It goes without saying that in pure baseball terms, I despise the Royals’ trade of late Sunday night. Despise. Deplore. Deride. Disapprove. If there were a Royals Tradebook Page, I would click the “dislike” button at least 10,000 times. The Royals traded their No. 1 prospect (and one of the best hitting prospects in the game), their No. 5 prospect, PLUS last year’s No. 1 prospect, PLUS a fourth semi-prospect (because the other three apparently weren’t enough) to Tampa Bay for a 31-year-old pitcher with a whole lot of innings and a very shaky road record and a 27-year-old pitcher who was demoted to the bullpen. I’d say 10,000 dislikes might not be enough.
But, for a moment, before delving deeper into the pile of dislikes, I think it’s important to consider what it is to be the Kansas City Royals heading into 2013.
There is a sports syndrome that, as far as I know, doesn’t have a name. You might call it “The Last 30 Seconds of SportsCenter” Syndrome. It’s something that fans in all sports in different part of the country feel at different times — probably the best way I can describe it is this: You just don’t feel part of the big leagues. I don’t mean that you’re depressed because your team is lousy; that’s a given. I mean that you’re depressed because nobody even knows your team exists.
There are many examples, but, for a moment, look at it through the Kansas City Royals’ eyes. Your team never wins. Your team never contends. Your team is never talked about. Your team is never involved in cool trade rumors and your team is never a bidder on the most expensive free agents. Your All-Star selection is always an afterthought, and your team’s best players are not known outside the city limits.
It’s bad enough to lose all the time, but it’s this constant reminder of your team’s irrelevance — always waiting until the end of SportsCenter to get your obligatory few seconds of highlights (usually focusing on the other team) — that makes being a Kansas City fan somewhat close to insufferable. You get this strong feeling that if the Royals abdicated from the major leagues, it would take the bulk of the country two and a half weeks to notice. Some would never notice.
All this provokes a different kind of hopelessness. The Royals have not made the postseason since 1985 — almost 30 years ago — but the truth is that only Royals fans care about this. There is no lovable loser Cubs thing going there. There is none of the pent-up angst and foreboding that, for so long, marked the Boston Red Sox. There is none of the “baseball is just a better game when the Dodgers are contending” emotion. There is not even the “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if the Pirates or Blue Jays or Orioles were good again,” sentiment.
Nobody except Royals fans seem to care if the Royals ever get good again. Ever.
Anyway, that’s certainly how it can begin to feel in Kansas City after a while.
And so, I fully understand why the Royals made this trade. It’s their barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. It is their loud and uncompromising pronouncement that they have decided to win right now, this year, no more five-year plans, no more youth movements, no more veteran water-treading, no more shades of gray. This is it, right now, 2013, the Royals line up to win, to make the postseason, to be a World Series contender. There’s a new kids’ movie out now, “Rise of the Guardians,” and the major theme is that Jack Frost wants to be seen. That seems to be the force of this trade. The Royals, at last, want to be seen. They are pushing in all their chips.
Now, before getting into the obvious flaws in the plan … let’s talk for a second about how it could work for Kansas City.
The key player the Royals traded away, of course, is Wil Myers, who just turned 22 and who is one of the great hitting prospects in the game. Myers hit .314 with 37 homers in 134 games of Double-A and Triple-A baseball last year. He’s been a massive hitting prospect for the Royals for a while now. Myers was a mega-prospect coming out of high school in 2009, but he was asking for a $2 million deal and most teams just assumed he would go play ball at South Carolina. The Royals drafted him in the third round and then stunned a lot of people by giving Myers his asking price. He rewarded them by hitting .426 in 18 games of rookie ball, and the journey began.
The Royals’ farm system was loaded these last few years, and Myers sometimes got lost in the parade. But scouts said all the time: The guy’s a natural hitter. He doesn’t overthink it. He doesn’t get bogged down in the various mind games. See the ball. Hit the ball. Two years ago, he struggled, and there was some concern, but his massive 2012 season seemed to put all that to rest.
