How the KC Royals could bring back Sean Manaea

(Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports)
(Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports) /

Trading him almost immediately wasn’t what the KC Royals had in mind when they chose pitcher Sean Manaea with the 34th overall pick of the 2013 amateur draft.

But circumstances change, and they did in 2015 when the Royals, smarting from their heartbreaking World Series loss to San Francisco the season before and determined to reverse that painful misfortune without delay, seized the opportunity to make a game-changing trade with Oakland for Ben Zobrist.

The cost was primarily Manaea. The Royals had to include Aaron Brooks, but Manaea was the main attraction. Standing a powerful 6-feet-5, Manaea had overcome any doubts triggered by the torn labrum that delayed his professional debut until 2014.

Recovered, Manaea started 25 games for High-A Wilmington in 2014 and went 7-8 with a 3.11 ERA and impressive 10.80 SO9. An injury limited him to just a few games at Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2015 before trade winds began blowing in Kansas City.

The Royals coveted Zobrist and another Series berth; the price was pitching, and they paid it to the A’s July 28, sending Manaea and Brooks to Oakland for the versatile A’s star and cash.

The deal proved mutually beneficial—although he left for the Cubs after the season, Zobrist did, indeed, help the KC Royals to a Series title, and Manaea made his big league debut with the A’s the following season and has been a reliable starter since. He’s 50-41, 3.86 in six seasons, won 12 games in both 2017 and 2018, and was 11-10 this year. Manaea isn’t overwhelming, but he’s good, solid, and a lefthander Kansas City should revisit.

How could the KC Royals get Sean Manaea back in the Kansas City fold?

Just as changing circumstances took Manaea to Oakland, changing circumstances could bring him back to Kauffman Stadium. The A’s appear close to starting a fire sale, which means few, if any, Athletics will be untouchable.

And that certainly includes Manaea. Arbitration-eligible for the last time and set for free agency after next season under baseball’s current rules (which could change as the owners and players try to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement), the southpaw presents Oakland with a dilemma—risk a big arbitration award or give him a lucrative extension at the same time they’re trying to cut costs, or move him for prospects at the beginning of what seems to be a tear-down and rebuild.

It’s that dilemma that Kansas City, short at the moment on steady, experienced lefthanded pitching, can exploit. They liked Manaea once, they probably still like him, and he’s surely available.

What will it take to get him? Everyone always wants pitching, so expect the A’s to seek that first from any Manaea suitors. But they won’t demand expensive talent if they’re truly committed to saving money—they aren’t, for example, going to assume responsibility for the $10 million KC owes Mike Minor in 2022, especially when Manaea, who’s younger and better than Minor, is projected to get $10.2 million if Oakland keeps and goes to arbitration with him.

Because they’re high-potential young lefties, Kansas City isn’t giving up top pitching prospect Asa Lacy, or Daniel Lynch and Angel Zerpa, to pry Manaea loose from the A’s. The same goes for righties Jackson Kowar and Jon Heasley.

The Royals, though, have relatively cost-effective pitching to sacrifice if they want Manaea who, at 29, definitely has a few seasons left. KC, for example, might tempt Oakland with Brad Keller, whose disconcerting inconsistency struck again this season. Keller can be superb (9-6 and 5-3 in 2018 and 2020), but his 8-12, 5.39 2021 campaign was worse than his 7-14, 4.19 2019. Nothing about this season suggests he deserves a raise from his affordable $3.2 million salary, but arbitration isn’t always tethered tightly to logic.

Kris Bubic could also interest the A’s, but the Royals will probably be inclined to give him a third season after some of the good moments he had in a 6-7, 4.43 campaign.

Because they’re almost certain to lose or let go free agent outfielders Starling Marte and Mark Canha, the A’s may look outside the organization for replacements. Kansas City isn’t giving up new Gold Glovers Andrew Benintendi or Michael A. Taylor for Manaea, but the club’s willingness to trade Edward Olivares, Brewer Hicklen, or even Seuly Matias could be a different story. In any event, getting Manaea will require the KC Royals to give up more than just one player.

Is Manaea worth it? Probably. He’s young, good, and can offer some stability to a rotation badly in need of it. The Royals invested heavily in Manaea when they signed him, and may be willing to do so again.

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There are ways to bring Sean Manaea back to the KC Royals if they’re interested. But there will be some cost.