Monday, January 28, 2013

Reasons For Optimism.

If you want to frame Dayton Moore’s career-defining gamble in a positive way, it might be best to start with who Dayton Moore is not. He’s not Scott Pioli. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know this already, but I do not like Scott Pioli. I haven’t liked him since I began hearing stories of his incredible paranoia and self-defeating focus on minutia as general manager of the Chiefs – not from Kent Babb’s seminal column, but a full two years earlier, from a friend of a friend who was a part of the Chiefs’ front office when Carl Peterson was fired and kept his job through the transition. (He got out while he could, accepting a lateral transfer to another football organization before the ugliness in Kansas City got out of hand.)

I’m fairly certain that I have not despised anyone in Kansas City sports history the way I despised Scott Pioli at the end. You can be an insufferable tyrant and fans will still respect you, if you win. You can be an incompetent fool and fans will still like you, if you’re a nice guy. But Lord have mercy, you can not be both. Pioli terrorized players and employees alike, while drafting Tyson Jackson with the #3 overall pick and sticking with Matt Cassel as his quarterback to the bitter end.

And I’ve never been happier to see one of my teams crap the bed than to see the Chiefs go 2-14 in 2012. I’m not an NFL expert, so I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other on whether the Andy Reid-John Dorsey combination will work. As a fan, I’m happy to give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if I did the same thing with Pioli four years ago.

There are certainly similarities between Pioli and Moore. Both were widely considered to be the most promising GM candidate in their sport when they were brought to Kansas City in the span of little more than two years, and given a mandate by ownership to do whatever it took to build a winner. For the first time in my lifetime, there was a sense that both the Chiefs and the Royals were pointed in the right direction.

Not so much. On the field, Moore has had even less success than Pioli, who managed to squeak the Chiefs into the playoffs one year thanks to a weak AFC West. But the difference is this: when Pioli axed, he left the Chiefs in as poor a condition as he inherited them, if not more so. They still don’t have a quarterback. Virtually every one of their most talented players today was already in the organization when he was hired. Four years after Pioli was hired to build an organization from scratch, his successors have to do the same thing.

If nothing else, in nearly seven years on the job Dayton Moore has completed one of the most time-consuming tasks in sports: he’s turned one of the weakest farm systems in baseball into one of its perennially strongest. The Royals had essentially no footprint in Latin America whatsoever when he was hired; they have one of the most fertile Latin American pipelines in the game today. Even if Moore’s gamble backfires, and he gets fired sometime in 2013, he will have left the organization in substantially better shape than he found it. The mere fact that a .500 season would put his job on the hot seat is testament to that.

(It’s also worth pointing out that unlike Pioli, I’ve heard only good things about Moore as a person. It’s probably not a coincidence that while the Chiefs were a revolving door of personnel for the last four years, very few members of the Royals’ player development staff have left the organization since Moore was hired. And Trey Hillman never showed up for work looking like a hobo.)

If you want to frame Moore’s career-defining gamble in a positive way, it would also be smart to point out that he’s already made such a gamble, one that was also widely panned, and that worked out brilliantly. I speak of his decision, six years ago, to offer Gil Meche a five-year, $55 million contract.

The Gil Meche contract remains misunderstood by many people, including some in the media, that characterize it as one of Moore’s biggest mistakes. So I want to make something very clear: signing Gil Meche to a five-year deal is one of the best decisions Dayton Moore has made since he was hired. If I ever got around to ranking his best transactions, Meche’s signing would pretty clearly be in the top five.

The 2006-07 off-season was Moore’s first as general manager of the Royals, and so was our first real glimpse at how he was going to operate. His signature move was to give a starting pitcher the most lucrative contract (technically, tied with Mike Sweeney) in franchise history. This pitcher was coming off a season with a 4.48 ERA. The year before, his ERA was 5.09, the year before that it was 5.01, the year before that it was 4.59. The two years before that he didn’t have an ERA – because he was injured and missed both seasons. This, despite pitching in one of the game’s better pitching parks in Seattle.

The last time Gil Meche had been an above-average pitcher was 2000 – and in only 15 starts. That was six full seasons ago. Since returning from injury, his track record was essentially a slightly better version of Luke Hochevar.

Gil Meche, 2003-06: 644 IP, 662 H, 93 HR, 261 UIBB, 468 K, 4.75 ERA
Luke Hochevar, 2009-12: 629 IP, 671 H, 82 HR, 198 UIBB, 454 K, 5.43 ERA

Meche had the better ERA, but Hochevar gave up fewer home runs and had substantially better control; their strikeout rates are about the same.

There are subtle differences, of course; Meche was a year younger than Hochevar is right now, and he was coming off his best full season, which included a substantial improvement in his strikeout rate. (Hochevar is also coming off a career high in strikeout rate and strikeouts.) But still: the Royals are bringing Hochevar back on a one-year commitment for $4.56 million, and everyone – myself included – thinks they’re nuts. Six years ago, they gave Gil Meche a five-year commitment for 12 times as much money, and nearly everyone – myself included – thought they were nuts. (Joe Posnanski, I should point out, liked the Meche contract.)

The Royals signed Meche in large part because they thought they could “fix” him – they thought he had a reparable flaw in his delivery. He landed on his heel instead of his toes, which made his release point erratic and hampered his control.

