(As usual with the Royals, when it rains, it pours. So let’s just pretend, for the sake of the column title, that Zack Greinke didn’t make any statements to the press today – I’ll address what he said soon enough.)
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think Dayton Moore had the balls to do it.
Sure, it was the right thing to do. Jose Guillen was a mistake from the moment he signed his 3-year, $36 million contract. This isn’t revisionist history. When Guillen signed, Rob Neyer wrote, “It’s Kevin McReynolds all over again.” Joe Posnanski ran with that comparison as well. It was a good comparison: like McReynolds, Guillen was a right-handed-hitting outfielder who the Royals acquired at the age of 32, an age where non-star hitters tend to decline rapidly.
With the book now closed on Guillen, here’s the final tally:
Kevin McReynolds as a Royal: .246/.338/.421, 105 OPS+
Jose Guillen as a Royal: .256/.308/.420, 94 OPS+
Score one for the statheads.
Really, it’s not fair to McReynolds to compare him to Guillen. For one, he wasn’t given the highest annual salary in Royals’ history, like Guillen was. In McReynolds’ case, the Royals were able to find a trading partner before the final year of his contract, shipping him to the Mets for Vince Coleman (admittedly not a prize pickup himself). And most importantly, while McReynolds got all the headlines as the big acquisition for Bret Saberhagen, the reality was that Gregg Jefferies was the key to that deal. Saberhagen-for-Jefferies was a ballsy trade that the Royals won – or they might have, had Herk Robinson not inexplicably traded Gregg Jefferies for Felix Jose the following year, perhaps the most unrecognized bad trade in Royals history.
I digress. Jose Guillen’s tenure in Kansas City got off on the wrong foot, and never found the right one. He said inflammatory things about his teammates and management. He intimidated Trey Hillman into letting him do whatever he wanted. He cursed out the fans to the media. He loafed on the bases and in the field. He played some of the worst outfield defense anyone had ever seen. He pulled out his own freaking toenail.
The only thing he didn’t do, with a few brief exceptions, was hit. From May 7 to June 23, 2008, Guillen had a remarkable 44-game stretch when he hit .380, slugged .659, hit 20 doubles and 10 homers, and drove in 45 runs. (He walked just twice.) And this season, after being written off as through after an injury-filled 2009 season, he shocked everyone with 6 doubles and 7 homers in the season’s first 18 games, batting .351 and slugging .716. (He walked just twice.) Aside from those two stretches, Guillen hit and fielded like a replacement-level catcher who was playing the outfield for the first time. Except with a worse attitude.
Since April 26th, Guillen has hit .233/.301/.363 for the Royals – and has started all but three games.
I know a lot of Royals fans were angry at the way the front office kept running him out there, day after day, in the desperate hope that their patience would one day be rewarded and they might actually get something for him. Honestly, my reaction was just a dash of anger in a large bowl of pity. It was less maddening than it was pathetic to watch Guillen play, day after day, knowing that even the Royals didn’t really want him in the lineup.
Let’s remember that, based on the way Guillen ended last season, I don’t think the Royals expected him to be physically able to play regularly this season. While I think Guillen might have been exaggerating slightly when he said that he almost died from blood clots in his legs over the off-season, there’s no question that as late as February, the Royals weren’t sure he’d be able to play at all. I have to think that all their stockpiling of outfielders, from Scott Podsednik to Rick Ankiel to Brian Anderson (remember him?) was based in part on the expectation that they’d have to replace Guillen.
And I have to think they were more surprised than anyone when Guillen looked fine in spring training, and then when he was the team’s best hitter in April. In retrospect, of course – and some Royals fans were wise enough to point this out at the time – Guillen’s hot April was the worst thing that could have happened to the Royals. Because once he proved in April that he was healthy and able, there was simply no way they could justify taking him out of the lineup.
So instead we were treated to a long, sad, joyless farewell tour, the result of an unholy alliance between a team desperate to get something for their player and a player desperate to get the hell out of town. Guillen’s April performance was just enough to get him back on the trade radar of a few teams, and if he had managed to hit at all over the ensuing three months he probably would have found a new home. But he didn’t. The Royals, proving they learned nothing from the Gil Meche debacle, were either too scared or too disinterested to give Guillen the occasional day off.
