Blockbuster trade was a risk worth taking

December 10, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For years, they passed GO, collected their $200 without fail, and vowed that one day, one day soon, their moment would come. They were the cautious family member at the annual holiday Monopoly game, the one who kept hoarding the fake cash, wary to spend, wary to risk, always playing it safe.

No more. The Kansas City Royals just dropped some houses on Tennessee and New York Avenues, and are about to build a hotel on St. James Place. A franchise that generally prefers to pass the dice just rolled them bones like there was no tomorrow.

And this is a bad thing?

After months of patiently collecting chips, Royals general manager Dayton Moore reached down Sunday night and pushed one of his big piles to the center of the table. Kansas City ended a quiet baseball weekend by making a very loud trade, sending the top hitting prospect in baseball — outfielder Wil Myers — along with three other minor-leaguers, to Tampa Bay for pitchers James Shields, Wade Davis and either a player to be named or cash.

Immediately, fans voted, as they so often do, via social media. It wasn't pretty.

Twitter cried out in agony. The blogosphere howled in disbelief. It was as if Moore had acquired Ed Hearn, then flipped him for Neifi Perez and $25,000 worth of Facebook stock.

But here's the juice: This was always going to hurt. Always. For Moore to significantly improve the starting pitching without throwing buckets of money at the problem, it was going to sting, at least a little. Something you loved, or had grown to love, something another team actually coveted — they didn't covet Jeff Francoeur or Luke Hochevar, sorry — was going to have to go. Instead of All-Star designated hitter Billy Butler or first baseman Eric Hosmer, it was Myers, right-handed pitcher Jake Odorizzi, left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery, and third baseman Patrick Leonard.

Yes, that's a lot to part with. An awful, awful, awful lot. Even for Shields, a potential ace who'll be 31 next season and is coming off a 15-10 campaign with a 3.52 ERA. Even for Davis, a right-handed swingman who was 25-22 as a starter for the Rays between 2009-11.

But you have to give something to get something, and that something is a rotation that stacks up favorably with the consensus No. 2 team in the division, the Chicago White Sox. A rotation that actually puts you within shouting distance of Detroit, the reigning Central and American League champs.

Yes, that's a lot to part with. An awful, awful, awful lot. But here were the six pitchers who started the most games for the Royals in 2012 and their respective Wins Above Replacement (WAR) value: Bruce Chen (-0.2), Hochevar (-1.7), Luis Mendoza (1.3), Will Smith (0.0), Jeremy Guthrie (1.7) and Jonathan Sanchez (-1.4).

Total WAR: -0.3.

For comparison's sake, here are the six pitchers, health permitting, projected to top the Royals' rotation next spring, and their respective WAR values in 2012: Shields (2.2), Davis (1.4), Ervin Santana (-1.6), Guthrie (1.7), Chen (-0.2) and Mendoza (1.3).

Total WAR: 4.8.

And this is a bad thing?

Shields' record, lifetime, vs. the Tigers, the White Sox, the Indians and the Twins: 13-11 with a 3.98 ERA. Davis? Seven wins, three losses, with a 3.27 ERA.

And this is a bad thing?

We know why you're nervous: The team on the other side of the deal. Sure. We get that. Rays general manager Andrew Friedman and his staff do more with less than pretty much anyone else in baseball. It's like playing pool with Minnesota Fats, poker with the Cincinnati Kid. You worry about getting home with your shirt, let alone your wallet. The Rays know they can't afford to miss, so they usually don't.

And yet Moore's also acquired two relative certainties for the cost of a pile of unknowns. This isn't a debate as to whether Myers or Odorizzi have major-league talent; they do. The only question is how much, and where that ceiling eventually sets. Some scouts look at Odorizzi and see another Ryan Vogelsong; others see another Hochevar. Some scouts look at Myers and see Dale Murphy; others see Pete Incaviglia.

In all cases, the truth, as it so often does, probably falls somewhere in the middle. But you don't know. You just don't. And therein lies the risk. It takes serious stones to roll that kind of dice.

Yes, that's a lot to part with. An awful, awful, awful lot. You probably have to make the playoffs, or come darned close, in 2013 or 2014, just to make this deal feel like a victory. Could Myers turn into Roy Hobbs? Sure. Could the gamble jeopardize the Royals' sustained competitiveness after 2015? Maybe. Does it clearly put Kansas City over the top in a division where the Tigers keep reloading? On paper, probably not.

But here's what it does. It moves the train forward. It gives a vote of confidence to the pieces already here, the pillars already in place. It's a front office saying to Billy Butler, to Gordo, to Big Sal Perez, “We think we can do this with you as the core, as you are, right here, right now. Or, at the least, we're willing to try.”

After years of trying to sell the promise of the future, it sells the promise of a tantalizing present. It sends a clear message to a starved faithful, to a community desperate to be a baseball town again.

It makes the Royals relevant.

And this is a bad thing?

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