And they were absolutely right. Meche was a dramatically better pitcher from the first time he took the mound for the Royals – an Opening Day win against Curt Schilling. He had a 2.18 ERA in his first month with the Royals, and finished the season with a 3.67 ERA while leading the AL in starts. He led the AL in starts again in 2008, with a 3.98 ERA. If over the next two years James Shields gives the Royals exactly what Gil Meche gave them in his first two years, they ought to be pleased.

It fell apart from there, because while signing Meche was one of Moore’s best decisions as GM, letting Trey Hillman abuse Meche’s arm after he had already complained of soreness is – hands-down, no debate whatsoever – the worst decision Moore has made. After throwing 132 pitches in a shutout on June 16th, 2009, Meche’s ERA dropped to 3.31 and he was on pace for his best year yet. He complained of a tired arm after the start, but the Royals sent him out there – to give up nine runs in 3.1 innings on June 21st, four runs in five innings on June 26th, and then, most inexplicably of all, to gut out 121 pitches on July 1st. It was utterly indefensible, and analysts said so at the time – Posnanski wrote one of the most vicious articles he’s ever written the very night that it happened. Posnanski’s tirade has, unfortunately, been scrubbed from the internet – though he refers to it here, and I make references to it here and here.

After he first complained of a tired arm, Meche made nine more starts in 2009, and gave up 45 runs in 44.2 innings. He made nine starts in 2010, allowing 39 runs in 48.2 innings and more walks than strikeouts. He came off the DL in September and pitched well out of the bullpen, and then retired. It’s rare in the annals of sports history for a manager to make a decision that was so clearly, in-the-moment wrong AND that so clearly, directly, and immediately resulted in harm. This was the Royals’ Grady Little moment.

We’ll never know what would have happened had the Royals recognized that you probably should take a tired arm seriously. But for the first half of his contract, Meche was everything the Royals had paid him to be and then some. Their mind-boggling stupidity in 2009 doesn’t change the fact that in December, 2006, Dayton Moore gave analysts both middle fingers, and was dead on point.

The Royals signed Meche six days after they took Joakim Soria in the Rule 5 draft (which everyone loved), and seven days after they traded Ambiorix Burgos to the Mets for Brian Bannister (which almost everyone hated). That same week they also signed Octavio Dotel as a free agent. In 2007, Meche became a bonafide #2 starter, Soria was one of the best relievers in the majors, Dotel stayed healthy just long enough to get traded at the deadline for Kyle Davies, and Bannister finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year vote (while Burgos’ career was self-destructing in New York).

The 2006 Royals that Dayton Moore inherited allowed an astonishing 971 runs – almost exactly six runs a game. The starting rotation on the day Moore was hired was Scott Elarton, Bobby Keppel, Seth Etherton, Mark Redman, and Mike Wood. In 2007, the Royals shaved 193 runs off their pitching staff, going from dead last to 8th in the AL in runs allowed. Their starting rotation when the season ended was Bannister, Zack Greinke, Billy Buckner (about to be traded for Alberto Callaspo), Davies, and Meche. For the last game of the season, they gave former #1 overall pick Luke Hochevar his first start.

There’s a reason why, when I started this blog, I wrote this. Hell, there’s a reason why I started this blog. Once upon a time, Dayton Moore knew how to completely rebuild a starting rotation in the span of a single off-season. Maybe he knows how to do it again. Especially since the he did it the last time without surrendering a single prospect, and while spending a fraction of the money he spent this winter.

A cynic will point out that this is exactly the point, that Dayton Moore could have simply followed his own blueprint from six years ago, and gambled with money instead of prospects to acquire an underachieving but still young veteran right-hander (like, say, Edwin Jackson). But this column is not the place for cynicism; I have written lots of other columns to handle that job. So here are some legitimate reasons to be optimistic about the trade:

1) James Shields is a really, really good pitcher.

I have been guilty myself of talking up the weaknesses in his game and perhaps overlooking his strengths, and that’s not entirely fair to Shields. He is not an ace, but he is the quintessential #2 starter, who has thrown over 200 innings for six years running, has made exactly 33 starts five years running, and has shown slow but steady improvement over time, an improvement best seen in his strikeout ratios:

2006-2007: 288 Ks out of 1414 batters faced (20.4%)
2008-2009: 327 Ks out of 1807 BF (18.1%)
2010: 187 Ks out of 899 BF (20.8%)
2011: 225 Ks out of 975 BF (23.1%)
2012: 223 Ks out of 944 BF (23.6%)

As well as Shields has pitched in the majors, his career 3.89 ERA actually seems like a bit of a disappointment when compared to his terrific strikeout-to-walk ratios. If you eliminate intentional walks, Shields has had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3-to-1 in every season of his career. In many ways, the pitcher he most resembles is Javier Vazquez, whose career K/BB ratio is 3.6, but has a 4.22 career ERA and a won-loss record barely over .500. Like Vazquez, Shields has two problems: he’s a little too home run-prone to be an elite starter, and unlike most elite starters, he seems to have no ability (if not a negative ability) to tamp down on hits on balls in play.

Shields’ BABIP is .300, which is actually higher than league-average, particularly when you factor in the Rays’ defense and ballpark. His 2010 season was a disaster (5.18 ERA, led the AL in hits, runs, and homers) almost entirely because he allowed a .344 batting average on balls in play. The Tampa Bay Rays, as a team, had a .280 BABIP that year. Nine of Shields’ teammates faced at least 200 batters that year, and none of them had a BABIP higher than .296.