By early June, it was clear that no American League team was interested in acquiring him to DH. You’d think that was a cue to give up – but the Royals simply couldn’t give up the ghost, and in a desperate attempt to revive his value to a National League team, they gave him his glove back. Starting on June 9th, Guillen started 17 of his next 23 games in the field. Maybe they figured that Guillen would inevitably injure himself and solve their dilemma. If they did, it almost worked – Guillen pulled up lame “running” out a ground ball in early July, and looked like he’d be out for a while. He missed two games.
Meanwhile, Kila Ka’aihue was forced to turn the Pacific Coast League into his personal playground for four months.
Until the very end, the Royals held out hope. They offered to pick up almost his entire salary; they offered to trade him for a token player. When no team would bite at the trading deadline, they sent him through waivers. Forty-eight hours later, he went unclaimed. The game was over. The jig was up.
And Dayton Moore waved the white flag.
If he deserves criticism for sticking with Guillen as long as he did, Moore at least deserves credit for finally acknowledging reality. I mean, it’s easy to say that Jose Guillen was a sunk cost, and the Royals should do what other teams do – cut their losses and release the player. But it’s not that simple. Teams eat contracts all the time when the players they’re attached to have ceased to play at a major-league level. But Guillen, for all his warts, is worthy of his roster spot, at least in the abstract.
For the season, he’s hitting .255/.314/.429, and if that doesn’t sound great, keep in mind that his numbers are good for a 101 OPS+. Which is to say, he’s been a tiny bit better than a league-average player this season. Yes, most of that damage was done in April, and yes, you’d like better-than-average performances from your DH. But at the moment, the Royals rank a respectable 7th among the 14 AL teams in OPS from their DH spot. Their DHs rank above the Yankees (!), White Sox, Rays, and Angels, all of whom are in contention.
And yet they released him anyway. I’ve seen teams release expensive players who suck before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team release an expensive player who was still a league-average player.
It was absolutely the right move to make, of course. There’s a reason why the Royals couldn’t trade Guillen for even a few magic beans despite his performance – teams are understandably reluctant to take on his personality, particularly since nothing seems to irk Guillen more than being out of the lineup. There are a number of contenders who would love to have a man of Guillen’s talents on their bench. But there isn’t a single contender who thinks that Guillen himself would be happy with such an arrangement.
In the end, this move shouldn’t be too surprising. In the clubhouse after last Friday’s game, when Guillen hit the 300th double of his career (his final hit as a Royal, as it turned out), my friend Nate Bukaty asked him what he planned to do with the baseball. Guillen was almost disgusted by the notion that the ball had any value. Three times he told Nate to take the ball. Nate politely declined, and when it was gently suggested to Guillen that he give the ball to the Royals’ Hall of Fame, he sneered, “Now why would I want to do that?”
The following day, as the trading deadline passed and every other member of the team was in uniform in preparation for the game, Guillen alone sat at his locker with his jeans still on, and only after it was clear that he hadn’t been traded did he grudgingly decide to get dressed.
You don’t have to be Einstein to understand the implication.
In retrospect, sure, the Royals should have let him go months ago and gotten an early start on the Kila Ka’aihue era. I imagine they’d say the same thing themselves. But I understand why they let things play out the way that they did. I’m not a big believer in the unwritten rules of baseball, but one of the unwritten rules of sports is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be written: you don’t release a player who’s playing well. If the Royals had released Guillen in May, when he was still slugging over .500, the hit they would have taken to their reputation would have been far greater than the damage they did by letting Guillen overstay his welcome.
If you want to blame Dayton Moore for signing Jose Guillen in the first place, go right ahead; I know I do. But once Guillen came out of the chute on fire this season, Moore’s hands were tied. Only now, after Guillen proved both untradeable and unwaivable, could Moore simply release him in good faith. To his credit, Moore did so at the earliest opportunity, on a day (an off-day on the road) where Guillen’s departure was likely to cause the least amount of clubhouse discord.
It’s sad that it had to come to this. But it would have been sadder still if it hadn’t come to this, and Guillen continued to hog playing time until his contract ran out. The Ka’aihue Era can begin in earnest now. It’s starting late, but better late than in 2011. We fans have been on board with this youth movement for a long time now. With this one move, Dayton Moore proves that he’s starting to come on board too.
Moore has told us to Trust the Process. In releasing a still-viable veteran player, and eating $4 million to let an unproven but promising youngster play every day, Moore is showing us that he might – just might – finally be ready to Trust the Process himself.