According to reports out of Kansas City and Boston, the Royals have discussed trading outfield prospect Wil Myers to the Red Sox and Rays in deals that would net them Jon Lester or James Shields respectively. These discussions are the fruit of the Royals desire to upgrade a rotation that posted an ERA- of 122 as a group last year, the fourth worst mark of any club in baseball. Given how bad their rotation was, fixing it has become priority No. 1 for Dayton Moore this winter.
In general, replacing your worst players is a pretty sound off-season strategy. If one part of your roster is filled with replacement level scrubs, you can often get the most bang for your buck by replacing them with actual Major Leaguers. In fact, those moves are often the easiest upgrades to make, since there are more readily available +1 to +2 win players than there are +3 to +4 win players, so upgrading a black hole can be a more efficient way to improve the team than trying to upgrade over a decent-but-flawed placeholder.
So, from that perspective, the Royals plan to upgrade their rotation was a sound one. It’s just that the way they’re going about making these upgrades is a little strange, and nothing is stranger than the idea of trading away Myers simply because the team wants better pitchers. Because, without Myers, the team would then need a better outfielder, and they very well may not be any better off than they were before the trade.
The Royals simply do not have a surplus of quality outfielders. Last year, they gave seven players various amounts of playing time in the outfield. Those seven, by quantity of playing time:
Alex Gordon was excellent. Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson formed a decent enough center field job-share, and they’re complementary enough that you can keep them around as a CF platoon. And then there was everyone else. Jeff Francouer was a disaster, and one of the worst everyday players in Major League Baseball, and yet, Mitch Maier, Jason Bourgeois, and David Lough managed to limbo under even his very low bar. And besides Myers, the outfield prospects in the minors don’t offer any hope either.
Put simply, the Royals hole in right field is larger than their hole in the rotation. Even if you’re betting on a bounceback from Francouer, you’re looking at a 29-year-old who has averaged +1.3 WAR per 600 PA in his career, with almost all of that coming from 2005-2007. In the last five years, Francouer has totaled +1.8 WAR. He’s about as close to being a replacement level scrub as one can be without actually being a +0 WAR player.
Trading Wil Myers to improve the rotation is the definition of robbing Peter to pay Paul. They’d simply be creating a void at one position to fill the void at another. The entire idea that the Royals are trading from a surplus of hitting is a myth. The presence of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Billy Butler don’t affect the Royals ability to extract value from playing Myers in any way, shape, or form.
The only way a team can have too many hitters is if they begin to interfere with each other’s ability to find a regular spot in the line-up. There are situations where a team faces diminishing returns from having too many similar players, and trading them to fill holes at other positions can make the team better, even if the talent exchange is a lateral maneuver. If Myers was a 1B/DH, Hosmer and Butler would be impediments to Myers’ production in KC, and the Royals would have a real reason to trade one of the three.
But he’s not. He’s an outfielder, and the Royals are just as strongly in need of an outfielder as they are another starting pitcher. Swapping Myers for a pitcher only makes them differently weak, rather than actually eliminating a problem on the roster. And, given the pitchers the Royals are talking about acquiring, the rotation upgrade would likely be a short lived one to begin with.
Both Lester and Shields only have two years left on their contracts, and both will make in excess of $20 million over the next two seasons, then be in a position to receive long term contracts that would likely price them out of the Royals plans. The reports of the rumored negotiations actually suggest that the Royals would need to find a way to clear money off the payroll simply to afford the current salaries of either pitcher, much less figuring out a way to afford a big raise by the start of the 2015 season.
Given these contract terms, a swap of Myers for either Shields or Lester might not make the Royals any better in the short term. The fact that the team is apparently strapped for cash means that they wouldn’t then be able to supplement this trade by bringing in additional outfield help, so the team would be stuck with another season of Jeff Francoeur, Right Fielder. If the choice is between a Myers/Paulino or Francoeur/Lester combination, the marginal upgrade in 2013 is going to be on the order of one or two wins, and the long term hit from exchanging Myers cost-controlled seasons for the FA prices of either pitcher will be substantial.
Filling a hole on the roster is a noble goal, but teams need to be conscious of the trap of seeing a want as a need, and doing more harm to their organization than good in order to acquire a specific piece. Teams don’t need pitching or hitting or defense – they just need wins, and they can get those wins in a variety of packages. The Royals can with with good hitting and mediocre pitching, or mediocre hitting and good pitching, but they can’t win with mediocre hitting and pitching. And trading Myers for a short term pitching upgrade, while leaving Francouer to handle right field, would mainly serve to make sure the team is mediocre across the board.
The Royals aren’t in a position where they have too many good hitters to use Wil Myers. They don’t have a surplus of hitting, and they certainly don’t have a surplus of outfielders. Exchanging Myers for a pitcher is penny wise and pound foolish. The Royals don’t need better pitching. They need better players. Trading Myers for Lester or Shields doesn’t make them better. It just makes them differently bad.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.