Was that a sign of something inherently wrong with Shields’ pitching approach, or just a stone-cold fluke? As this article points out, Shields was one of the “unluckiest” pitchers in baseball history in 2010…just three years after he was one of the luckiest pitchers in history for the 2007 Rays, back when they still had a wretched defense. And in the two seasons since, Shields’ BABIPs have been .260 and .294, and he’s had two excellent seasons.

It seems incongruous for a pitcher who is otherwise so well above-average to be below-average on balls in play, so it’s possible that Shields’ “true” BABIP is better than he has shown, in which case regression to the mean may play to the Royals favor. Certainly, if his BABIP falls somewhere in the range it’s been the last two seasons, the Royals are likely to get a performance in the range of Shields’ last two seasons, which were excellent.

Another reason for optimism is that the velocity on Shields’ fastball, according to Pitch f/x data, ticked up significantly last year. His fastball averaged 92.0 mph in 2012, an increase of more than 1 mph from 2011, when he averaged 90.9. His fastball ranged anywhere from 90.5 to 91.5 from 2007 to 2010. This velocity was seen in his secondary pitches as well; his curveball jumped more than one mph, his changeup more than two mph, and his slider nearly three mph from any prior season in Shields’ career.

I’m not a Pitch f/x expert, so I can only speculate on what this means, but I’d speculate that it’s extremely rare for a 30-year-old starting pitcher to set career highs in velocity across the board. Moreover, Shields’ velocity increased as the season progressed; he was throwing his fastball at its established speed for the first 12 starts of the season, and then it jumped into the 92-93 mph range for almost every start he made the rest of the season.

Shields is 31 years old, and you have to at least think about decline in a pitcher at that age, but the quality of his stuff has shown no evidence of decline, and in fact the exact opposite. If there’s any concern here, it’s that there are some suggestions in the emerging research on Pitch f/x data that a sudden spike in a pitcher’s velocity may be the sign of an elbow that’s about to blow – witness Danny Duffy, whose fastball jumped from 93.3 to 95.3 last year before he underwent Tommy John. I think it’s reasonable to be concerned about whether Shields will stay healthy for the next two seasons, although his health record is certainly reassuring. But health permitting, there is no reason, looking at the data, to be worried about a sudden decline in his performance.

Finally, since I made a big deal about how getting Jeremy Guthrie out of the AL East should improve his performance going forward, I should account for the fact that Shields is doing the same thing. However, there’s a big difference between pitching for the Orioles and pitching for the Rays. While Shields has struggled against the Red Sox and Yankees (he has a 4.56 career ERA against each team), he excelled against Baltimore (3.55 ERA) and was even better against Toronto (3.24 ERA). In total, Shields has a 3.98 career ERA against AL East teams, in 621 innings; against everyone else, he has a 3.82 ERA. Moving to the AL Central will probably cut Shields ERA by about 5 points. It doesn’t hurt; it just doesn’t help that much.

Which is fine, because Shields doesn’t need the help. Shields has struck out 220 batters each of the last two years. The only other pitchers who can make that claim are Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Felix Hernandez (three years running). More impressively, in the last 10 years, the only other pitchers with that on their resume are Johan Santana (2004-2007), Tim Lincecum (2008-2011), and Jon Lester (2009-2010). Shields’ durability and his ability to miss bats are a rare combination. That doesn’t make him an ace, but it does make him more than worthy of being the Royals’ Opening Day starter this year.

2) If the Royals had to surrender another top prospect in the trade, I’m glad that it was Jake Odorizzi.

While Wil Myers was the marquis talent the Royals traded, it was the inclusion of Odorizzi that really tipped this deal from “the Royals gave up too much” to “the Royals got hosed”. And I’d certainly hate the deal less if it was only Myers, Montgomery, and Leonard. But given that a second top prospect was a necessary sacrifice, Odorizzi was the right one for the Royals to include.

The Royals had four pitching prospects of rough overall quality: Kyle Zimmer, Jake Odorizzi, John Lamb, and Yordano Ventura. That’s the order I ranked them in, but you could make a case for any order and I wouldn’t protest too much. Of the four, Odorizzi is clearly the safest bet – he’s already conquered Double-A and Triple-A and debuted in the majors.

But of the four, he also has the lowest ceiling. He could be a #3 starter, and if he adds a little more oomph to his fastball or tightens up his secondary pitches, you could squint and see maybe a #2. More likely, he’s a #4. Which is nothing to sneeze at. But at the same time, precisely because the Royals made this trade, they have less need for depth and more need for top-of-the-rotation starters. While it’s unlikely, Ventura could be an ace, or at least a #1/#2 starter. Same with Zimmer. Before Lamb got hurt, he looked like a #2 starter. Individually, it’s unlikely any of them will get there; collectively, at least one of them should pan out, and give the Royals an above-average starting pitcher. If it happens reasonably quickly (i.e. by 2014), they can pair that guy up with Shields, and a healthy Danny Duffy (who projects the same way) to give the Royals three above-average starters.

While Odorizzi is a reasonable bet to pitch well, the odds that he pitches significantly better than the Royals’ back-end options (Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and now Wade Davis) are pretty small. You’d still like to have him, because of his youth, his price, and the years of club control. But if the Royals have improved their pitching staff as much as they think they have, they’ll have five starting pitchers as good if not better than Odorizzi.