Or did it? Baseball people — and intense baseball fans — have always loved prospects. This has never been more true. Prospects are like backup quarterbacks. They are mysterious. They are promising. They are unlimited until they actually play. A friend asked me a fascinating question at the winter meetings. Alex Gordon is now one of the better players in baseball. People may not know that — there’s the syndrome again — but it’s true. Gordon gets on base, hits with extra-base power, steals an occasional base, plays great defense … there really aren’t too many players in the game who do as much. Gordon has posted a 6.2 and 7.1 WAR the last two years, the first Royals player in more than 30 years to post back-to-back seasons of 6.0 WAR or better. He’s excellent.
The question: When was Alex Gordon’s trade value at its peak?
1. Now, when he’s almost 29 and, after some low points, has proven to be one of the premier players in the game…
2. Or before the 2007 season, when he was widely viewed as the No. 1 prospect in baseball?
The answer, unquestionably, is 2007. There are intelligent reasons for this. In 2007, the Royals had him under their control for six years. They would have him cheap for three or four of those years at least. And, of course, he was quite a bit younger. But beyond that, Alex Gordon was still a riddle then. Now we know who he is — an All-Star caliber player who, one of these years, probably will hit .300, obee .400, with 30 home runs, 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 15 stolen bases, win a left field Gold Glove, and so on. But in 2007? He was limitless. He might hit FIFTY home runs, with 160 RBIs. He was a third baseman then. Maybe he was Chipper Jones! Maybe he was Eddie Mathews! Maybe — and yes, this was the big one — maybe he was George Brett!
The dream is always better than the reality — even when the reality is pretty darned good. Right now, Wil Myers could be anything. One scout told me that Myers (sacrilegious as this is) reminds him of Henry Aaron because of his quick wrists and amazing sense of hitting. But, he also could be Brandon Wood … or Ian Stewart … or Andy Marte … or Dallas McPherson … or Hee Seop Choi … or Ruben Mateo … or Ruben Rivera … or any number of other big-time, can’t miss hitting prospects who just never quite came together.
I remember when the Tigers traded a boatload of talented prospects — including the seemingly electrifying Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller — to Florida for Miggy Cabrera. It seemed like a somewhat even trade that might even lean toward Florida in the long run. Maybin was being compared by some to a young Ken Griffey Jr. Miller, a 6-foot-7 lefty with a breathtaking fastball, was supposed to be the first pick in the 2006 draft*. Cabrera was obviously the known commodity, but the promise of those young players made the deal very exciting for Florida.
*Until the aforementioned Royals inexplicably took Luke Hochevar instead.
And … Miller flamed out. Maybin never clicked. Others kicked around. Miggy won the Triple Crown.
So, can it work for the Royals? Sure. Myers looks like a future star now, but there are rumbles that the Royals are not quite as high on him as other teams, and they should know him best. Some scouts really like traded pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi — who, in the words of one scout, has “four pitches and an idea” — but others think that his fastball will settle in the high 80s and his other pitches are just OK, and he will have a Brian Bannister-like uphill challenge to succeed in the big leagues. Mike Montgomery, who was the Royals’ No. 1 prospect last year and in 2010, is actually a great example of why prospects are so fragile — he has pitched miserably for two seasons now. Maybe the Rays help him relocate his amazing talent. Maybe they don’t.
And for this, the Royals got the pitcher they craved, James Shields, who has thrown 200-plus innings in each of the last six years, who finished third in the Cy Young voting two years ago, who everybody loves as a leader and competitor, who gives the Royals their first legitimate Opening Day starter since Zack Greinke left town.* The Royals also got Wade Davis, whom the Rays put in the bullpen but whom some people think can be a strong middle-of-the rotation starter.
*The Royals’ Opening Day starters the last two years have been Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar. Really.
So, that’s how it could work. The Royals’ young offense scores runs, the Royals’ young bullpen shuts people down in the late innings, and the makeshift veteran rotation with James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar or Bruce Chen or somebody lead the Royals into contention in 2013 for the first time in a decade, maybe leads them into September contention for the first time in more than 20 years. It’s a longshot hope, maybe, but you don’t understand — for Kansas City fans, any faint sign of hope that the Royals are trying to win now, today, this minute, is a rose in the desert. The Royals have decided that it’s time — now or never time — and if they can finally win just a little bit, then the bulk of their fans will likely agree that this trade was worth it no matter how Will Myers and the others turn out. It’s been so long, too long, since the Royals have mattered. Now, maybe, possibly, conceivably, they will matter.
