From the start, I thought the Kansas City Royals got a bad rap when they gave Gil Meche a 5-year, $55 million contract. That was before the 2007 season, and up to that point Meche’s career numbers were 55-44 with an unimpressive 4.65 ERA, an equally unimpressive 96 ERA+, and a penchant for giving up walks and home runs. He had just turned 28 years old.
These numbers, and others like them, strongly suggested the Meche was not worth anything close to $11 million a year … strongly suggested, in fact, that the cash-poor Royals might have been out of their minds. Many people said this out loud. A few — like then-Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, who had been trying to sign Meche — also took some shots at Meche for lacking the fortitude to play for a team that had a chance to compete. It was a open season on the Royals and Meche. And, like I say, from the start I thought it was unfair.
Here’s why I thought it was unfair: Was Meche worth $11 million a year? Of course not … if you are measuring worth by the way we as fans perceive value. But based on the way baseball teams perceive value? He was a healthy 28-year-old pitcher with some experience, great stuff, and he was showing some signs of becoming a good pitcher. And pitchers of that genre get paid.
— A.J. Burnett at 32 got $16 million a year.
— Chan Ho Park at 29 got $13 million a year.
— Carlos Silva at 29 got $12 million a year.
— Vincente Padilla at 29 got $11-plus million a year.
— Darren Dreifort at 28 got $11 million a year.
— Jeff Suppan at 32 got $10-plus million a year.
— Carl Pavano at 29 got $10 million a year.
— Eric Milton at 29 got about $9 million a year.
— Matt Morris at 31 got $9 million a year.
— Andy Ashby at 33 got about $8 million a year.
And so on. Some of these pitchers had pitched better than Meche, but I think they are all in about the same age range, all with various talents, all with various drawbacks, all risks, all making about what Meche was offered by the Royals. Truth is that at least one other team, and perhaps two or three, had offered close to what the Royals offered in money per year terms, which tells you that a few baseball teams (and it only takes one) had set Meche’s price at about $10 or $11 million per year. The Royals, I feel certain, were the only team to offer a fifth year, and they did this because there was no other way they could sign the guy. And they wanted him badly. They thought he had a chance to have a stabilizing effect on a team that had lost 310 games the previous three seasons and had clearly lost its way. They also thought he was ready to emerge. They were throwing deep in an effort to begin turning around a crummy ballclub. And they got battered for it.
The Royals have not been right very often in the last couple of decades. But it turned out they were right on the timing of Gil Meche. He WAS ready to emerge. He had this power curveball that really was quite unlike what almost anyone else threw, and he had a good change-up to go along with his erratic but lively fastball, and perhaps more than anything he had reached a maturity level where he was now taking his baseball career quite seriously. Meche would say that at times things had come too easily to him — he had been a first-round pick out of high school, he was pitching in the big leagues with some success at age 20 — and he had never really dedicated himself to the craft.
And in 2007 and 2008 for the Royals he was one of the better pitchers in the American League. He posted a 117 ERA+, his strikeout to walk ratio jumped significantly (339 to 135), he pitched 210 innings both years, his Fangraphs value was about $19 million, which is almost precisely what the Royals actually paid him for those two years.
And while such things usually are overrated … he really did offer a kind of value to the Royals that is difficult to measure. For one thing, he talked a lot to Zack Greinke. You always saw the two guys off somewhere talking over things. Meche was an outwardly modest guy who would never take any credit at all for helping Greinke overcome some of the difficulties he faced. But Greinke gave him loads of credit. When Meche signed with the Royals before the 2007 season, Greinke was a 23-year-old reliever who had only a year earlier walked away from baseball. In 2009, Greinke won the Cy Young award. Meche played some role in that. Greinke signed with the Royals rather than becoming a free agent. Meche had some role in that too. It wasn’t just Greinke. Meche was always — ALWAYS — trying to help out. That was what the Royals had bet on. And that is what the Royals got.
I have written at great length about Meche’s doomed 2009 season. I’ll try to keep it a lot shorter here. He’d had some back problems in spring training, a bad sign for a 30-year-old pitcher, but he seemed to think that things would stretch out as the weather warmed up and as he reached full throttle. And he seemed to be right. By the middle of June he was pitching about as well as he had pitched in 2007 and 2008. He had a 3.70 ERA after throwing seven shutout innings at Cleveland. He threw 115 pitches in Cleveland — Meche tended to be a high pitch-count guy because of strikeouts and walks. Next time out, he was back home facing Arizona and he pitched brilliantly but, again, somewhat inefficiently. Royals manager Trey Hillman left him out there to throw 132 pitches in a shutout. It seemed a bit much for a guy with a balky back but Meche wanted to stay in, he expected to stay in, and you can’t blame a manager for sticking with his veteran guy. “He knows his body,” Hillman said, not for the last time.
At that moment, Gil Meche had a 3.31 ERA, and along with Greinke the Royals seemed to have a pretty good 1-2 pitching punch. You could not know at that moment that Gil Meche would never again be the same. But that’s kind of how it turned out.