Or to put it another way: if, at any point in the next three years, we can say “man, the Royals would be so much better if they had Jake Odorizzi right now”, the Royals will have much bigger problems than not having Jake Odorizzi.

3) I’m happier that the Royals acquired both Shields and Wade Davis than if they had acquired Shields alone.

The reports from people like Bob Dutton, who was on this trade even while people like me had their heads in the sand in denial that the Royals could give up their best prospect for a short-term fix, was that all along the Royals were willing to trade Wil Myers for James Shields straight up, but that the Rays wanted more. Given that the trade went down, I have no reason not to believe that was, in fact, the case. The Royals weren’t willing to trade additional prospects with Myers without expanding the parameters of the trade, and that’s what happened.

Let’s say that the Rays were willing to trade Shields for Myers and Mike Montgomery. The Royals, then, agreed to that trade on the condition that they could also trade Odorizzi and Patrick Leonard for Wade Davis. If that’s the case, the Royals got depantsed on the Myers/Shields trade, but actually did fairly well for themselves on the second trade. I might even argue that they won the second deal.

Wade Davis has been described – I’m guilty of this too – as essentially the pitcher that Odorizzi is going to be, only older and more expensive. That’s probably true of the Wade Davis that started in 2010 and 2011 – when he made 29 starts each year and had a combined 4.27 ERA, while striking out just 14.4% of batters. Don’t be fooled by that ERA – given his ballpark, and his defense, Davis was a below-average starting pitcher each season (his ERA+ was 90). That’s a #4/#5 starter, and that has value, but not a ton of value.

If that’s the Davis the Royals got, they would have been better off keeping Odorizzi. The Royals are gambling that it’s not. Davis spent all of 2012 in the bullpen, and improved by so much that it’s reasonable to ask whether he was a fundamentally different pitcher, and not just a guy who benefited from getting to air it out an inning at a time. His strikeout rate more than doubled, to 30.6%. His home run rate dropped in half. He was fantastic – admittedly, in just 70 innings of work.

Almost every starting pitcher improves when used in relief, and their strikeout rate will climb. But they usually increase by about 20% – Davis’ rate jumped 112%. Davis might have figured something out in 2012, and he might be able to take that with him back to the rotation.

According to Fangraphs, Davis’ average fastball climbed from 91.8 mph in 2011 to 93.7 mph in 2012. An increase of 2 mph is pretty typical when moving from the rotation to the bullpen. What I find interesting, though, is that the value of his fastball didn’t change much – it was actually less effective in 2012 than in any other year. But his slider, which was mediocre, was above-average (from -0.4 to 4.9 runs); his changeup went from awful to mediocre (from -6.3 to -0.2), and his curveball went from awful to excellent (-8.1 to 6.8). Was that because the extra juice on his fastball kept hitters honest? Or was it because he was throwing his off-speed stuff more effectively?

I don’t know. Davis threw his slider and curveball harder in 2012, so maybe their effectiveness drops again when he has to pace himself. On the other hand, he threw his changeup slower even as his fastball came in faster. The difference in velocity between the two pitches was just 5.8 mph in 2011, but was 8.8 mph in 2012. (The consensus is that the ideal difference between fastball and changeup is 10-12 mph.) Keep in mind that Davis rarely throws a changeup, so that may just be noise.

I wrote at the time of the trade that if the Royals do win this trade, it’s more likely to be due to Davis than Shields. If Davis is a new-and-improved starting pitcher, the Royals have him under contract for up to five years at a reasonable salary. They could have had Odorizzi for six or seven years at an even more reasonable salary, but there’s value in having done it in the majors already. The combination of his track record as a back-end starter, and the potential for improvement, makes this part of the trade much more palatable than the main course.

The other reason I really like the inclusion of Wade Davis is because of what this does to the Royals’ Win Curve. The Win Curve is an oft-discussed concept – here’s Jonah Keri just the other day – that basically states that making improvements to your roster when you’ve got a 100-loss team (or a 100-win team) are not as useful as making improvements when you’re in the 85-93 win range, where a single win might be the difference between a playoff berth and an early end to the season. If the 2006 Royals had traded away their farm system* for Alex Rodriguez, instead of finishing 62-100, they would have gone 68-94 or something. Big effing deal.

*: And by “farm system”, I basically mean “Alex Gordon and Billy Butler”, because that’s pretty much all they had.

There’s just no way that a 62-win team on paper could, in the span of one winter, add the 30 or so wins it would need to make the playoffs. Which is why you don’t see the Houston Astros trading for established talent. There’s basically no way that a 72-win team could do it either – if you’ve got a 72-win team, your best hope is to just hope that your players play beyond their talent and they get fabulously lucky all season long, in which case you could be the 2012 Orioles.

The Royals won 72 games last season, but realistically, going into the off-season they projected a little better than that for 2013. They had the youngest offense in the majors, which generally leads to improvement. A healthy Salvador Perez and a repaired Eric Hosmer could lead to massive improvements at those two positions. Jeff Francoeur would either play better or be replaced by someone who was. Luke Hochevar would either pitch better or be replaced by someone who was.

When the season ended, I put the Royals at a 77 win team for 2013 with the roster they had on hand. You can’t turn a 77 win team into a playoff contender with a single move – although the Blue Jays came close. But you can get there by making a series of transactions, if they all improve your team by 2-3 wins each.

