Since God knows the Royals aren't doing anything remotely worthy of discussion on the field - unless you want me to yell at Trey Hillman some more* - the trade rumor in the Star today is a timely development.
* What should we be more upset about? That the Royals didn't pull Jose Guillen after he pulled his groin in the fifth inning yesterday - when he started walking with the gait of a penguin - or the fact that in a tie game in the eighth inning, Horacio Ramirez was on the mound? Give a free pass to Hillman if you want, since he had been thrown out of the game by that point (though managers can still make decisions from the clubhouse.) But who do we blame for the fact that over the last 9 games, a span in which the starters have struggled to throw five innings and the relief corps is completely gassed - Joakim Soria has thrown all of two innings? Have I mentioned before how much I hate modern closer usage? I thought Hillman was going to think outside the box. Well, he does play Ross Gload at first base, come hell or high-water. I guess that's thinking outside the box - most teams just aren't savvy enough to play a first baseman with a .345 slugging average every single day.
Anyway, Bob Dutton reports that the Yankees are interested in Brian Bannister, and are willing to part with Melky Cabrera.
Obviously, this isn't your standard trading deadline move, where a bad team (i.e. the Royals) trades a veteran in the final year of his contract to a contending team for a prospect or two. In this case, both players involved are established major leaguers with years to go until free agency. Bannister came into the season with 1.158 years of service time, and (according to Cot's Baseball Contracts) Cabrera had 1.157 years, which means they'll almost certainly be arbitration-eligible after this season, but they're both two weeks shy of a second full year of service, which means neither player will be a free agent until after the 2012 season.
So you're trading four-plus years of Bannister for four-plus years of Cabrera. A 27-year-old starting pitcher for a 23-year-old centerfielder. Written out like that, it looks like a no-brainer, but I'm not so sure. When Cabrera was 21, he looked like a potential star - he hit .280/.360/.391 in 2006, and anyone who can make it in the majors as a league-average hitter at age 21 has star, if not superstar, potential. But Cabrera has regressed two straight years; he hit .273/.327/.389 last season, and he's at .250/.306/.351 this year. PECOTA expected him to take a modest step forward this year, projecting a line of .283/.341/.404. Instead, his performance is around the 10th percentile of his PECOTA projection, which can only be construed as a huge disappointment.
I wouldn't write him off by any means - he's still just 23. I've long noted the similarities between Cabrera and another switch-hitting Yankees centerfielder who was lightly-regarded at the beginning of his career, Bernie Williams. Williams, three years into his career, was considered by many as a disappointment and by most as a good fourth outfielder at best. In 1994, at age 25, he took a big step forward, and from 1995 to 2002 he was arguably the best centerfielder in the game.
Cabrera, like Williams at the same age, has no obvious strength, but does everything well. He has good plate discipline - although that has eroded over time - hits for a little power, plays very good defense, has a little speed. I certainly can see the argument that if the Royals trade for him, in a year or two he could blossom into a guy who hits .300 with 20 homers and 80 walks. There ain't nothing wrong with that.
I've written about Bannister enough, and if you want to know more just read Posnanski's article in the Star today. I still believe that, going forward, Bannister will be an average to slightly above-average starting pitcher. I freely admit that I'm as emotionally tied to the guy as anyone on the Royals, and that may be clouding my judgment. But the reason I'm emotionally tied to the guy isn't just that he and I could have a conversation about baseball that no one else on the team would understand: it's that I firmly believe that intelligence is a vital and underrated attribute for a starting pitcher, and that Bannister's intelligence will serve him well in the long run.
But my biggest concern with this proposed trade is what it does with the rest of the team. Cabrera takes over in centerfield, moving DeJesus to left, and presumably Teahen takes over at first base. Which means that, in order to accomodate Cabrera, the Royals will move two other starting position players to less demanding positions - positions at which more offense will be expected of them. DeJesus is hitting .301/.361/.468, and that's excellent production out of a centerfielder. Out of a leftfielder? It's only slightly above average. Meanwhile, Teahen's .245/.313/.393 line looks even more pathetic at first base than it does in the outfield.
DeJesus has already played more games in leftfield than centerfield this year, and his defense is more valuable there as well, so that part of the equation doesn't hurt the team much. But I don't see how Teahen - learning his fourth position in two years - can be expected to be a defensive upgrade over Ross Gload at first base. More importantly, while Gload can (we hope) be looked at as a temporary solution, the Royals are more likely to look at Teahen as a long-term fixture at first base. This is a big problem, because while I haven't written much about Kila Kaaihue this year, the Royals need to accept that he's going to deserve a shot very, very soon.
There hasn't been a ton of great news coming out of the minors this year, but Kaaihue's performance in Double-A has been unreal: .307/.462/.614 with 25 homers and 80 walks in 89 games. His breakout was unexpected, but that doesn't mean it isn't real. He's not the second coming of Calvin Pickering: Kaaihue is still only 24, he's not 300 pounds, and whereas Pickering struck out at Ryan Howard-like proportions, Kaaihue has remarkable contact ability for a power hitter, having struck out only 40 times. (Only two Royals in history have walked twice as often as they struck out in a season with 300+ at-bats. George Brett - 1977, 1980, and 1985 - and of all people, the guy Brett replaced, chiropractor and nine-time groom Paul Schaal in 1971.)
Naturally, the Royals have done their best to pretend that Kaaihue doesn't exist. You'd think that the performance of the other surprise breakout candidate of the season, Mike Aviles, might make a few of them say, gee, maybe we should find out if this Hawaiian kid can out-hit Ross Gload. Instead they're thinking about installing Mark Teahen at first base.
The general rule of thumb in trades is, get the better talent in the deal, and work out the details later. If the Royals are convinced that Melky Cabrera can get turned around, if they think he can turn into Amos Otis Lite, then do the deal. But centerfield isn't exactly a problem at the moment, and the timing on Bannister is terrible - he had a lot more value six months ago, and he probably will have a lot more value six months from now.
I concede that Dayton Moore knows more about the two players than I do, and I still trust his judgment on potential impact players. But to win this trade, they have to do more than get Cabrera - they have to realign the rest of their talent appropriately. The best way to do that is to move either Teahen or Jose Guillen to another team. If only some team (like, say, Atlanta) had expressed an interest in Guillen. If only...