February 25, 2024

Royals’ trade of Benintendi could be just the start

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Kris Bubic, second form left, is joined on the mound by his teammates and pitching coach Cal Eldred, right, during the first inning of a baseball against the St. Louis Cardinals, Wednesday, May 4, 2022 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Royals could have waited until closer to the trade deadline to deal All-Star outfielder Andrew Benintendi, perhaps getting a slightly better offer in the process, but consummating their move with the Yankees for three pitching prospects late Wednesday provided one largely unintended benefit.

They’ll have more time to work on trading everyone else.

The trade of Benintendi, who is eligible for free agency after this season, is likely the first of many for Kansas City ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. They are mired in another losing season, their biggest goal staving off 100 losses once again, yet have an abundance of players capable of putting a contending team over the top down the stretch.

That includes Whit Merrifield, a two-time All-Star who can play just about any position; right-hander Brad Keller, a consistent starter who could provide an upgrade to the back of a rotation; and relievers Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow, both of whom have electric stuff and proven ability to close games.

“We’ve been pretty open with clubs,” Royals general manager J.J. Picollo said Thursday, “and really, right now, I think we’re in a position where we don’t have to be the aggressor. The players we have remaining have years on their contract. We don’t have to be the aggressor. But over the next 24-to-48 hours, we’ll have a more clear picture of who seriously wants to acquire some of the players we have on this team, and I think it’ll get interesting. I don’t know where it will go.”

The Royals have been active in the trade market ever since it became clear that they weren’t going to contend.

Last month, they dealt struggling designated hitter Carlos Santana to the surprising Mariners for developing pitchers Wyatt Mills and William Flemming. And earlier this month, they sent the No. 35 pick in the amateur draft to the Braves for infielder CJ Alexander, right-hander Andrew Hoffman and outfielder Drew Waters.

Throw in the deal for Benintendi and the Royals have landed six minor league pitchers in about a month.

“I don’t think you can go wrong with pitching,” Picollo explained. “I think getting deeper on the pitching end is important. And we have a nucleus of position players establishing themselves as major leaguers and we can build around that.”

Indeed, the Royals are in the midst of bringing a whole new core to the majors. Bobby Witt Jr. has solidified his place at shortstop with star potential; MJ Melendez is the heir to aging fan favorite Salvador Perez behind the plate; and Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino have stuck after also making their big league debuts this season.

So it makes sense to trade the 33-year-old Merrifield, who doesn’t fit the profile of a young team trying to turn the corner, and Barlow and Staumont, talented relievers who might be gone anyway by the time the Royals are ready to contend.

Especially if the return is players capable of helping whenever that time arrives.

In the deal for Benintendi, the Royals got 23-year-old Chandler Champlain, who has an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio at Low-A Tampa; 24-year-old T.J. Sikkema, who has dominated hitters at High-A Hudson Valley after missing last season with a lat injury; and 22-year-old Beck Way, who also is at Hudson Valley and is 5-5 with a 3.73 ERA this season.

“We generally have some projections when we think they’ll be ready, but we were focused on the best package we’d get back,” Picollo said. “We’re all seeing guys moving through systems pretty quickly now, but there has to be performance and then there has to be opportunity for guys to pitch or play in the major leagues.”

That’s another benefit of dealing veterans such as Benintendi and Merrifield: It gives youngsters more chances to play.

Maikel Garcia, who struck out in his big league debut in Toronto earlier this month, will apparently be the first. The 22-year-old infielder was recalled from Double-A Northwest Arkansas on Thursday to fill Benintendi’s spot on the roster.

Waters and fellow outfielder Brewer Hicklen could be next as they continue to progress at Triple-A Omaha.

“I think we’re all very encouraged by the last month. We’re not 10 games over .500 but we’re basically right at .500,” Picollo said. “When we evaluate this team going into ‘23, a lot of questions of certain players need to be answered, and that’s what the last 70 games left will represent.”