I’m starting a new series called “What If” where I explore alternate universes of Royals baseball to find out what could have happened differently. Today, we look back at one of the worst trades in Royals history. What if the Royals never trade David Cone for Ed Hearn?
David Cone grew up in the Northeast district of Kansas City and attended Rockhurst High School. Rockhurst had no high school baseball team at the time, so Cone played in the summer Ban Johnson League and aspired to play football at Mizzou. Those plans were shelved when he attracted the attention of his hometown Royals by throwing 88 mph at a tryout, and they selected him in the third round of the 1981 draft.
Cone excelled in his first year, and at age 19 he put up one of the best minor league pitching lines in Royals history by winning 16 games with a 2.08 ERA in 177 innings at A-ball. The next spring, he tore his ACL in spring training and missed the entire season. When he returned, he lost his command, walking more batters than he struck out in Double-A. His numbers were even worse the next season at Omaha, so the Royals moved him to the bullpen in 1986 where he performed well in a second tour of Triple-A, earning a brief stint in the big leagues that June.
The Royals went into the 1987 season looking to rebound from a disappointing losing season in 1986 that had been overshadowed by the tragic death of beloved manager Dick Howser. The club was loaded with pitching, with a set rotation that included Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Charlie Leibrandt, and Danny Jackson. Cone was rumored in trade talks with Seattle for Danny Tartabull, but the Royals would acquire the young Mariners slugger in a five-player trade for former first-round pick Scott Bankhead.
Cone came armed with two new pitches in spring training - a sidearm slider and a split-fingered fastball, and he was expected to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation with Bud Black. But at the end of spring training, Royals General Manager John Schuerholz made a pair of surprising trades that would change Royals history.
Schuerholz had lost confidence in the abilities of veteran catcher Jim Sundberg, the Gold Glover who had started on their 1985 championship club. Urged by top scout Tom Ferrick, the Royals had been scouting Mets backup catcher Ed Hearn the previous summer. Hearn had filled in while All-Star Gary Carter was out with injury in 1986 and earned praise for his defense, while hitting a solid .265/.322/.390 in 49 games. In late March, the Royals shipped Cone and outfielder Chris Jelic to the Mets for Hearn and pitchers Rick Anderson and Mauro Gozzo. Three days later, Schuerholz shipped Sundberg to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Thad Bosley and pitcher Dave Gumpert.
The trade seemed defensible at the time, but Hearn had a shoulder injury that kept him out almost two full seasons before the Royals released him in 1990. Meanwhile, Cone went on to become a two-time All-Star with the Mets, finishing third in Cy Young voting in 1988. The deal became a punchline in Kansas City and one of the most-lamented trades in club history.
But what if Schuerholz never trades Cone?
The Royals probably don’t trade for Floyd Bannister
Cone struggled in his first start with the Mets, but held his own in his rookie season with a 3.71 ERA in 99 1⁄3 innings in New York in 1987. Had he stayed in Kansas City, it would have been tough to break into the rotation initially, but a spot would open up in mid-June when Bud Black landed on the disabled list. If Cone performs as he did with the Mets, that is probably enough to show the Royals he can be in the rotation in 1988, so they don’t feel like they need to go out and trade for veteran lefty Floyd Bannister, who they ended up acquiring for a trio of young prospects, including future big league pitchers Melido Perez and Greg Hibbard.
Bannister was solid his first season in Kansas City in 1988, winning 12 games and putting up 1.2 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, but Cone was phenomenal that year, winning 20 games with 5.5 WAR. Cone regressed to a 1.3 WAR season in 1989, but Bannister made just 14 starts due to injury and was barely over replacement, so Cone would still be an upgrade then.
Which means they could trade some arms for another bat
With Perez and Hibbard not needed to acquire Bannister, the Royals could focus on dealing them instead to get some much needed offense to keep up with the Athletics. The Reds were shopping slugger Dave Parker that winter, eventually trading him to the A’s for an erratic 22-year old pitcher named Jose Rijo. Had the Royals been able to offer up Perez and Hibbard instead, perhaps they bring the Cobra to Kansas City to serve as a designated hitter and clubhouse leader. Instead, the designated hitter position would be a revolving door of bench players and a washed up Bill Buckner, until the Royals traded Bud Black to the Indians for light-hitting Pat Tabler mid-season. Parker would end up hitting .261/.311/.422 with 34 home runs over the next two seasons for Oakland, finishing 11th in MVP voting in 1989.
But the Royals probably still finish far behind the A’s
Adding Cone and Parker make the Royals better in 1988 and 1989, but not enough to close the gap with the A’s. Oakland was a juggernaut in those days with the “Bash Brothers”, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, a roster full of veterans like Carney Lansford, Dave Henderson, and later, Rickey Henderson, and top pitchers like Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and the best closer in baseball, Dennis Eckersley. The Royals finished 20 games back of Oakland in 1988, and while they had the third-best record in baseball in 1989, they still finished a distant seven games back of Oakland in 1989. Maybe Cone and Parker in Kansas City make it an epic pennant race in ‘89, but Oakland was a tough team to top.
Jeff Kent ends up in Kansas City
In 1992, just before Cone hit free agency, the Mets were well out of the pennant race and shopping their top pitcher to contenders. They ended up dealing Cone to Toronto for second baseman Jeff Kent and outfielder Ryan Thompson. Cone was outstanding down the stretch and started two games in the World Series to help the Jays win their first title.
Kent was a solid power-hitting second baseman with the Mets, smacking 55 home runs from 1993-1995, although he bounced around a bit after that before becoming an All-Star in San Francisco. The Royals struggled to find an adequate second baseman in the years following Frank White’s retirement, and while Kent did not provide the defense the Royals coveted, his bat would have helped one of the weakest lineups in baseball in the mid-90s.
As for Cone, he ended up re-signing with the Royals in 1993 when Ewing Kauffman blew him away with a three-year, $18 million offer. Cone would win a Cy Young with the Royals in 1994, but following the death of Ewing and Muriel Kauffman, the team traded Cone in 1995 to cut costs (and possibly in retaliation for Cone’s role as a union leader during the strike). The Royals sold Cone for pennies on the dollar, shipping him back to Toronto for infielders Chris Stynes and Tony Medrano, and pitcher David Sinnes.
Keeping Cone in Kansas City would have been great for the fanbase - having a local kid excel would be great to cheer on. The Royals would have had a loaded rotation - having Cone, Saberhagen, and Gubicza all in their primes is something no other team could match. And Cone would have been great for Kansas City - in his brief stint with the Royals he invested a lot in the community and was terrific for local charities. But ultimately, the A’s were too good in the late 80s, and the Royals were too bad in the early 90s for Cone to move the needle much.