That’s why I wasn’t so down on trading for Ervin Santana, or re-signing Jeremy Guthrie. (Well, at the time – seeing Shaun Marcum sign for one year and a base salary of $4 million has made me re-evaluate the wisdom of the Santana acquisition.) Individually, those moves didn’t move the needle much, but together, they brought the Royals that much closer to contention. As an exercise, let’s say each pitcher will be worth two wins to the Royals in 2013.

Adding Santana moves KC from 77 wins to 79 wins.
Re-signing Guthrie moves KC from 79 wins to 81 wins.

They’re still not a contender – but they’re close enough now that the value of each additional win starts to go up significantly. Which makes it financially sensible at that point for them to spend big money on a free-agent pitcher who moves them further up the win curve. Add Edwin Jackson, who’s worth 3 wins, and now you’re at 84 wins – and at 84 wins, you’re close enough that it’s reasonable to hope that some of your young players break out, put you into contention, and you can dip into your farm system to fill some holes before the trading deadline. And if not, given the youth of the roster as a whole the team will almost certainly be better a year from now, and you’ll have more opportunities to improve it.

That would have been my strategy. Instead, the Royals traded Wil Myers for James Shields. Adding Shields could be worth four wins – he’s only reached 4 WAR twice in his career, but let’s be charitable here – but the loss of Myers might cost the Royals two wins in 2013 alone. So let’s say this swap is worth another two wins. That moves the Royals to 83 wins. Closer, but not close enough.

Swapping Jake Odorizzi for Wade Davis, in 2013, might be worth as much as swapping Myers for Shields. It’s hard to peg Davis’ value; he was below replacement level in 2011, but was worth 1.1 WAR as a starter in 2010, and 1.4 WAR as a reliever in 2012. If you assume that he’s a fundamentally better pitcher now than he was during his first iteration as a starter – and the Royals wouldn’t have traded for him if they didn’t think so – then it’s not unreasonable to peg him as a two-win pitcher. Given Odorizzi’s low strikeout rate in Triple-A, it’s not unreasonable to say that he still needs time in the minors, that he’s not much more than a replacement-level starter at this point.

So that’s another two wins. In isolation, adding Wade Davis isn’t a big deal, any more than adding Guthrie or Santana was. But adding him after adding all the other guys moves the Royals from 83 to 85 wins. His addition moves the playoff needle significantly more than the initial moves. Going from 77 to 79 wins on paper might increase your playoff odds from 2% to 5% or something. Going from 83 to 85 wins on paper increases your odds from 15% to 25% - remember, those odds include both the chance that you play above your talent level as well as the odds that 85 wins is all it takes to steal the second wild card.

If you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. Having traded Wil Myers, the Royals were already in for the whole damn exchequer in 2013. Davis might not be a huge upgrade over Odorizzi – but he is an upgrade, at least in 2013, and if the Royals are legitimately going for it in 2013, then every little bit helps.

(This is a good time to point out that I really, really like the waiver claim of George Kottaras, who is WAY too good a player to be on the waiver wire in the first place. I understand why the A’s would deem him expendable, now that they have both John Jaso and Derek Norris, but I’m stumped as to why they wouldn’t look to make a trade first. Kottaras is basically the guy that I kept hoping Brayan Pena would become, but didn’t – a bat-first catcher from the left side whose defense won’t kill you. He was a career .273/.370/.450 hitter in the minors, and even made the Honorable Mention list of my Top 50 back when I was doing prospect rankings for Baseball Prospectus in 2006.

In his major league career, he has 694 plate appearances – basically a full season for an everyday player – and while he’s hit just .220, he has 91 walks, 24 homers, and 36 doubles. He’s under contract for just $1 million in 2013, and isn’t eligible for free agency for three years. Given that the only catcher on the 40-man roster other than Salvador Perez was Brett Hayes, Kottaras represents a significant upgrade, maybe worth a full win even in the abbreviated playing time anyone backing up Perez is expected to get. He could be this generation’s version of Gregg Zaun, The Practically Perfect Backup Catcher, who hit .290/.386/.454 as a Royal from 2000 to 2001. The difference is that back then, Zaun was the only good catcher on the roster. The Royals now have one of the best starting catchers and one of the best backup catchers in the major leagues. Kudos.)

4) The Royals might have given up Wil Myers, but a player development operation that acquired him in the first place is well-poised to replace him.

If you still want to be optimistic about the Royals going forward, this is really the rub. Under Moore, the Royals have put together one of the very best player development operations in the major leagues today. If I’m going to crush them for trading Myers, I have to give them credit for turning a third-round pick into Wil Myers in the first place. If that’s a skill and not just blind luck, they’ll bounce back from his loss soon enough.

I wrote earlier that destroying Gil Meche’s arm was the absolute worst mistake of the Dayton Moore administration. But if you wanted to be heartless, you could argue that their worst mistake was selecting Christian Colon with the #4 overall pick in the 2010 draft. We’ll probably never know who the Royals were planning to take until 30 minutes before the draft, but the player we thought the Royals were planning to take 30 minutes before the draft was Chris Sale. If the Royals had taken Sale, they would have had no need to make this trade. If they had taken Yasmani Grandal, another player they were linked to, they might have been able to trade him for pitching instead of Myers (complicated, of course, by his recent PED suspension).

