In 2000, the Royals were coming off a surprising 77-85 season, their most wins since 1993, and best winning percentage (.475) since 1995 (.486). After 72-win and 64-win seasons in manager Tony Muser’s first two seasons, the 77-win campaign, though still a losing season, gave some Royals fans hope that better days were on the way in the new Millennium at Kauffman Stadium.
On June 17th of 2000, the Royals hired Allard Baird to be general manager, who had been with the Royals organization since 1988, and had been an assistant to the GM as well as assistant GM since 1998 (i.e. the Royals’ Dwight Schrute). Baird was known for his scouting and player development acumen, and his hiring seemed to signal the beginning of an era where talent depth would be developed from within rather than acquired outside the organization, as had been the tendency under previous general manager Herk Robinson.
At the time, the Royals did have a core of young positional talent that had been for the most part developed within the Royals organization. First baseman Mike Sweeney, drafted initially as a catcher, posted a .930 OPS and hit 29 home runs and had 144 RBI in 159 games in 2000. Outfielder Mark Quinn, a Royals 11th round pick out of Rice University, hit 20 home runs, posted an OPS of .830, and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Carlos Beltran suffered a down season in 2000 as he only played in 98 games. However, he was just a year removed from his Rookie of the Year campaign in which he hit 22 home runs, stole 27 bases, and drove in 108 RBI, and he would only be 24 years old going into 2001. And while Jermaine Dye was not drafted by the Royals organization, he proved to be a shrewd acquisition from the Braves in 1997, as 2000 proved to be his best season yet as a Royal. In that campaign, he hit 33 home runs, had a 118 RBI, posted an OPS of .951, and earned not only his first All-Star berth, but his first Gold Glove as well.
While all of those position players were key to a 13-win improvement from 1999 to 2000, none were probably as valuable as Johnny Damon. The former Royals first round pick in 1992 who was coming off his best season in Kansas City, and looked to be finally making good on the massive hype that was bestowed upon him when he debuted with the Royals in 1995.
After a solid 47 game campaign as a rookie in which Damon posted a .765 OPS in 206 plate appearances, Royals fans expected Damon to be the next “great” Royal position player. The hype was so massive that the Royals created a promo for the 1996 season with him and Hall of Famer George Brett, which somehow is still available on YouTube (h/t to Royals Review for finding it first):
Damon wasn’t bad in 1996, but his .271 average and .680 OPS wasn’t quite “Brett-esque” by any measure. However, he did show growth every year at the MLB level, as his OPS improved to .723 in 1997 and .779 in 1998. In 1999, Damon finally put together a solid campaign, as he posted an .856 OPS and hit 14 home runs and stole 36 bases in 145 games. While Beltran’s Rookie of the Year campaign, and the Royals’ 64-win campaign overshadowed Damon’s productive season, it was a promising sign that Damon was finally putting it together as expected at age 25.
In 2000, everything just clicked for Damon, arguably the Royals’ best overall player in 2000, which is saying something considering the productivity of Sweeney and Dye (both Sweeney and Dye made the All-Star game in 2000, unlike Damon). Damon led the American League in runs (136) as well as stolen bases (46), and also led the Royals in Wins Above Replacement (6.2), according to Baseball Reference. In fact, Damon’s bWAR was 1.6 higher than Dye, and 2.3 higher than Sweeney, with the latter being the more surprising in retrospect, since Sweeney finished 11th in AL MVP voting in 2000 (Damon finished 19th).
While Damon’s arm certainly wasn’t great, almost every other highly-rated tool of his came into fruition in 2000, and while Beltran had more upside (he had the arm that Damon lacked), Damon was the most polished and productive overall player on the Royals roster entering the off-season leading up to the 2001 campaign.
But unfortunately for the Royals, Damon was entering his last year of team control in 2001. Even worse, his agent was Scott Boras.
Former Walmart CEO David Glass bought the Royals for $96 million in April of 2000, which was momentous for a small market franchise in flux. Glass had previously served as a managing partner of the five-person ownership group that former owner, Ewing Kauffman, had appointed to manage the Royals in the wake of his death in 1993. The Glass sale brought its share of positives and negatives. On the positive end, Glass, who hailed from Southeastern Missouri, would keep the Royals in Kansas City long-term, which was a relief for Kansas City sports fans who were seeing other baseball franchises face contraction or possible moves (specifically the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos around this time). On the negative end, Glass was known for his cost-cutting ways as managing partner on the Kauffman board, and his sole ownership didn’t bode well that the Royals would suddenly be high-spenders like they once were in the latter days of Kauffman’s tenure as owner.
And the first big decision for new owner Glass and general manager Baird centered on Damon, who was one of the most sought-after players on the trade market.
Much to Royals fans’ surprise, Glass and Baird were aggressive with Damon, as they offered him a five-year extension worth $32 million. However, Damon and Boras balked at the offer, citing that they were skeptical about the Royals’ ability to keep other players on their roster, as well as their ability to build a winner. In Royals Review’s biography on Damon, Max Rieper brought up this quote from Damon in his piece:
“I’m not looking to break the bank,” Damon says. “But at the same time, I have to ask for a fair salary. … To be honest with you, the most important thing for me is not the money. It’s bringing back Jermaine [Dye] and Mike Sweeney and Rosie [Jose Rosado] and Jeff Suppan and all these guys. I want to be part of something here. But if they’re not serious, maybe I should go somewhere else.“The 100 Greatest Royals of All-Time – #21 Johnny Damon” by Max Rieper; Royals Review
Discouraged by negotiations with Boras and not wanting to lose Damon for nothing, Baird traded Damon and minor league infielder Mark Ellis in a three-team deal with Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays received former AL Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve, and the Athletics received Cory Lidle from the Rays in addition to Damon from the Royals. As for Kansas City? They received catcher AJ Hinch and minor league shortstop Angel Berroa from Oakland, and closer Roberto Hernandez from the Rays.
