A six year, $147 million contract is too rich for the Kansas City Royals’ blood. So, when Zack Greinke agreed to terms with the Dodgers on the richest contract ever given to a pitcher, general manager Dayton Moore probably saw the handwriting on the wall. Although the Royals weren’t a player for Greinke, the enormous price tag for a starting pitcher with a career ERA+ of 114 must have signaled to the general manager that not only were the game’s elite hurlers out of his financial reach, but now, even the second tier was as well.
In 2011 and 2012, James Shields, who is owed only $21 million over the next two seasons, provided more value than Greinke, according to both versions of WAR. Had he hit the open market this winter, the Tampa Rays’ right hander would have probably received a contract not too far removed from the mega-deal signed by Greinke. In other words, the Royals would have never been able to afford him. However, by acquiring Shields from the Rays in a six-player trade, Moore was able to get his top flight starter at a fraction of the cost.
Going forward, the true cost of the trade to the Royals won’t be measured in dollars, but the value of the prospects they sent to the Rays in exchange for Shields and fellow righty Wade Davis. Although Jake Odorizzi and, to a lesser extent, Mike Montgomery are well thought of pitching prospects, the real blue chip in the trade was Wil Myers, a righty swinging corner outfield whom many evaluators consider to be one of the best young hitters in the minor leagues.
Why would the Kansas City Royals, a 72-win team, trade a young player with such a high ceiling in exchange for a 31-year old starter who may no longer be with the club when it finally turns the corner? That’s a good question, and one that was almost universally asked by pundits, prospects watchers, and number-crunchers alike. However, the near unanimous answer (a desperate Dayton Moore was fleeced by the savvy Andrew Friedman), which admittedly fits nicely into the narrative about both organizations, seems at least a little premature.
It’s easy to understand why prospect hawks like Baseball America and ESPN’s Keith Law would disapprove of the Royals’ trade. After all, they invest a lot of time and effort watching prospects and accumulating various scouting reports, so, naturally, their evaluations are based on strong convictions. If they believe Wil Myers is “can’t miss”, then trading such a prospect for even a pitcher as good as Shields makes little sense for a team like the Royals. However, these analysts aren’t always correct in their assessments. For example, in his 2008 prospect ranking, Law ranked Colby Rasmus as the number five prospect overall, followed by Travis Snider at number seven, and Fernando Martinez at number 10. All three players were also ranked highly by Baseball America, with the likes of Brandon Wood, Jordan Schafer, and Kosuke Fukudome thrown in for good measure. In all fairness, both evaluators were spot on with several other evaluations, but the many misses (at least to this point) illustrate just how difficult it is to project young talent in baseball.
The 2013 Royals will already have several offensive players who not too long ago were rated just as highly as Myers is now. Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer were all blue chips before being promoted, and, there’s still a good chance that group could develop into one of the best young offensive cores in the game. What the Royals do not have, however, is pitching. The teams’ major league rotation in 2012 was a disaster, and, many of its best pitching prospects underwhelmed. Without a revamped starting staff, Kansas City was almost assuredly resigned to another losing season in 2013. However, with Shield and Davis on board, they now have a chance to compete.
Based on run differential, the AL Central champion Tigers were only 13 wins better than the Royals in 2012. That’s not an insignificant gap, especially if you believe the Tigers under-performed, but if Shields and Davis can add six wins between them, and the rest of the team improves enough to add another five, Kansas City just might be able to contend for a postseason spot. Granted, those assumptions might be on the optimistic side, but, if there is even a small window of opportunity, it’s hard to blame Moore for trying to climb through it. After all, if Myers is such a sure thing, then it’s just as reasonable to assume the Royals’ other “can’t miss” prospects will improve this year. If that occurs, the addition of a legitimate front-line starter in Shields and a talented major league arm in Davis (who, incidentally, was rated as the 15th and 17th best prospect in 2008 by Law and BA, respectively, and still has five more years of team control) could provide enough pitching support behind the team’s young hitters to propel Kansas City into a pennant race.
Unless the Royals make a few more moves, they’ll still be a long shot to win the A.L. Central or even snag a wild card, but, by no means are they a lost cause. With the expanded playoff system and a greater degree of league-wide competitive balance, Cinderella teams are no longer a fairy tale in baseball. And, if the Royals get invited to the dance next season, they’ll have a bona fide starting pitcher to serve as an escort. Is it naïve for Moore to trade a promising young player for a chance at a happy ending? Perhaps, but that’s easy for the disinterested to say.Kansas City has not experienced the excitement of a pennant race in nearly 25 years, so if the organization, and its fan base, wants to dream big, who can blame them? The experts can chuckle and chortle, but for those who have invested so much time and effort into returning winning baseball to Kansas City, it’s really not a laughing matter…at least not until the next time the Royals play in October.