A quick, painful tangent: in 2009, the Royals won 65 games, and the Orioles won 64. If the Royals had lost one more game to Baltimore, they would have drafted third instead of fourth. Going into the draft, the industry knew there were three premier talents available: Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado. They were drafted in that order. The Royals took Colon.

In 2010, the Royals won 67 games, and the Orioles won 66. They beat the Orioles on July 30th that year on a two-out, three-run home run by Alex Gordon that I somehow called on Twitter. Because of that hit, the Orioles drafted fourth in 2011, and took Dylan Bundy. The Royals, who had already agreed on dollar figures with Bundy, drafted fifth, and took Bubba Starling instead. If the Royals had Bundy, they might not make this trade.

Just kill me now. The home run that I called is the reason the Royals traded Wil Myers? I feel like Dr. Hans Zarkov learning from Emperor Ming that he’s responsible for the destruction of Earth.

Change a single game in 2009 and 2010, and the Royals would have three of the top six or seven prospects in all of baseball. (I assume Machado wouldn’t have had his rookie eligibility exhausted.) And don’t even get me started on David Price vs. Mike Moustakas…

But of course it’s ridiculous to claim that drafting Colon was the franchise’s worst decision, because every team screws up in the draft. There are 30 teams; comparing your one team’s efforts to the best efforts of the other 29 teams is lunacy. No one says the Royals screwed up by taking Colon over Drew Pomeranz, who was the very next pick, or Barret Loux, who was the pick after that. Sale wasn’t taken until #13 overall.

If any team were able to make the absolute best choice with each draft pick for even a single draft, they’d guarantee themselves five division titles in a row. It’s impossible. All you can hope is that a team grabs more than its fair share of talent. And by and large, the Royals have. What makes the loss of Sale painful is that, in the moment, he was thought to be the Royals’ preference. But that’s a testament to the Royals under Moore, that they’ve done a much better job of identifying draft talent than most.

They correctly evaluated Moustakas over Josh Vitters in 2007, drafted Duffy in the third round, and Greg Holland in the tenth. Their 2008 draft doesn’t look as good today as it did two years ago, but aside from Eric Hosmer at #3 overall, they drafted Montgomery, Johnny Giavotella, and John Lamb. Lacking a second-round pick in 2009 (thanks, Juan Cruz!), they took Aaron Crow with the #12 pick overall, gave Wil Myers $2 million in the third round, gave Chris Dwyer $1.5 million in the fourth round, and even got Louis Coleman as a cheap senior sign in the fifth.

The 2010 draft class was considered unusually weak, and the Royals’ class is no exception, but at least they got Jason Adam in the fifth round. It’s too early to evaluate the others, but their first five picks in 2011 – Starling, Cameron Gallagher, Bryan Brickhouse, Kyle Smith, and the departed Leonard – are all legitimate prospects.

And the Royals’ draft success pales to their international success. Salvador Perez. Kelvin Herrera. Yordano Ventura. Adalberto Mondesi. Cheslor Cuthbert. Orlando Calixte. The newest intriguing name, Miguel Almonte. Because players sign out of Latin America when they’re just 16, it takes a lot longer for the development process to bear fruit – but even so, the Royals have a franchise catcher and a future closer already on their roster, with more to come.

That includes Jorge Bonifacio, who with Myers’ departure becomes the Royals’ chief long-term hope for right field. He’s not the prospect Myers is; Bonifacio hit .282/.336/.432 as a 19-year-old in low-A ball, and at the same age Myers hit .289/.408/.500 and was promoted to Wilmington mid-season, where he hit even better. And Bonifacio won’t be ready for at least two years, meaning the Royals will have to find a short-term solution even after Jeff Francoeur leaves as a free agent/gets benched/retires to pursue a career as a motivational speaker.

But in a perfect world, by the time Shields leaves as a free agent in 2015 and the cost of trading Myers shoots up, Bonifacio will be ready to ease the sting a little. And in a perfect world, the same development machine that found Myers will continue to outperform their competitors in identifying and signing amateur talent. Myers may be gone, but the men who made Myers a Royal in the first place are still here.

So there you go. There are four legitimate silver linings to The Trade. Are they enough to justify it? Hell no. But if it turns out I’m wrong about The Trade, the reason why is probably listed somewhere in this column. And I like I said last time: I hope I’m wrong. Even if I don’t think I am.


fuzzyredtop said...

Why am I not surprised that I agree with pretty much all of this article? I've been accused online of being your lackey (and, once, of being you) pretty regularly over the years. I can even emphasize with your "turd in the puchbowl" feelings after this trade - my views weren't to popular from the folks drinking the "we got an ace" Kool Aid. I am hopeful, and I understand the trade, but I'm just not a big fan of trading a big piece of the future for what is realistically a chance to compete for second place over the next two years. I'm also hopeful that DM will make additional moves if they are available (more meaningful moves than Kotteras - say finding a RF or a 2B), but absent that, it looks like the trade was a big cost to acheive medicority.

-kc571 said...
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John said...
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John said...

I think the part where you pointed out the strength of the Royals' player development system is exactly why they were willing to trade Wil Myers. They probably viewed Myers as a productive bat on the left end of the defensive spectrum, and are confident that they can draft and develop guys like that on a regular basis.
Back in their heyday, the Blue Jays used to have a farm system this productive, and they would trade good-looking prospects every year for proven talent to bolster the big-league team. They were never much concerned about what those guys did after their trades, and didn't have to answer for it because the Blue Jays themselves were winning. The farm system, and then the Blue Jays, finally broke down about five years after Bobby Cox left for Atlanta, where he hired a guy named Dayton Moore...
Incidentally, people shouldn't be so hard on Grandal about the PED stuff. If you'd been getting your butt kicked by Beowulf and Wiglaf for the last thousand years or so, you'd take some steroids and HGH, too!

