen 2.16 (33 1/3 IP)
Paul Splittorff 2.79 (38 2/3 IP)
Dan Quisenberry 3.29 (27 1/3 IP)
Jackson began the 1986 season on the disabled list with an ankle injury, then made three relief appearances before joining the rotation in May. He started sluggishly, but ended the year strong, posting a 2.65 ERA in sixteen games after the All-Star break. He ended the year with a 3.20 ERA, tops on the club, but the punchless Royals could provide little offense, and he finished with a disappointing 11-12 record.
1987 was disastrous for Jackson. He dropped nine of his first eleven decisions and was ejected after just two pitches in a game against Cleveland after allegedly throwing at Indians outfielder Brett Butler and instigating a bench clearing brawl. In frustration with his disappointing season, Jackson changed his jersey number, but to no avail. He would finish with a 4.02 ERA and his eighteen losses would be the second most in the league.
The Royals finished 1987 with the worst run production in the league, so General Manager John Schuerholz looked to deal one of his promising young pitchers for a bat. The Cubs offered catcher Jody Davis for Jackson, but a deal was not made. The Royals instead focused on improving the shortstop position. Their shortstops in 1987 had combined to hit an anemic .221/.251/.280. Danny Jackson's fate was about to cross with that of Kurt Stillwell.
Kurt Stillwell was a California kid with a Midwestern attitude, the son of former Major Leaguer Ron Stillwell. He was the second player taken in the 1983 Amateur Draft by the Cincinnati Reds. He hit .324 as an 18 year old in his first pro season, and by 1986 he was a reserve infielder in the big leagues. Manager Pete Rose nicknamed him "Opie" for his boyish looks. Stillwell struggled on defense and didn't dazzle with the bat, but he was young and was considered loaded with potential.
Cincinnati had a logjam of middle infielders with veterans Dave Concepcion, Ron Oester and youngsters Barry Larkin, Jeff Treadway, and Stillwell, all vying for playing time. In 1987, Stillwell was nearly dealt in separate deals for Giants pitchers Rick Reuschel and Padres pitcher Eric Show. That winter, several teams inquired about the young infielder, including the Yankees and Expos. New Reds General Manager Murray Cook wanted to upgrade the Cincinnati pitching staff and asked the Royals about Mark Gubicza. The Royals had three left-handers in their rotation in Jackson, Black, and Leibrandt, and were more willing to deal one of them. At the Winter Meetings, the Royals acquired Kurt Stillwell and pitcher Ted Power for Danny Jackson and shortstop Angel Salazar.
"Our top priority this winter has been to solidify that very key shortstop position. With the acquisition of Stillwell, we believe we have done that. He is regarded as one of the finest young shortstops in baseball and we believe he gives us long-term stability at a very vital position."
-Royals General Manager John Schuerholz
In the spring of 1988, Kurt Stillwell was penciled in as the starting shortstop with hopes he would occupy that position for years to come. He would go hitless in his first eight Royals at-bats before doubling, and hitting an inside-the-park home run against Toronto. Stillwell would slug .458 in April, a number unheard of for a Royals shortstop.
"Being here is new life for me. Great does not cover it. This is where I'm supposed to be. I really feel like I fit in and belong here."
Going into the All-Star break, Stillwell was hitting .261/.337/.428, good for a 117 OPS+. When Ozzie Guillen and Alan Trammell went down with injury, Stillwell was named as an injury replacement on the American League roster. However, he would hit just .231 in the second half, and would miss most of September with injury. Still, he would end the year hitting .251 with 10 home runs and 53 RBI, numbers the Royals hadn't ever seen out of a shortstop.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Danny Jackson was enjoying a career year. He would win a league high 23 games, post a 2.76 ERA, finish second in innings pitched, toss six shutouts, finish second in Cy Young balloting, and ninth in MVP balloting.
''Well, Stillwell is a guy who made the All-Star team at shortstop. I'd make that trade again tomorrow. I said when we made it that Danny would win 20 with the Reds.''
