By DAVE SKRETTA
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Just about the only thing that Justin Maxwell knew about the Kansas City Royals when he showed up to the ballpark Wednesday was that they were in the playoff hunt.
Turns out that’s precisely why the Royals wanted him.
With an eye on the postseason for the first time in a decade, the Royals traded minor league pitcher Kyle Smith to the Houston Astros to acquire the speedy Maxwell, giving them a right-handed bat to help balance out the lineup for the stretch run.
“It was definitely a surprise. I was on my way to the ballpark and (Astros GM) Jeff (Luhnow) gave me a call with the news,” Maxwell said. “I don’t really know much about Kansas City, but I’m excited. It’s a team in the wild-card hunt, or at least that’s what I’ve been told.”
Maxwell was expected to join the Royals in time for the series finale Thursday in Minnesota. Kansas City will have to make a corresponding roster move then.
Kansas City had won seven straight entering Wednesday night’s game at Minnesota, climbing above .500 and positioning itself to play meaningful baseball in August for the first time since 2003, when the club finished 83-79 for its only winning season since 1993.
Still, the Royals were 7½ games out of first place, so there was just as much speculation that they’d be sellers at the trade deadline as chatter about picking up some help.
“I just think everybody’s excited with the way they’re playing. I think everybody to a man has confidence in everybody on this team, and a little bit of help helps,” Yost said after the deadline passed. “I think they feel as a group what we’ve got here is enough to compete with.”
Right-hander Ervin Santana was the name brought up most often in trade rumors. He’s in the final year of his contract and could be too costly for the Royals in free agency, especially after a resurgent season. Santana is 7-6 with a career-best 3.03 ERA.
Santana had made it clear that he wanted to remain with the Royals, though, and even counted down the minutes on Twitter until the 4 p.m. EDT trade deadline had passed.
“Yessssssss!!!!!!,” Santana tweeted afterward. “Lets go get em!!!!!”
Well, the Royals will go get ‘em with a new outfielder to help out.
They were seeking a right-handed outfielder prior to the non-waiver trade deadline, and at least on paper achieved their goal. Maxwell is hitting just .214 with two homers and eight RBIs in 40 games this season, but he’s hitting .302 against left-handed pitchers. Yost said he’d play him at any of the outfield spots but mostly off the bench as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement.
Maxwell fits the bill for relatively cheap, too: He’s making $492,500 if he spends the entire season in the majors, and the Royals will have him under control through 2016.
“I definitely enjoyed my experience here in Houston. It was my first extended time in the big leagues,” Maxwell said. “I had a lot of fun this year and last year, met a lot of great guys on this team. I just wish them all the best.”
In return for Maxwell, the Astros picked up 20-year-old Smith, a fourth-round pick of Kansas City in the 2011 amateur draft. He’s 5-4 with a 2.85 ERA at Class-A Wilmington this season.
Maxwell’s career has so far been filled with more downs than ups.
He broke into the big leagues as a 23-year-old with the Nationals in 2007, but only played in 108 games over the next three seasons. He was traded to the Yankees in 2011 and then claimed off waivers by Houston, where he’s spent the past two seasons.
Maxwell hit 18 homers and 53 RBIS last season, and the Astros were hopeful of a late-career breakout this season. But he broke his hand while getting hit by a pitch in late April, and then sustained a concussion in late June while trying to make a diving catch.
“The season didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Maxwell said, “but I still have a chance to finish it out strong and that’s what I’m looking to do now.”
While he’s expected to share time with David Lough in right field, Maxwell could become even more valuable if the Royals are without center fielder Lorenzo Cain for an extended period of time. Cain hurt his left groin on Saturday.