By my count on Baseball Reference, the Royals have made 15 trades with the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1969. Most of those were small potatoes deals, but when the teams have done business at the Winter Meetings, the Royals have done quite well for themselves. We just passed the 50th anniversary of one of those trades, a deal that helped build the 1976-1978 AL West champions. On December 2, 1970, the Royals sent Jim Campanis, Jackie Hernandez, and Bob Johnson to the Steel City for Bruce Dal Canton, Jerry May, and Freddie Patek. Hernadez wasn’t much of a hitter but he did play well in the 1971 World Series to help the Pirates win a title; Johnson had three decent years as a swingman for Pittsburgh. But the presence of Patek meant the trade was one of the best in Royals’ history, as the diminutive shortstop became a franchise hall of famer.
It may not have had as big an impact on franchise history, but 26 years later the Royals came out ahead on an even more lopsided trade with Pittsburgh. On December 13, 1996, Kansas City sent minor-league pitchers Jeff Martin and Jeff Wallace, relief pitcher Jeff Granger, and third baseman Joe Randa to Pittsburgh for shortstop Jay Bell and first baseman Jeff King. History is unclear on whether this is the most “J” names in a single trade…but I’m betting it is.
It may be hard for people to comprehend now, but the Royals were on the right side of a salary dump here. After Pittsburgh’s run of division titles in the early 1990s and inability to get past the Reds or Braves in the playoffs, the rebuilding effort was underway for the Pirates. Meanwhile, the mid-90s Royals certainly have a reputation of being cheap and terrible, and while they were pretty terrible, at least at this point in franchise history they were still willing to spend some money.
I suppose that had to do with institutional memory. After all, at the end of the 1996 season the team was only two years removed from back-to-back years of playoff contention and winning records, and even in 1995 they had been in the wild-card race well into September. So a 75-86 mark in 1996 was seen as a blip. The Royals talked about a youth movement, but the 1996 team was not really that young–of the 21 players who had a plate appearance that season, only seven were under age 25, and two of those guys didn’t even get 100 plate appearances. This was still a franchise that expected to compete, despite finishing 24 games out of first place (in fairness, they were only 12.5 games out of the wild-card spot, which is a lot but not impossible to make up in one offseason).
To general manager Herk Robinson’s credit, he saw where the Royals were weak and set out to improve that area. It was pretty obvious: Kansas City finished last in the AL in runs scored, slugging percentage, and OPS, and next-to-last in home runs (good job, Minnesota!). Shortly after the season ended, the Royals acquired Chili Davis from the Angels for pitcher Mark Gubicza (which was unfortunate, because Gubie pitched in two games for Anaheim, the only two major league games he played for anyone besides Kansas City).
And just weeks later, Robinson moved again to improve the offense. Kansas City had been pursuing free-agent shortstop Mike Bordick, but when that fell through, Robinson contacted Pittsburgh.
“It’ll make our payroll a little higher, but it’ll make our club a whole lot better.”–Robinson, quoted by Dick Kaegel, The Kansas City Star, December 14, 1996
Indeed, the acquisitions of Davis, Bell, and King meant an additional $9 million or so, giving the Royals a projected $28.5 million payroll for 1997. The trio had belted 71 home runs in 1996, while the entire Royals team hit 123.
The Royals were excited to add right-handed offense to a lineup they felt had been left-handed heavy (Davis was a switch-hitter while the two Pittsburgh imports batted from the right side). But they were also enthused about Bell’s defense after the one-time Gold Glove winner led major-league shortstops in fielding percentage (.986) and assists (478). Hey, it was the 1990s; those were about as advanced as fielding stats got.
The players the Royals parted with didn’t amount to much, with the exception of Randa (more on that in a minute). Martin never made it past Class AA. Wallace pitched in 90 games for the Pirates, with a 4.67 ERA in 86 ⅔ innings. Granger had been the Royals’ top pick (fifth overall) in the 1993 draft, but never developed into the star that draft position implied. He would end his major-league career with nine games for the Pirates in 1997, although he pitched in the minors through the 2000 season.
So for the cost of three pitchers who contributed little in the majors and one pretty good (although somewhat unproven at the time) third baseman, the Royals had shored up their offense. Bell would relegate incumbent shortstop David Howard to a utility role. King would take over first base, sending Jose Offerman to second and Michael Tucker (penciled in to play first after the 1996 season) back to right field. Davis was slated to replace the Bob Hamelin/Joe Vitiello duo at DH.
“The Royals became contenders Friday,” Star columnist Joe Posnanski crowed.
Well…one problem the Royals had was that Cleveland had added Matt Williams and the Chicago White Sox, who finished 9.5 games ahead of Kansas City, had signed free agent Albert Belle. But still, it did seem like there was a chance the Royals could be competitive.
So how did it work out? Not great!
Oh, the three new Royals were fine. Davis blasted 30 home runs. King added 28, although his value was somewhat limited by a .238 average (thanks to a very-unRoyal 89 walks, his OBP was .341). Bell set the franchise’s single-season record for home runs by a shortstop with 21, a mark that still stands and, if it survives Adalberto Mondesi and/or Bobby Witt Jr., apparently will last forever. But the offense around them continued to struggle, and Kansas City finished 10th in the league in home runs and 12th in runs scored, slugging percentage, and OPS. Worse, the pitching fell off, falling from a 4.55 ERA (third in the AL) to a 4.70 ERA that was 10th in the AL. The result was a 67-94 record that was eight wins fewer than the Royals posted in 1996.
But as noted, it’s hard to call the trade a failure. King and Bell did exactly what they were acquired to do. It is a bit of a letdown that the Royals could not use either to acquire more (and younger) assets. Bell left as a free agent after the 1997 season (Kansas City got a draft pick as compensation, but the player chosen, a pitcher named Matt Burch, topped out at Class AA). King stuck around to hit 24 home runs in 1998 before abruptly retiring in May 1999, handing the first base job to a converted catcher named Mike Sweeney.
The three major leaguers Pittsburgh acquired gave them a total of 3.5 bWAR (all of that by Randa as Granger’s -0.5 canceled out a 0.5 for Wallace). The Royals got 11.4 from the two former Pirates (6.0 from King and 5.4 from Bell; King’s mustache was probably worth an extra 2.0 or so). But the reason this trade really became a win for the Royals, although it wasn’t entirely the Pirates’ fault, was that Randa was left unprotected in the 1997 expansion draft. Arizona selected him, then traded him to Detroit. After a year with the Tigers, he was dealt to the Mets, and six days later, he was back in Royal blue, this time in exchange for minor leaguer Juan LeBron, who never made it to the majors. Randa then spent a productive six seasons (14.2 bWAR) as a Royal. Picking up the best of the traded-away players for a song and then getting six solid seasons from him boosts any trade, in my opinion, even if the team didn’t improve.