Carlos Beltrán is still chugging along, smacking home runs for the Houston Astros this year, in what could be the twilight of a Hall of Fame career. That kind of star potential was evident even from his early days, when he was Rookie of the Year with the Royals in 1999. But as soon as Beltrán hit it big with the Royals, fans began to countdown when he would depart. It turns out, perhaps Beltrán could have stayed in Kansas City a bit longer had Royals ownership not been so stubborn.
Bob Dutton was the Royals beat writer for the Kansas City Star from 2000 to 2013, moving on to the Tacoma News Tribune to cover the Mariners for a few seasons before retiring last month. He joined current Royals beat writer Rustin Dodd recently on a podcast to talk about the Royals of those days, and it turns out the Royals almost had a deal to keep Beltrán in Kansas City a bit longer. He recounts this story from before the 2003 season:
Beltrán wanted to stay. The Royals had a deal negotiated with him - they went around Boras - and had a deal in place for three years for $25 million.....Way under the market deal. They took it upstairs and Dan Glass said “well, get him to sign it for $24 million.”....They took it back to Beltrán and not surprisingly he was ticked off and he broke off negotiations.
Sure, the Glass family has been quite generous with their pocketbook in recent years, but when people yell “GLASS IS CHEAP!” this is what they are talking about. The Royals were pennywise and pound-foolish. Just to give you an idea of how below-market that deal was, under the arbitration system, Beltrán was paid $15 million over those two seasons. So he was basically willing to give the Royals a one-year extension at just $10 million, a bargain for an All-Star caliber player in his prime. The Glass family thought they could save a million bucks and the rest is history.
Still, the Royals had a chance to cash Beltrán in for some high-upside prospects. With two years before Beltrán could reach free agency, the Royals had the outline of a deal in place with the Texas Rangers.
They had a trade virtually in place in spring training 2003 with the Rangers. They were going to get Michael Young, Hank Blalock, and somebody else - a centerfielder, outfielder, someone else. And the Royals were going to give up a minor leaguer. That’s what they were discussing, the final pieces.
Then Beltran strained his oblique, keeping him out six weeks, putting a deal on hold. The Royals then got off to a great start, and the club was no longer willing to deal him. They eventually dealt him in June of 2004 to the Houston Astros in a three-team trade that netted the Royals Mark Teahen, John Buck, and Mike Wood.
What would the Royals have gotten from the Rangers? Hank Blalock had been the #3 prospect in all of baseball before the 2002 season, behind only Josh Beckett and Mark Prior. The third baseman spent 49 games with the Rangers that year at age 21. He exceeded Rookie of the Year eligibility by 17 at-bats, otherwise he would have won 2003 American League Rookie of the Year over both Angel Berroa and Hideki Matsui. He hit .300/.350/.522 with 29 HR 90 RBI and 6.4 rWAR that year, the first of back-to-back All-Star seasons. In his first six full MLB seasons, he hit .278/.338/.473 with 124 home runs and 13.7 rWAR.
But Blalock’s career nose-dived pretty quickly, unlike the other player the Royals could have acquired - Michael Young. Young was 25 back in 2003, and had two years of MLB experience as a mediocre second baseman. He hit .262/.308/.382 with 11 HR 49 RBI and 2.0 rWAR in 2002, nothing to write home about. Young’s career really took off in 2003, the first of five consecutive seasons he would hit .300 or greater. He would become a seven-time All-Star, a batting champ, and a Gold Glove shortstop. He would retire in 2013 with 2,375 hits and a career line of .300/.346/.441.
Would it really have mattered that much? Probably not. Those Royals teams were bad, bad, bad, bad. But while I appreciate the comedy stylings of Mark Teahen, the Rangers deal would have been a much, much better return.
Dutton shares some other great stories on Jermaine Dye, Zack Greinke (with a nice shout out to Royals Review!), and he debates Royals Hall of Fame credentials for players of that era (David DeJesus?) It’s a great discussion and if Bob ever writes a book on that era of Royals baseball, I’ll be the first one in line to buy it.