On a Thursday in June 2004, the Kansas City Royals made perhaps one of their worst decisions so far this century. The team was 28-41 and 11.0 games back of the division-leading Minnesota Twins. The Royals would finish that season with an abysmal 58-104 record. That Thursday in June, they made a three-way trade with the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros. After the trade, the Astros’ general manager at the time, Gerry Hunsicker, called the trade “obviously huge for our organization.”
That trade sent outfielder Carlos Beltrán in to Houston. In return, the Royals ended up with “highly touted” third baseman, Mark Teahan, pitcher Mike Wood, and catcher John Buck. The post-trade sentiment in the Astros’ organization was one of success. Hunsicker echoed that sentiment in another quote on June 24, 2004, shortly after the deal was completed. “When you have a chance to get an All-Star like Beltran, you do it, then you worry about filling in holes. He significantly makes us better, he is an impact player and will have an effect on our ball club.”
Why did the Royals trade away Beltrán? Then-General Manager Allan Baird mentioned that it was “obvious we were not going to be able to sign Carlos” and so, the team acquired two immediate major leaguers in Wood and Buck. Buck debuted that season and hit 12 home runs for the Royals. In all, he played in 584 games for Kansas City with a .235/.298/.407 slash line. Wood spent just three seasons playing for the Royals and had a 5.28 ERA in that span. Mark Teahan was certainly the best player that joined the organization in the deal, slashing .269/.331/.419 over five seasons.
In all, the Royals acquired a grand total of 6.7 bWAR between the three players they received for Carlos Beltrán. The 27-year-old Beltrán was worth 6.8 bWAR in that 2004 season alone. He did reach free agency following 2004 and signed a free-agent contract with the New York Mets. It was a seven-year deal and Beltran was worth a whopping 32.3 bWAR in that span. If the Royals truly weren’t able to sign their young phenom, then it made sense to trade him. Even still, that mistake is a great pre-cursor to the team’s current situation with shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.
The Royals need to extend Bobby Witt Jr., not trade him
Some significant names in the industry have stated publicly that the Royals should trade Bobby Witt Jr. this offseason. The young phenom is in the midst of a breakout 2023 campaign. He’s slashed .274/.315/.491 this season — and that’s including a very slow start. Over the last month, he’s been among the very best players in all of baseball and some would say he’s officially ascended to “superstar” status.
So why on earth would the Royals trade him? It certainly isn’t due to an excess of talent. Witt represents exactly what the Royals have desperately needed. He’s a homegrown talent, drafted second overall to become the face of the franchise, and he’s doing exactly that. Around him, the roster has some pieces but this team is on pace to lose 111 games for a reason.
Trading Witt certainly wouldn’t be due to financial reasons either. As of now, the team has just $39.5 million in payroll allocations for next season. That number drops to $22 million in 2025, and just $13.5 million in 2026. The Royals have a last-place roster in extreme need of talent and have nearly infinite flexibility financially over the foreseeable future due to very limited large obligations. Salvador Perez is really the only large contract on the books at this time, and he’s been floated as a trade candidate for much of this season.
The Beltrán situation compares to the current Witt trade talk, but only due to the talent. Beltrán was just 27 years old and was ascending as one of the best center fielders in baseball. Witt — who is even younger at just 23 years old — is ascending as one of the best shortstops in the game today. Talent is about where this comparison ends.
Beltrán, as mentioned before, was a pending free agent that the Royals were certain they couldn’t retain. They waited until they had to capitalize, and then did so very poorly. “Bobby Baseball” won’t even hit arbitration until 2025. There’s an immense amount of time between now and free agency for Witt and the Royals are hoping to build a contending roster between now and 2025. If you thought trading away a rental in Carlos Beltrán was bad, just imagine getting a similar return for giving up four full seasons of Carlos Beltran (or better).
Weighing the possible return makes a trade even less enticing
What would a return for Bobby Witt Jr. look like? It would certainly be immense. For that reason, I can at least understand why someone would think the Royals should trade their young star to further their rebuild. More prospects, after all, are better than fewer prospects. The problem with that logic is the difference between prospects and a proven star in the big leagues.
As they say, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. In this case, the “bird” in question is really worth more like five or six in the bush. In a trade for Witt, the very best-case scenario for a return would mean getting back Bobby Witt Jr. What more would the team hope to gain than what they already have? A steady five-win talent with the potential for 7+ WAR isn’t something that teams stumble upon often. The last time the Royals had that sort of talent was back in 2004 — the day before they traded away Carlos Beltrán.
The payoff is never going to be valuable enough to make trading away the player. It’s too risky, for a team that has finally found the centerpiece of its rebuild. For the next four years at least, the Royals can bank on plus production from their shortstop in the heart of their lineup. Then, if for some reason an extension still can’t be reached, they can trade him as a pending free agent for a haul of prospects. The better scenario sees them extending Witt and watching him potentially become the next member of the Royals Hall of Fame (at least).
The final point I'll make revolves around the pending new stadium somewhere in the Kansas City Metro area. John Sherman and the rest of the Royals’ ownership are hoping to see a vote sometime in the coming months for funding of a new stadium. The team has made it clear that they plan to find a new home that will be more profitable and make more sense operationally. It would be unwise, to say the least, to trade away a player like Bobby Witt Jr. leading into such a key vote from the people.
Bobby Witt Jr. isn’t going anywhere, and trading him wouldn’t be logical in any sense.