Royals: Farewell to you, Mike Moustakas

A former member of the Kansas City Royals recently signed a multi-year free-agent contract with another team. The signing virtually assures he’ll never return to the Royals.

The market finally came around to Mike Moustakas, the former long-time third baseman of the Kansas City Royals who for two consecutive free agent cycles couldn’t land the lucrative multi-year contract he deserved.

On Monday, the gritty player Kansas City fans fondly nicknamed “Moose” signed a four-year, $64 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds, a deal long overdue and deservedly delivered. Mysteriously spurned by the free-agent market after the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and consequently forced to ink one-year contracts, he finally reaped what his nine-year career has sown.

Kansas City fans held out hope for a reunion with Moose after he declined his mutual option with Milwaukee after last season; but with his new Cincinnati deal, Moose effectively closed the door on the KC chapter of his career. He probably didn’t slam it shut–rather, Moose may have paused for a moment, cast a wistful eye toward Kauffman Stadium, and closed the door quietly. There was no reason to do it any other way.

Moustakas was a Royal from the beginning; his gritty, determined, often hard-nosed approach to the game endeared him to his teammates, his fans, and the baseball organization that raised him. Although first time Kauffman visitors sometimes mistook the traditional “Moose” chant for boos as he walked to the plate, delivered a clutch hit or made a particularly good play, one fan proudly hauled a moose rack through the stands and others adorned themselves with replica antlers.

Everyone liked Moose from the time he arrived in Kansas City in 2011, the same season fellow Royals Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy, and Salvador Perez made their KC debuts. They considered themselves brothers and represented the future, helping convince fans that General Manager Dayton Moore’s “process” might just pan out and return championship-caliber baseball to Kansas City.

Moustakas played in 89 games that first season; his modest five home runs, 30 RBI’s and .263 average didn’t really provide even a glimpse of what was to come. That glimpse–or rather a much more complete picture of what Moose could do–came the next season, when he clubbed 20 homers and drove in 73 runs in 149 games.

But despite the home runs, there were concerns–Moose hit only .242–and those concerns increased in 2013. While the Royals posted their first winning record since 2003 and flirted with a playoff berth, Moustakas struggled. He hit eight fewer home runs and drove in 39 fewer runs than he had in 2012, and his average sunk to .233. Doubts surfaced; questions about his ability were loud.

The bottom fell out for Moose in late May 2014, when a disastrous .152 start led to his demotion to AAA Omaha; he received the bad news three days after going 0-3 against Chicago and two days after an unsuccessful pinch-hit appearance against the ChiSox. If Moose was to recover his form, he would have to do it in Omaha, where less pressure and attention could ease his batting ills and restore his confidence.

Moose didn’t complain and quickly served notice that his exile was only temporary–he hit .355 in eight games and earned his way back to Kansas City, where his hitting improved as the Royals drove to their first postseason appearance since winning the World Series in 1985, three years before Moose was born.

Further evidence of his cure came from Moustakas in the 2014 playoffs when he collected 12 hits–including five homers and two doubles–and had five RBI’s in 15 games. If he wasn’t all the way back, he was close.

Moose hit .304 in the 2015 World Series, helping the Royals win the title and atone for their heartbreaking 2014 Series loss to San Francisco. But it was the regular season that reestablished Moustakas as an offensive force–his 22 homers and 82 RBI’s were career highs and his average jumped to .284.

A late May on-field collision with teammate Alex Gordon derailed Moose’s 2016 season and he didn’t return until 2017, the last Royals’ campaign before the inevitable loss of the Moustakas-Hosmer-Lorenzo CainAlcides Escobar portion of their championship core. In this last roundup of sorts, Moose reaffirmed his bona fides, breaking the club’s single-season home run record with a new career-high 38, driving in a new career-best 85 runs, and slashing .272/.314/.521. He made the All-Star team for the second time.

His credentials firmly established, Moustakas seemed a cinch to lock down a lucrative multi-year deal as he ventured into free agency. But the vagaries of the market, so often friendly to players like Moose, turned on him and he went unsigned until the Royals stepped in and offered him a contract during Spring Training. Moose accepted $5.5 million and returned to Kansas City for over $3 million less than the club paid him the year before.

Royals fans hoped against hope that the deal foretold a potential long-term mutual commitment; their fears of losing Moose were realized when KC traded him to Milwaukee in July. He finished his two-team season with 28 homers, 95 RBI’s and a .251/.315/.459 slash. He became a free agent once again; revived were the promise of a major multi-year contract and dreams of Royals’ fans that The Moose might again be loose in Kauffman Stadium.

The market wasn’t good for third basemen, however, and again showed Moustakas its fickle side. After failing to attract suitors offering the lucrative contract he deserved, Moose signed a new deal with Milwaukee and turned in another All-Star season with 35 homers and 87 RBI’s.

And then Moose, undaunted and undeterred by free agency’s cruel snubs, declined his mutual Brewers’ option and chose to test the market again. The gamble paid off; the Reds came calling with the kind of deal many believed Moustakas should have received two years before, and the kind the Royals probably shouldn’t do even for Moose. If the Reds are lucky, and everything known about Moose suggests they will be, the former Royal favorite will produce and provide hard-nosed hustle, spirit and everyday effort to a team starving for success.

Moustakas is a special player who squeezes every ounce of production out of his potential. He’s a  leader–his stalking through the Royals’ dugout during the darkest moments of the 2014 Wild Card Game against Oakland, imploring his teammates to turn the game around and accurately declaring KC wasn’t going to lose, may have had as much to do as anything with the club’s stirring come-from-behind win. It was Moose at his best, forging an indelible memory in Royals’ history.

Barring an extension of his new deal, Moose will be 35 when his Cincinnati contract expires. By then, thoughts of retirement will probably cross his mind; although KC fans might still be entertaining reunion thoughts, the Royals probably won’t be in the market for a player his age. His Royals days are almost assuredly over. But wherever he goes and whatever he does, Moustakas will, to KC fans, always be a Royal.

The Kansas City Royals drafted Mike Moustakas with the second overall pick of the 2007 amateur draft. Moose spent his formative years and matured in the game as a Royal. He starred in KC and played the game as it’s supposed to be played. Moose was indeed Royal. Adieu, Mike Moustakas. Adieu.