Charles Winters said...

I still am hoping that Dayton can get us Michael Bourn.

Mike said...

Nothing is ever permanently scrubbed from the internet:

fuzzyredtop said...

John - the problem with the Rs' faith in their development system is that they don't have an OF prospect who has played above low A ball, now that they traded Myers. A few 4th/5th OF types, maybe, but only Starling and Bonifacio seem to have legit ML starter potential. And, unfortunately, faith won't hit or field much better than Frenchy over the two year window DM just bought into. FWIW, there's not a lot of potential for an internal 2B replacement, either.

BTW, not only did I mis-spell Kottaras in my inital post, I also used "to" instead of "too." Someone get the wet noodle and start lashing.

fuzzyredtop said...

Doh! I also used emphasize instead of empathize! I blame it all on Monday mornings (and DM, of course).

tookee said...

It wouldn't have been so painful waving goodbye to Myers if it was anybody but Frenchy taking his place in RF and the lineup. I agree that Davis is the real linchpin here - not only could he be a real plus as a 4th starter, but it may push Hochevar to the bullpen where, as Rany mentions about starters becoming good relievers, he could cut loose with the only two good pitches he's got and become an effective set up man.

Antonio. said...

I love your work, Rany, but this was about the hardest article of yours to read and it's not about the article itself, but more about you forcing yourself to write something you don't believe. As an aside, if you're right about the trade, it could very well cost Moore his job, which means it could very well cost the men that made Myers a Royal their job.

Unknown said...

The "we got an ace" koolaid is no more laced than the "whole damn exchequer" koolaid and the "responsible for the destruction of Earth" simile jello shots. Plenty of talent evaluators don't think Myers is a franchise cornerstone. Time will tell.

Timothy said...

Love the article as always Rany, even if I don't much agree with it.

But if you read these I want to point something out for anyone who wants to read Joe Po at his meanest: You can never "Scrub" anything from the internet

Kenneth said...

Disappointed. After an article titled moving on, you clearly are not. Why not an article about Frenchy's struggles in 2012 and how he will have a 2011 year again for optimism ?

What about a Bruce Chen article? I was working for a company that owned great seats, 1st row behind Royals dugout. End of the game Chen rolls a ball on the dugout top right to my little tykes. Awesome. Best part was Billy Butler had thrown my spawn a ball already so they gave it to a little girl next to us so she could have one. What a happy ending. Because of Chen.

Could a great guy and someone who has proven to be an above average pitcher for the Royals really be out of rotation spot ?

Unknown said...

Great article. I promise I took away more from it than an awesome Flash Gordon reference. XD

Antonio. said...

Which talent evaluators don't think Myers is a cornerstone talent?

McGoldencrown said...

Fwiw, the astute John Sickels just ranked KC's farm #21. That is pretty bad regardless of what we gave up in the Shields trade.

With the newly governed inability to overslot (Myers, Lamb, Brickhouse, etc), it seems a bit presumptuous to assume replacing Myers is an eventual forgone conclusion or that KC will ever get close to the top #5 again.

Oh yeah, no overpaying IFA's anymore either (Mondesi, Hernandez, Cuthbert, etc)...If you are a top Dominican prospect and the money is all the same, which org would you rather play for, the Dodgers, Yankees or Royals?

Yes, I know, its a rhetorical question.

fuzzyredtop said...

Really, Kenneth? So you want an article about how Frenchy will have a return to 2011 as a sign of optimism. And what would that be based on? Just to use OPS as a quick and dirty basis, Frenchy's last 5 years are:

2012: .665
2011: .805
2010: .683
2009: .732
2008: .653

In other words, Frenchy's 2011 is the outlier, not 2012. Put another way, there's a difference between justifiable optimism, and blind optimism.

twm said...

The jump in velocity scares me a bit too. My first thought was "oh no, his elbow is about to blow". My second was, "or maybe he is involved in the Miami PED scandal." Paranoia is such a good fan quality.

sedated ape said...

Can you name one of those talent evaluators?

fuzzyredtop said...

And whether or not Myers is a franchise cornerstone had nothing to do with the post he was commenting on (mine). My concern is, and always had been, about the two year window that came with the deal. If the Rs make the playoffs during that time, I can live with trading Myers, even if he becomes the guy MOST talent evaluators think he will be. But even after the trade, that isn't a very likely scenario, and it appears that DM isn't planning to do anything else to make the team a legitimate playoff contender.

Michael said...

I foresee a "Reasons for Pessimism" article coming next. Although at the beginning of a new season who really wants to be the wet blanket?

Nathan said...

I can't link it right now because the BP site is down, but I remember in the Royals' top-ten prospects (before the trade), there was some talk of Myers as a good-not-great MLB player. The sort of player who is productive but can be limited by excellent pitching.

Nathan said...

With my anonymous comment, I was just saying that Royals fans are evaluating this trade as if Myers was the whole farm system and a guaranteed star. It's not so. The "window" has been pushed back often enough in the last 20 years; it'll be fun to finally watch a team that's actually trying to win baseball games instead of just farm-system accolades.