OK, that out of the way, let me tell you what you already know: Why this trade probably won’t work.
James Shields is 31 years old, and he’s started a lot of games, and he’s had the good fortune of pitching half his games in an extreme pitcher’s park. His home road split tell a story.
Home: 8-5, 3.25 ERA, 10 homers
Road: 7-5, 3.83 ERA, 15 homers
OK, that’s not too big a difference, right?
Home: 9-5, 2.36 ERA, 11 homers
Road: 7-7, 3.35 ERA, 15 homers
Well, that’s a run-per-game difference, but he was still good on the road.
Home: 5-7, 4.53 ERA, 14 homers
Road: 8-8, 5.82 ERA, 20 homers
Home: 6-6, 3.75 ERA, 11 homers
Road: 5-6, 5.62 ERA, 18 homers
Home: 9-2, 2.59 ERA, 9 homers
Road: 5-6, 4.82 ERA, 15 homers
OK, well, that’s getting pretty stark. Shields in all has been a good pitcher at home (48-21, 3.33 ERA) and a below-average pitcher on the road (39-42, 4.54 ERA). Many pitchers are better at home than on the road, but that’s a huge difference, and it’s no coincidence that Tampa Bay is a lousy hitter’s park. Shields has only made four starts at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, so it’s not enough to make any judgments on. That said, it would be better if he HAD NOT allowed 17 runs in the 24 innings he pitched there (6.38 ERA). And, remember, he allowed those against the Royals. Again, not enough info to go on. But it is his worst American League park.
He has also thrown a LOT of innings. He has thrown 1,330 innings from age 25 through 30. That doesn’t mean that he won’t be an effective pitcher the next couple of years — I looked at similar pitchers who threw a lot of innings in those years, and there are examples (Mike Boddicker, Mike Moore, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown) of right-handed bulldog pitchers who continued to pitch well or pitch even better at age 31 and 32. And there are examples (Russ Ortiz, Walt Terrell, Jon Garland, Livan Hernandez) of those who collapsed. It’s a mixed bag.
Point is, the Royals did not get a sure thing here — the way the Tigers did with Miggy. They got a pitcher they love for a lot of old-fashioned reasons — his competitiveness, his focus, his verve, his nickname (Big Game James!). These things might indeed matter. But these were also the reasons why the Royals acquired Jason Kendall.
And there’s another issue: The Royals were terrible in 2012. I mean they lost 90 games. They finished 12th in the league in runs scored. They finished 10th in the league in ERA. It’s nice, as a fan, to hope that it was just a speed bump, that some of the young players like Eric Hosmer (huge prospect who hit .232 in his second year) and Mike Moustakas (promising third baseman who hit .224 after May 15) and Lorenzo Cain (27-year-old center fielder) and Johnny Giavotella (24-year-old second baseman) and Salvy Perez (an American League Yadi Molina?) and others will flourish in 2013. But is that real? Is that a plan? Or is that just something we impetuous fans might think and respond? Was it really smart for the Royals to push in all their chips right now, possibly trading away the game’s next star, for the hope that a lot of things go right in 2013 and a bandaged-up rotation of motivated 30-somethings will lead Kansas City back into relevance?
Or is it plain and simple desperation?
The one unquestionable thing about this trade from a Royals fan perspective is this: They won’t have to wait five years to find out if it was a good one. If the Royals are 15 games back and wallowing in fourth place in July, it was an absolute disaster. And jobs will be lost.
OK, that’s about 2,400 words on the Royals’ side of the trade. Here are 38 for Tampa Bay fans: You got one of the game’s best prospects and three other potential prospects, for a 31-year-old starter who was only under team control for two more seasons, and a bullpen piece. Yeah, a good day’s work.