In some ways, this post feels like a repeat. When rumors first surfaced that the Royals were considering shipping off Wil Myers to acquire a veteran starting pitcher, I wrote up my feelings on why that wasn’t such a great idea. If you want to see my full breakdown on swapping Myers for Shields, start there. The brief summary goes something like this; sure, the Royals need better pitching, but they also need better outfielders, and better infielders, and better everything. The Royals were not a particularly good baseball team last year, or the year before, or really any time in recent history.
They won 83 games back in 2003, the last time they had a winning season. Prior to that, you had to go back to 1993 to find a season where they won more games than they lost. Two winning seasons in 20 years can make a franchise desperate for respectability. And desperate teams often do desperate things. But I don’t think anyone saw the Royals doing something this desperate.
If you haven’t heard the news yet, the Royals agreed to trade OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi, LHP Mike Montgomery, and 3B Patrick Leonard to Tampa Bay for RHP James Shields, RHP Wade Davis, and a PTBNL or cash. Whenever there’s “or cash” attached, you can be pretty sure the PTBNL is no one of note, so basically, the Royals traded their best prospect, their best pitching prospect, and two other talented youngsters for Shields and Davis.
The obvious comparison here is the Erik Bedard trade. Coming off an 88 win season, the Mariners decided to go for broke, shipping off prospects Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, Tony Butler, and Kam Mickolio along with reliever George Sherrill to acquire Bedard from the Orioles. The Mariners weren’t as close to winning as they thought they were, and after they won 61 games in 2008, the entire front office was fired and the organization went into a full scale rebuild. Bedard spent his two years in Seattle on and off the disabled list, while Jones has blossomed into one of the game’s best center fielders and Tillman continues to flash some potential as a young starter with a big league future.
That trade is generally regarded as the worst prospects-for-veteran swap in recent history. This might be worse.
Myers is a better prospect now than Jones was at the time he was dealt. He’s not a sure thing, of course — no player is, prospect, veteran, or otherwise — but he’s basically big league ready and has a promising future. The right-handed Jay Bruce comparisons aren’t too far off base. The concern about his contact rate can’t just be swept under the rug, but the power and athleticism are there, and he has a good enough approach at the plate that he can get on base at an adequate rate even if he hits .250. He’s probably something close to a +2 win player right now, and he has the ability to turn into one of the better right fielders in baseball.
Meanwhile, Odorizzi is a similar pitcher to Tillman, just at a more advanced level than Tillman was at the time of the deal. He’s more of a good-command-of-solid-stuff guy than a future ace, but he’s got a shot to be a pretty solid middle of the rotation starter. And, given that he’s already spent 100+ innings in Triple-A, his timeline for reaching the big leagues is significantly faster than Tillman’s was when Baltimore acquired him, since Tillman had split the prior season between low-A and high-A.
The additional pieces in the Bedard trade were a reliever, a relief prospect, and a 19-year-old A-ball arm with health problems. Sherrill, Butler, and Mickolio weren’t nothing, but they were more filler than serious value pieces. Meanwhile, the extra players going Tampa’s way have some real talent. Marc Hulet rated Montgomery as the Royals #2 prospect (behind Myers) before the 2012 season, and while he had a miserable season this past year, there’s clearly some talent there to be salvaged if the Rays can get him back on track. And Mike Newman just rated Patrick Leonard as the eighth best 3B prospect he saw this year, noting his power potential and the fact that he’s already showing some plate discipline at a young age.
Put simply, this is a better package of players than the Orioles got for Bedard. Which is good, because James Shields is better now than Bedard was then, and they’re also getting Wade Davis as well, but it is an undeniable fact that the Royals just paid a very, very steep price to make this trade.
And, unfortunately for Kansas City, it’s hard to see too many scenarios where adding Shields and Davis put them over the top for a playoff berth — the kind of result that would essentially be required to justify this kind of future-for-present trade. Last year, the Royals ranked 22nd in both wins (72) and WAR (+30, which suggests an expected W-L record of ~73 wins). This was not a team that drastically underachieved their on field play. They were bad at hitting, bad at fielding, and bad at pitching. Their bullpen was excellent – pretty much everything else was horrible.
James Shields will make their pitching better. Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie might too. Wade Davis could help, depending on how he’s used. The Royals pitching in 2013 should be a lot better than it was in 2012.
But that might be enough to make them an 80 win team instead of a 70 win team. Without Myers, they’re now stuck with a replacement level right fielder. They don’t really have a second baseman. Eric Hosmer has to take a huge step forward to just not be horrible. And even at positions like center field, shortstop, and third base, the in-house options are more interesting future pieces than impact present options. The Royals offense is basically Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and a lot of hopes and prayers. This is just not a team that was a couple of pitchers away from the postseason. This was a team that was a couple of pitchers away from not picking in the top 10 in next year’s draft.
If you squint hard enough, you can see the possibility of the Royals winning 90 games next year. If Hosmer takes a huge step forward, and Santana rebounds to 2011 form, and everyone stays healthy, and they win all 19 games they play against the Twins, but you can do that with 20 to 25 of the teams in Major League Baseball in any given year. It’s not impossible for the Royals to challenge the Tigers for the AL Central title in 2013, but it’s not likely either. There’s a difference between not agreeing to lose on purpose and giving up a huge chunk of your farm system in an ill-fated attempt to push up your timeline to win. The Royals have just done the latter.
This is the Royals pushing all-in on the short term future. If this team as constructed doesn’t win, it’s nearly impossible to see how Moore keeps his job past 2013. He’s spent most of the last seven years building up a vaunted farm system, and now he’s betting that the players it helped him acquire, along the with ones already in Kansas City, are enough to get the team to the promised land. If they’re not, it’s hard to see what hope he can continue to sell the fans, because there isn’t a lot of upper level talent coming behind the roster now in place.
This move solidifies the Royals as a win-now franchise. However, from here, it just doesn’t look like they have a good enough team to actually win now. If the 2013 Royals follow the 2008 Mariners path to self destruction, this might be the last roster Dayton Moore ever gets to build.
If you’re wondering about this trade from the Rays perspective, they’re now a little worse than they were before this trade, but their winter isn’t over. They’ll replace Shields and Davis with worse pitchers, but they’re also freeing up roughly $10 million in salary, so if they reallocate that money to buy a +2 win player elsewhere — they still have a glaring hole at DH — then they very well might end up about as good overall as they would have been had they kept Shields. And, of course, they now control Myers rights for the next six years, and they have Odorizzi to maintain their pitching depth, and they got a couple of potential long term assets in Montgomery and Leonard for their trouble. This is just another terrific move by the Rays, pushing their present talent marginally down in order to provide a huge long term boost and keep the team flush with premium young talent.
Even though their team got worse in the present, Rays fans have to be thrilled with this trade. And even though their club got better in the present, Royals fans should be in mourning, because even after this exchange, the Rays are still the team with a better chance of contending in 2013, and now they’ve cemented a brighter future for themselves as well.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.