Wow, this is certainly a surprise. Long expected to pitch out of the bullpen for the 2011 Royals, Gil Meche has announced at this hour that he is retiring. I am unsure how this impacts Meche's $12.5 million dollar salary for 2011. (Seemingly everyone is of the belief that he is "walking away from $12 million" though I don't think it's that certain that it's that simple. However, both the Royals and Meche have incentive to portray it that way.)
Gil Meche's time in Kansas City is a perfect example of why long-term contracts, especially for pitchers, are a risk for most of the organizations in baseball. His Royal career is also evidence that, oftentimes, we really don't know what we're talking about. And by we, I mean, just about everyone. In four years the Meche contract went from being a joke, to a huge win for the Royals, to a potential concern, to something of a joke today. It has been seen as one of Dayton Moore's biggest mistakes and greatest triumphs. And if it was actually a little of both, what does that say about how we assign credit and agency in baseball? Was Moore merely lucky, then unlucky? Smart, to a point, then dumb to a point? It's hard to say. After the signing, there were multiple reports that in order to snag Meche, the Royals needed to offer an extra year to the Mariners hurler. Well, that extra year is 2011 and Gil Meche is not planning to pitch in 2011.
In 2007 the Royals signed Gil Meche to an equally stunning 5 year/$55 million dollar contract, one of the most surprising free agent signings of the last decade. Although initially lampooned by nearly everyone, in 2007, the Royals sold the move as a franchise altering decision. The Meche signing was a signal to the rest of the league: the Royals are serious! the Royals are players on the FA market! the Royals will spend money!
For at least the next two years, however, the Meche contract was also seen as evidence that Dayton Moore knew how to find pitchers. Royal pitching improved dramatically in 2007, and remained better than usual in 2008. Gil Meche, the embattled Gil Meche, the hilarious ace, stunningly emerged as a 4-5 win pitcher (Fangraphs WAR) in 2007-08. Meche's walks and homers allowed went down, and in 2008 he posted the highest K rate of his career. If the Royals wanted Meche to stabilize (certainly a franchise buzzword even then) a young rotation, Meche certainly did. He made 34 starts in both '07 and '08, throwing a total of 426 innings. The Royals, so it seemed, really did know what they were doing.
In 2009 however, things turned. Injury issues returned for Meche. The walks returned, the strikeouts slowed down and Meche began sliding towards mediocrity, with dark shadowings of even worse performance looming. There's something of a consensus that Trey Hillman mismanaged Meche's injuries so thoroughly, that he more or less destroyed Meche's career. Can it be that simple? Are decisions like that really left up to the strange middle aged man wearing a player's uniform that we call the manager? Oh Gil, why do you bring out such questions?
And thus, we had the collapse of 2009 and the palsy of 2010: Meche here, Meche there, Meche somewhat weirdly deciding not to have surgery done, Meche reinventing himself as a reliever. From this computer, I thought Meche was trying too hard at the tough guy routine, yet people in the know told me the opposite: that Meche was seen as soft, throughout baseball, while there was a major break between the player and the team's medical staff. I can't say. More ambiguity.
Now, out of nowhere, he's done. For the last three years, it has been like this for Gil Meche. It would not surprise me if he un-retires in six months, and we discover he's learning the palmball in the Mexican Leagues. It wouldn't surprise me if he resurfaces with the 2013 Red Sox or if we never hear from him again.
All we can say for his Royal legacy is that, sadly, he did not alter the direction of the franchise. His $55 million may have sent a message to the industry, but ultimately that message was meaningless. The Royal payroll ebbed and flowed according to other factors. Perhaps most critically, the Royals are set to play out his 5 year contract, without a once sniffing .500. If Meche was brought in to stabilize the rotation, emphatically, over the course of his contract, he did not. If he was brought in to lead the young pitchers to glory, emphatically, he did not. If he was brought in to win over fans, emphatically, he did not. I cannot fail to see that every soft factor justification of this signing was a complete failure.
What Gil Meche did, however, was pitch very well for two seasons. His performance in a third, that 2009 campaign when the paint began to come off of the walls, wasn't one to discard either. Not in Kansas City. All told however, when you are set to barely pitch for a full half of your contract, you won't be remembered fondly.
Gil Meche was supposed to shape Dayton Moore's regime in KC. Oddly, the overall effect of all the ups and downs is simply a negation. Five years, $55 million was supposed to mean so much, for everyone. Four years later, it means almost nothing.