Yesterday, while ruminating about the Royals opportunities this winter, I suggested the following.
If I’m Kansas City, I’d rather send Davis to a team like the Cubs or Dodgers, a team that doesn’t really have a ninth-inning guy with whom they’re currently comfortable, and would pay a bigger premium for the upgrade they’d get in their bullpen. The idea of swapping Davis for Jorge Soler and something else is more interesting to me, for instance. Soler is, in some ways, the outfield version of Kolten Wong at this point; a mid-20s guy who hasn’t shown he can be an above-average regular yet, but has a long-term deal at cheap prices that makes him somewhat useful even if he just is what he is. Except Soler still has mythical upside: if he figures out how to hit like people think he could hit, his value would skyrocket.
The Royals, it seems, had similar thoughts.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 7, 2016
The deal isn’t done quite yet, because reviewing the medicals on a guy who went on the DL twice last year with elbow problems is no minor matter. But assuming the Cubs are confident that Davis is healthy enough, the deal sounds like it will go through, and likely as a one for one.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 7, 2016
So, let’s talk about Soler and Davis. In a challenge trade, it’s usually hard to pull off a win-win deal, given that the performance of the two players isn’t going to be identical. This one, though? This looks like this could work well for both teams.
The Cubs side of this is easy; they could use another high-quality reliever, and they don’t have anywhere to play Soler, so his upside and value are mostly wasted in Chicago. With Kyle Schwarber set to get the bulk of the time in left field, Soler was in line for the weak side of a platoon, and even then, the Cubs have potentially better options, with Ben Zobrist’s flexibility allowing them to play Javier Baez at second and stick Zobrist in left field on days Schwarber isn’t in the line-up. Soler, realistically, might have ended up in a pure bench role, playing right field when Jason Heyward is hurt or struggling, and serving as a pinch-hitter when he isn’t.
So, instead, they will turn a player they didn’t really have much use for into a guy who, when healthy, is one of the best relievers in baseball. For the record, here are the five lowest wOBAs allowed by RPs since the start of 2014.
There’s Davis at the top, hanging out with Miller, ahead of Chapman and Britton, and pretty far removed from the next tier, which is led by Melancon and the not-pictured Kenley Jansen. Davis’ recent track record is spectacular.
But, of course, there are reasons the Royals — a team not punting 2017 — are willing to trade Davis. Those DL stints in July were scary, especially because flexor bundle strains often are followed in the not too distant future by the words Dr. James Andrews. Davis’ strikeout rate has gone from 39% to 31% to 27% the last three years, and his wOBA allowed is driven in large part by a complete lack of home runs; he’s only given up three in the last three years, thanks to the lowest HR/FB rate in baseball. Davis has dominated, but especially more recently, it’s been more Melancon’s kind of domination than Chapman’s or Jansen’s.
So, yeah, there’s risk here. Davis has been great, but his greatness going forward is a little less certain. But while other teams are risking $60 to $100 million, there’s appeal here with Davis because it’s just one year. The Cubs aren’t making a long-term commitment, and assuming he’s healthy, the Cubs can use Davis as their workhorse reliever like they used Chapman, then let someone else worry about the long-term effects.
Of course, instead of giving up cash to get their bullpen upgrade, the Cubs are giving up talent. And while Soler hasn’t yet turned into what he looks like he could be, he’s a great fit for the Royals, because even if he doesn’t take a huge leap forward, he’s still a valuable piece for a team that needs to fill holes and doens’t have a lot of money to spend.
For instance, let’s look at what Soler is right now. From 22 to 24, he’s been a slightly above average hitter, combining high-quality value on contact with not quite enough contact. He’s a guy who hits the ball hard but doesn’t hit it often enough, and that limits his offensive upside to some degree. But how different is he from Mark Trumbo, really?
Yes, Trumbo has played full time, while Soler has been limited to part-time duty due to injuries and the fact that the Cubs had better options. Trumbo was better last year, and you want to weight recent performance more heavily. But Trumbo is also almost 31, while Soler is about to turn 25. Their skillsets are similar. Soler could easily have a Trumbo-esque season if he can stay healthy enough to get 600 plate appearances next year, and Trumbo has already reportedly turned down a four year deal worth $50-$60 million from the Orioles.
The reality is the market pays for Soler’s current skillset, more than it probably should. So even if he never really takes the leap, the Royals could likely increase his value simply by getting him in the line-up everyday next year. If he’s healthy enough to hold down a regular job, and he hits 25 or 30 home runs, Soler’s value will go up simply because he’ll be a proven power hitter at that point.
So the Royals turned a high-risk reliever they can replace with a guy whose value has plenty of room to go up. And that’s assuming there’s no huge breakout. If he takes a leap forward and turns himself into, say, Justin Upton, well then the Royals will have picked up a potential All-Star for one year of a reliever with a bad elbow.
Of course, there’s the chance that he’s just Yasmany Tomas instead. Maybe Soler continues to show that the defense is a legitimate problem in the outfield, and the power isn’t enough to offset the contact issues, making him a league average hitter. It’s not like this is a risk-free acquisition, and if the Royals trade Jarrod Dyson away and give his playing time to Soler, only to see him be a +0 to +1 WAR player, they’ll be worse off in 2017, even without accounting for the loss of Davis in the bullpen.
But this is a risk the Royals need to take. In order to contend next year, they’re going to need a few breakouts like they got in 2015, and Soler gives them another guy that you can see taking a big step forward. This turns some short-term value into long-term value without necessarily making themselves significantly worse next year. And they pick up a guy that could be flipped for even more value next winter, if they decide he’s more Trumbo than Upton.
So, yeah, the Cubs have to be happy that they turned a guy they didn’t need into a reliever they did need. But I like this for the Royals too. Soler would probably get something like 4/$50M as a free agent, but he’ll be paid $16 million over the next four years instead, so even without a breakout, this improves the Royals long-term position. And there’s enough chance of improvement that this could turn into a huge win for Kansas City.
So, yeah, a one-for-one win-win. You don’t see these too often, but I think both sides are making a deal that makes sense for their organization.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.