His next two outings were miserable — 13 runs in 8 1/3 innings — and the Royals talked openly about skipping Meche’s next start because he was exhibiting “dead arm,” which, as I wrote at the time, does not seem like an official medical term. The Royals were always saying goofy things like “He has dead arm,” — I would not have been surprised if the Royals had started announcing injuries by saying that a player had a “hitch in his giddy-up” or a “major boo boo.” In any case, they thought about skipping Meche start but after a couple of days of not throwing Meche said he felt fine and the Royals, for reasons that are as baffling now as they were then, had Meche make his regularly scheduled start. The Royals were not in a pennant race, of course. They were not close to a pennant race, of course. The reasoning behind not skipping a start with a dead-arm pitcher they had paid $55 million was not even convoluted — it was nonexistent. Gil said he felt fine. That was it. That was the reasoning. So he pitched. The Royals did say that they would monitor Meche’s pitch count.
I have no doubt that the Royals “monitored” Meche’s pitch count, as monitor means “to observe and check the progress.” However, they did not actually take him out of the game. The details, as detailed in my piece above, are still as gory to me as the Marvin ear scene in “Reservoir Dogs.” They left him in for 121 pitches, the last 22 of them so labored and cruel that I expected malpractice lawyers to rush the scene. The explanations afterward had something to do with Meche wanting to stay in and that his stuff looked good, and I don’t know what else. It was just a mistake, though no one would admit it. The Royals, apparently trying to prove a point, let Meche throw 115 pitches the outing AFTER THAT. It was like jumping on top of him from the top rope two times in a row. Meche made one more start after that before going on the disabled list for a month. After he returned, he had an 8.14 ERA in four miserable starts. He started 2010 on the disabled list. His first nine starts in 2010, he had a 6.66 ERA and walked more than he struck out. That was when the doctors told him that he needed to shut it down and have shoulder surgery that would sideline him for more than a year, if not for the rest of his career.
He refused. He thought the Royals deserved better than that. Instead he went to the bullpen and tried to help out from there. Pitching one painful inning at a time he did manage six holds and a 2.08 ERA in 13 September innings.
Gil Meche has never blamed the Royals for what happened, not once, and in fact has said again and again and again that they did the right things and what happened would have happened no matter what. When a team gives a player a huge, long-term contract … their hope is that he will live up to it. Gil Meche pitched well when he was healthy, and when he got hurt he did all he could to get back on the field, and he always did everything he could do off the field to make the Royals better. He embraced the responsibility of his contract and gave the Royals everything he had including the continued use of his right shoulder. He did not make the Royals a winner or anything close because he could not, because the Royals had a mostly lousy team with no noticeable strengths except for a little bit of right-handed pitching. But he was a lot like the Black Knight from Monty Python. He kept on fighting, all the while shouting “It’s only a flesh wound.”
On Tuesday, Gil Meche finished off his contract in the most unbelievable way — perhaps the most unbelievable finish in Major League baseball history: He walked away from the money. He retired. He left behind $12.4 million guaranteed that was legally and rightfully his because he had determined that he could not help the Kansas City Royals anymore.
I’ve seen a few pieces on the Internet lauding his integrity for walking away from that money … but frankly I’m stunned at the rather passive way most of the people are lauding him. THE MAN WALKED AWAY FROM $12.4 MILLION DOLLARS. If that has ever happened before in the history of professional sports, I have never heard about it. If that has ever happened in the history of the world outside of the movie “Arthur,” I am forgetting the story. Gil Meche had earned that $12.4 million — earned it by signing with the Royals, earned it by pitching his heart out, earned it by working with Zack Greinke and others, earned it by giving up his baseball future, earned it by signing the contract on that day before the 2007 season.
But he doesn’t feel that way. He feels like he can’t pitch anymore, and so the right thing to do is retire. Sure, he could have had surgery and collected the money. Sure, he could have tried to pitch in relief and collected the money. What percentage of people would do that? I’d say 99.999999999%. Hey, that money was his — it was legally his for signing the contract, it was rightfully his for fulfilling his end of the contract, it was medically his for giving up his right shoulder for the Royals, it was ethically his because nobody could doubt he went above and beyond for the Kansas City Royals.
But he doesn’t feel like he can help the Royals by pitching in 2011. And so he is walking away. It would be wrong to call an extremely rich pitcher “heroic” for leaving behind money he doesn’t feel like he deserves — that’s just not the right word. I wrote a piece for the backpage of SI this week about John Green, father of Christina Green, and that’s where words like “heroic” should go. But there should be a word for what Gil Meche did. Astonishing is one.
“There’s no settlement,” Meche said on a conference call. “The team’s done enough for me.”
He said those words without irony. Four years ago, when the Royals were looking for someone to help change the culture of baseball’s worst team, they signed Gil Meche. For various reasons, it didn’t turn out exactly the way the Royals or Meche wanted. That happens. But it’s clear: The Royals signed the right man.