The Royals had high hopes for Stillwell in 1989, to justify dealing Jackson. But Stillwell struggled mightily to begin the season and was hitting under the Mendoza Line by May. He would then catch fire, collecting hits in thirteen of fourteen games, including a three hit, two home run performance in Minnesota. An 0-23 slump in September would drop his average to .261 to end the year. Danny Jackson meanwhile, would make just twenty starts due to injury, posting an awful 5.60 ERA.
Best Season by a Royals Shortstop by OPS+
Jay Bell 1997 - 115 (.291/.368/.461 21 HR 92 RBI)
U L Washington 1982 - 106 (.286/.338/.412 10 HR 60 RBI)
Angel Berroa 2003 - 101 (.287/.338/.451 17 HR 73 RBI)
Kurt Stillwell 1988 - 101 (.251/.322/.399 10 HR 53 RBI)
Kurt Stillwell 1989 - 99 (.261/.325/.380 7 HR 54 RBI)
Stillwell seemed to finally fulfill the star potential many saw in him when he got off to a terrific start in 1990. Over three games in April, he collected nine hits, including three doubles and a home run. He hit .386 in April, leading the league in hitting. He would collect four three-hit games that month, and would go 4-5 on June 13 to lift his average above .300. After that point, he would hit just .205 the rest of the season, bothered in part by a painful kidney stone in July. He would end the year hitting just .249 with just three home runs and a career high twenty-four errors. Danny Jackson made just twenty-one starts, although he improved to a 3.61 ERA.
That off-season, the spry Stillwell gained twenty pounds to bulk up to 185 pounds. He again got off to a hot start, hitting .317 in April, but by Independence Day, he was down to .255. New manager Hal McRae decided to bench Stillwell and third baseman Kevin Seitzer in favor of David Howard and Bill Pecota to improve the defense, infuriating the two veterans. Howard would fail to hit much however, and by September, Stillwell had won his job back. He would finish at .261 with six home runs and 51 RBI. Danny Jackson, having signed with the Chicago Cubs would win just one game and post a 6.75 ERA in fourteen starts.
Stillwell filed for free agency that fall, and despite having a home in suburban Kansas City, he was all too eager to part from the Royals and manager Hal McRae. Stillwell had few kind words for the Royals skipper, feeling he had been scapegoated for the Royals lousy season.
"We never had a relationship. There was no communication whatsoever. Ever. It was just one of those things. You came in, put the uniform on and there was never anything there. It wasn't just me. Very few people on the team, as far as I know, had a relationship where they could sit down and talk to the guy."
The Yankees showed interest in the switch-hitting twenty-six year old, but he ultimately agreed to sign a three year deal with the Padres to play second base. He would play terribly, hitting just .227 in his first season in San Diego, and .215 in his second before being released with a year left on his deal. He would spend 1994-1996 in the minor leagues before getting a handful of at-bats with the Texas Rangers and retiring at the age of 31. Today he works for notorious sports agent Scott Boras in player relations.
Jackson, meanwhile pitched reasonably well for the Cubs in 1992 before being acquired by the Pirates for their pennant push. He was selected by the Florida Marlins in the expansion draft, but before ever wearing the teal garb, he was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1993 he would win twelve games for the NL Champion Phillies. In 1994, he would finish 14-6 with a 3.26 ERA, be named an All-Star, and finish sixth in Cy Young balloting. He signed a three year $10 million deal with the Cardinals, but would win just three games with a 5.78 ERA. He also overcame a battle with thyroid cancer. He retired after the 1997 season, at the age of 35. He still resides in the Kansas City area, owning the entertainment center "Incredabowl" in Overland Park.
At the time of the deal, it looked like the Royals were getting a player to man shortstop for a decade. A year later, it looked like the Royals had made a huge blunder letting Jackson go. Three years later, it looked like the Royals had dealt an average, but injured left-handed starting pitcher for a light-hitting, oft-injured shortstop. Maybe the bad trades aren't really that bad after all. We'll see.