There are virtually no transactions going on in baseball these days due to the lockout, so today I thought I’d look back at a big transaction the Royals made on this day, fifteen years ago. On December 13, 2006, the Royals officially announced the signing of free agent pitcher Gil Meche to a five-year, $55 million deal, a deal that tied for the largest deal in club history at the time.
Dayton Moore was a little over six months into his new job as Royals general manager when he arrived at the 2006 Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Florida in December. He had placed a high emphasis on improving the pitching of the ballclub after they had finished dead last in ERA in the American League for the third year in a row.
But there was a lot of demand for pitching that year. Former Cy Young winner Barry Zito was the most coveted prize - he would eventually sign a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Giants later that month. Japanese free agent Kei igawa was another top free agent that would end up signing with the Yankees.
That left a number of mid-tier free agents on the market for pitching-hungry teams to clamor for, guys like Miguel Batista, Jeff Suppan, Ted Lilly, and Gil Meche. Moore reportedly had about $18 million to spend on players that off-season, but he told Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star that economics might push the pitching market out of their range.
“There are a lot more holes in clubs rotations than there are pitchers to fill them,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore cautioned. “Clubs are competing very aggressively for the same guys.
“We’re concerned about the economics of it. The market is moving in an upward trend because of the competition and the demand. But it’s like anything else. You put a ceiling on where you think the value of the player is, and you make a decision in advance not to exceed that value.”
Reports had the Royals zeroing in on Batista and Meche, with reports Meche could command a four-year deal worth as much $35-40 million. The 28-year old-right hander was attractive in that he was one of the youngest free agent starting pitchers available - in sharp contrast to the 35-year old Batista. But Meche had been far less effective than Batista, putting up a 4.75 ERA and 92 ERA+ in the four seasons leading up to his free agency while Batista was a 4.29 ERA pitcher with a 110 ERA+. Meche also had a history of injuries, including missing all of one season due to Tommy John surgery.
The Royals had stiff competition, with the Braves and Mets heavily pursuing Batista, while the Cubs and Blue Jays tried their best to land Meche. But it would be the Royals who surprised everyone by landing Meche on the last day of the meetings, with a $55 million deal that was larger than the Royals had given anyone except All-Star slugger Mike Sweeney.
“Gil Meche is a guy who we feel fits into what we’re trying to do here for the long term,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “We felt he has the best raw stuff among all of the free agents out there.”
The deal seemed to irk Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who was also spurned by departing free agent Ted Lilly, who left for the Cubs. Ricciardi questioned Meche’s competitiveness for taking the money and signing with a perennial loser like the Royals.
“When a guy talks about coming to our place where he has a chance to win and compete against the Yankees and the Red Sox and then he goes to a place like Kansas City, that’s an eye-opener.”
As for the Royals, everyone seemed to agree that the Royals overpaid for Meche. But it was a winter of overpaying for free agents. Jeff Suppan got $42 million from the Brewers. Gary Matthews, Jr. got $50 million from the Angels. Carlos Lee became a $100 million player. Baseball was flush with cash. And the Royals needed to step up to the table.
As Joe Posnanski put it:
Sure, you can be a conscientious objector and not partake in this money-burning madness. That’s a sensible position. But maybe the Royals have been sensible for far too long. They have not in recent years taken the big shot in free-agency. They have messed around with second-tier free agents — the Chuck Knoblauchs and Juan Gonzalezes — and most of those turned out very badly. But they ve not played big-money blackjack.
The Royals began the 2007 season with a completely revamped rotation. Zack Greinke had returned from his absence due to social anxiety. Brian Bannister was acquired from the Mets. Lefties Odalis Perez and Jorge de la Rosa, both acquired the previous July, filled out the rotation.
But on Opening Day it was Meche, the $55 million man, who gave the Royals a semblance of respectability. He faced down the mighty Red Sox that first game and allowed just one run, leaving in the eighth inning to a standing ovation. The Royals weren’t winners yet, but they didn’t seem like a total laughingstock either.
Meche was named an All-Star in 2007, and he would finish as a 4 rWAR pitcher in each of his first two seasons with the Royals. His 9.1 rWAR over those two seasons was better than all but 16 starting pitchers in baseball, and he topped every pitcher from his free agent class (Batista took a three-year, $25 million deal with the Mariners - $1 million more than what the Royals were offering, and had one good season in 2007 before putting up a 5.41 ERA and -2.1 rWAR over the last two years).
Meche began strong in his third season with the Royals in 2009, but he began suffering back issues. Pitch counts still hadn’t caught on around baseball, and Meche would frequently go well over 100 pitches, going 132 pitchers in a June 16 start, and 121 pitchers in a start just two weeks later, followed by a 114-pitch start. He would have a terrible month of August before missing the final month of the season. He couldn’t get anyone out to begin the 2010 season, and missed the entire summer due to injury, returning in September as a reliever.
Meche faced the prospect of shoulder surgery that off-season, which had the potential to jeopardize his entire 2011 season. Rather than go through the ordeal, he opted to retire, forgoing the remaining year of $12 million in salary owed to him.
“When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it,” Meche said this week by phone from Lafayette, La. “Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t want to have those feelings again.”
The Gil Meche deal didn’t work in that the Royals never competed for a playoff spot during his tenure in Kansas City. But the signing did mark a new era in Royals history. The winning would still take awhile to come, but it was clear the Royals would no longer be the cheap team that didn’t splurge on cell phones for their scouts or lose their star player over $1 million.