Antonio. said...

That was never the point of anything. And a team full of former farm system stars trying to win will be fun...seems rather odd to make a statement such as yours considering where all of those players came from. And we were not close and then used a Top Three prospect to get a good pitcher to put us over the top.

Unknown said...

I love a great farm system, but it's a means to an end, not an end in itself. What makes you think we're so far away from contention? There are five playoff spots per league starting this year. The Royals project as a better team in 2013 than in any other season since 1994. This is worth a shot.

Michael said...

People forget we play in a weak division where the Tigers are the only real threat. But there is no way in either money or prospects that we could spend our way to being better than them on paper. Thankfully this game is played on grass though, not paper, and I believe they have a decent shot. All I'm asking for is meaningful games in September, and the excitement of checking box scores in the morning. It would be great to make the playoffs, for sure, but let's play meaningful games after the All-Star game first.

Jayboid said...

I am looking for just a couple of weeks where one of our young stars well stars. Just rakes it, making pitching a secondary thought.

Butler came close, but

Been so so long around here, but other fans enjoy a Pujols (insert slugger name) week, or name the star. How about a 3 HR game sometime??

How about our upcoming hitters making another team scurry relief pitchers in the 5th inning?

Some 9-5 wins after a 2-1 game for instance. How about Shields having an off game with the bullpen getting the 7 inning relief win. Then Santana, Wade, pitching a couple of 3-1 wins.


How about a replacement player whom makes a case to stay as a starter. How about a young pitcher breaking through.

I dream too much.

Antonio. said...

"All I'm asking for is a meaningful game in September..."
"A 'weak' division where the Tigers [the AL Champion] are the only real threat..."
"The Royals project as a better team in 2013 than in any other season since 1994..."

1. Don't sell yourself short.
2. Tigers take the division, leaving the Royals eligible for one of two spots. Can these Royals beat the Rays, Yankees, Orioles, Angels, A's, Rangers, White Sox? Because that's what it's going to take.
3. Pretty irrelevant since you could say that about the last two teams as well and doesn't do anything to take the competition into play.

Trading Myers away makes since if you're getting Shields to put you over the top (ie not a 72-win team that you need a lot of hopes and prayers and then some to make a jump to real contention) or if you're trading him for a young pitcher that you can have longer than some imagined two year window.

Michael said...

Your argument makes sense if that were the only move they'd made prior to the deal. But it wasn't. Before this deal I was picking them at about a .500 team. Now I put them at about 86-88 wins, and that puts you in the discussion for the playoffs.

If you want to be a fan of an always "Wait till next year" team, theres always the Cubs. The Rpyals are done "Waiting till next year."

Antonio. said...

If you really believe that, then this conversation isn't going to go anywhere and I have nothing else to say.

fuzzyredtop said...

What Antonio said.

Not that it's impossible this team wins 86-88 games, but it would take a lot more "better than projection" performances than "worse than projection" ones. Almost any non-biased source suggests that 82-84 wins is closer to the Rs projection. Considering the possibility that they do better than that, or that 84 wins is enough to make the playoffs, it gives the Rs about a 15% chance.

Basically, all of this offseason's moves put the Rs in a position where they have a legitimate shot to finish second, and don't have to get quite as lucky as they would otherwise to make the playoffs. That's better than they've done in the past, but not something that I would trade the best hitting prospect in baseball (that's hitting, not "position player"), a likely #4 starter, and a couple of decent "lottery ticket" players to accomplish - not for a 2 year window.

Seems like there are a lot of people who are happy to settle for mediocrity. It may be an improvement over just plain bad, but it really shouldn't be the goal.

Mark said...

Okay, I appreciate Rany's reasons for optimism, even if many posters here do not (and maybe he doesn't either). Most of us agree that the team is better for this season, but probably not yet good enough. Moore might even agree.

Here's a fun exercise--play manager with the batting order as it now looks (and yes, I use Dyson instead of Frenchy). Then, substitute Giancarlo Stanton in right. He's unhappy, and the Marlins have to know they could be ruining him as well as inviting a locker room problem. They seem to be aiming for 2015 (if they're trying at all), so I'd engage them in a discussion of several lottery tickets as opposed to a couple of top ten or top twenty prospects (though I would seriously consider that as well--all in). I am NOT assuming David Samson and his people are stupid (though Loria is greedy and a lousy owner), nor am I some goof dreaming of trading Hochevar for Stanton. I am saying there are legitimate off-the-field issues here that work to leverage a trade. We still have depth in the minors, and Moore and company seem to be committed to this season.

Finally, an acquisition like Stanton would really help salve the loss of Wil Myers as well as redefine the race for the division title.

Unknown said...

Rany, I had to come here and comment. I just heard Ryan Lefebvre interview Hoch. RL actually had the gall to suggest that Hoch's problem MIGHT be that he is TOO good! The question went something like this: I remember a month a few years ago where you had an 80-pitch complete game. I thought, "OK, he's going to be a pitch-to-contact guy now." Then you struck out 13 a few weeks later, and I thought, "OK, he's going to be a power pitcher." Could part of your problem be that you have never figured out what kind of pitcher you should be?

I know the guys paid by the Royals have to go easy, but c'mon! That's a little much. Anyways, I thought it was pretty funny.

Charles Winters said...

Michael Bourn to Indians. Royals finish 4th.