It was a sobering deal for Royals fans who hoped that Damon could perhaps be the next great Royal who would stay in Kansas City long-term. Unfortunately, Damon’s price tag was just going to be too much in free agency, and the Royals didn’t want to be caught hanging when he signed with another team after the 2001 season.
The trade was especially gut-punching for Baird, as this was not only his first big trade as Royals GM, but he also was quite close to Damon, as he signed the former Royal while as a scout when Damon was 18.
“The timetable was running out, and that’s what dictated this,” Baird said. “If we had felt for one minute that we could sign Johnny to a long-term deal, then obviously we would not have made this deal.”“Damon goes to A’s in 3-way trade” by Associated Press
As for the A’s, General Manager Billy Beane wasn’t shy in expressing his feelings about Damon, which only seemed to put more salt in the wound for discouraged Royals fans who were hoping for roster “building” not “shedding” after a promising 2000 campaign.
“This is a dimension that this team hasn’t had for the last two years. We haven’t had this type of player probably since Rickey (Henderson) was in his prime.”“Damon goes to A’s in 3-way trade” by Associated Press
The trade proved to be an interesting one for all three teams. Damon only played one season, as expected, in Oakland (as profiled in the book and movie “Moneyball”) and he didn’t do great either, as his .687 OPS was his lowest since 1996. However, he ended up signing a big deal with the Red Sox after the 2001 season, and not only made the All-Star game twice with the Red Sox, but also in 2004 helped the club win their first World Series title since 1918.
The real steal for the A’s ended up being Mark Ellis, who ended up being a solid middle infielder in Oakland for nearly 10 seasons. Cory Lidle also proved to be productive, posting a 3.74 ERA in 380 innings of work across two seasons with the A’s. As for the Rays, Grieve failed to live up to his former ROY hype, as he only hit .254 and averaged an OPS of .764 over three seasons in Tampa Bay. While his metrics were not bad by any measure, he certainly wasn’t the “franchise player” to turn around the Rays’ fortunes early on in their existence.
As for the Royals, Hinch only played 117 games in Kansas City, and became more known for his managing than his playing days. Hernandez did offer a veteran presence and saved 54 games in 116 appearances with the Royals. However, he only posted a 4.21 ERA, and didn’t feel like a fit on a rebuilding club like the Royals. Berroa ended up being the best of the trio for Kansas City, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 during their surprise 83-79 season. Unfortunately, that ROY campaign ended up being the highlight for Berroa, as he never matched that kind of production over his career again, both in Kansas City and elsewhere in Major League Baseball.
Damon was just the start of the “purging” process for the Royals. Midway in 2001, Dye was also traded to the Athletics in a three-team trade with the Rockies that netted the Royals shortstop Neifi Perez (woof). Furthermore, the Royals let No. 1 starter Jeff Suppan go in free agency after the 2002 season, and even though the Royals had a winning season in 2003, they struggled in 2004, and in the process, traded franchise cornerstone Beltran to the Houston Astros. The Royals had the potential to have a legendary outfield trio of Damon, Beltran, and Dye. Instead, they let go of all three, starting with Damon in January of 2001, and in the process, the Royals won more than 65 games in a season only once (2003) from 2001-2006, which was Baird’s tenure as general manager.
Safe to say, after the Royals replaced Baird with Dayton Moore, it has been different for the Royals organization and fan base. Yes, there still have been losing seasons since 2007. However, the Royals have won two pennants and a World Series title, and constantly try to stay competitive, even in a baseball landscape where it seems more beneficial for small market teams like the Royals to cut costs, save money, and simply add prospects all the time while constantly looking to the future. Tampa Bay and the Chicago Cubs (who are not a small market team ironically, but have a cheap ownership group) have embraced this, as they traded aces Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, respectively, to the Padres in an effort to keep their player budgets low and rebuild their system with younger prospect talent.
And yet, the Royals have not done this, as Moore and the Royals continue to be aggressive and look to compete for a Central division crown, even when it may not make sense to the more “cost-centered” baseball mind.
This Tweet below, coming from an 810 interview with Moore, shows that Moore does not want to return to those dark days from 1996-2006:
Does Moore keep Damon if he’s general manager in 2000? It’s hard to say. While Baird gets the most flack for purging the roster in his time as GM, it also seemed like Baird’s hands were tired by an ownership group who wanted results, but didn’t really want to invest heavily in either the Major League team or Minor League system and player development at the time (Moore convinced them to change their mind about the latter points). So, while it’s easy to say that Moore or another GM would have done something differently, it may be more difficult to gauge if that would have been the case considering how Glass ran the Royals early in his tenure as owner and managing partner.
Nonetheless, even though Damon did not stay a Royal, he was a talented and entertaining player who thrived in a tough period for Royals faithful. He probably will not make the Royals Hall of Fame mostly because his most memorable days came out of Kansas City (specifically with the Red Sox and Yankees). Yes, he wasn’t solely responsible for the Royals struggles from 1996-2000, but his legacy came in an era of Royals baseball where interest and hope were low, unfortunately.
That being said, Damon should serve as a reminder to Royals fans how far the club’s front office has come over the past two decades.
Because if the Royals continued to be the kind of front office that they were 20 years ago…well, the Royals would be up there with the Rays, Cubs, and even Indians and Pirates (who both have let go of stars this Winter) in terms of being bad for baseball and baseball fans alike.