So, here we are.
We’re at the All-Star Break, and the Royals have played 92 games, so we’re well past the point where we can explain away a poor performance with the words “small sample size”. There are fewer games left to play than have already been played. We should have a pretty good idea of what the 2013 Royals are now.
What they are isn’t pretty. The Royals are 43-49, on pace for a 76-86 record. That’s exactly the opposite of what I predicted before the beginning of the year. They are six games under .500 for the first time since early June. They are 8 games out of first place for the first time all season. And after playing better than their record would suggest for so long – they had outscored their opponents almost all season long – the Royals quietly went underwater in that regard as well, as they’ve been outscored by eight runs this year. Maybe they should be 45-47 instead of 43-49, but that’s scant comfort. They have the 11th-best record out of 15 AL teams; they have the 10th-best run differential.
They’re not a good team. They’re not a bad team – they’re on pace for their best record (!) in 10 years – but if they continue on their current pace until year’s end, the only people who will declare 2013 a success will be trying to sell you something.
It appears even my admittedly tepid optimism about this season was, once again, misplaced. The main reasons for that are:
1) A small amount of luck (they should be two games better than they’ve played).
2) Somewhat disappointing, if still valuable, seasons from Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Salvador Perez.
3) Alcides Escobar hitting as poorly as he did his rookie season with the Brewers back in 2010. I expected him to decline, but not this much.
4) Mike Moustakas being kind of a train wreck.
5) Jeff Francoeur and the second base rotation being as bad as my worst fears.
6) Wade Davis being worse than my worst-case scenario for his return to the rotation – particularly since I assumed there was a limit to “worst-case” before he got moved to the bullpen.
7) The bullpen being erratic aside from Greg Holland, although still effective overall. (Counting Holland, they are second in the AL in ERA.)
On the plus side, James Shields has been as good as expected, Ervin Santana has been better than expected, and David Lough has – at least to this point – given the Royals more offense than they could have expected from right field in the immediate post-Wil-Myers era. And the defense, on a team-wide level, has been a revelation.
But there’s no way to sugarcoat it: the Royals are a disappointment. Again.
I will, at least for the moment, refrain from turning this column into a long screed advocating for the entire front office, from Dayton Moore on down, to be shown the door. I think you can make a case that we’re not at that point yet. But I think you can also make a case that we are. Moore was hired OVER SEVEN YEARS AGO, and the Royals are 43-49 and eight games out at the Break. That’s not the sad part – the sad part is that THIS ACTUALLY REPRESENTS PROGRESS, because this is the best record – and the closest the Royals have been to first place – at the All-Star Break since Moore was hired.
Moore was hired midway through the 2006 season. Let’s give him a mulligan for that year. Since 2007, EVERY TEAM IN BASEBALL HAS HAD A WINNING RECORD, save the Pirates, who barring an epic collapse will finish with one this year. The Royals are on pace to win 76 games, which would be their best showing under Moore – and yet every other team in baseball has won at least 76 games TWICE since 2007 except the Pirates and Orioles, both of whom should clear 76 games for the second time with ease this year.
I don’t much care how bad a shape the organization was in seven years ago: there’s no excuse for that. And I don’t think it was in nearly as bad a shape as we’ve been told by people who have a vested interest in making the fan base think the new front office was inheriting a toxic waste dump. It doesn’t matter how many times I hear “below expansion-level” – it doesn’t make it true. Expansion teams don’t have an Alex Gordon, a Billy Butler, and a Zack Greinke on their roster.
And even if the Royals that Moore inherited were an expansion team: so what? Of the last four expansion teams, three made the playoffs by their fifth season. The one exception, Tampa Bay, stumbled along for nearly a decade before their front office ran out of excuses, got dumped on the sidewalk – and the new front office got them in the playoffs in their third year. After five years, if you haven’t put your team in position to make the playoffs even once, the problem is no longer the organization you inherited – the problem is what you've done with it.
As Sam Mellinger points out, Pittsburgh has been Kansas City’s sister city for the past 20 years. Neal Huntington was hired as their GM 18 months after Moore was hired. You think Moore inherited a hopeless situation? The summer before Huntington was hired, the Pirates had used the #4 overall pick on Daniel Moskos – who quickly became a middle reliever – instead of the guy who was best player available on 29 other teams’ draft list, Matt Wieters. The year before they had used the #4 overall pick on Brad Lincoln. They had just traded prospects for Matt Morris’ fat contract and withered arm.
The Pirates are 56-37. And their farm system is still loaded – even with 2011’s #1 overall pick, Gerrit Cole, now in their rotation, they still have Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Josh Bell, and their two Top-15 picks from this year’s draft (Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire). Of course, it’s easier to have a loaded farm system when you don’t trade two of your top five prospects to acquire two years of a starting pitcher. Instead, they traded for Wandy Rodriguez last summer – they got 2.5 years of Rodriguez – for three Grade C prospects. Rodriguez is no James Shields, but he does have a 3.59 ERA.
So yeah, I’m kind of tired of the excuses. But that’s a discussion for another time. Right now, it’s time for the front office to make a sober and clear-headed assessment of where the team stands going into the second half of the season, and whether it makes more sense to trade prospects for established major league talent in an attempt to go for it, or whether it makes more sense to trade off veteran parts that might help other teams that want to go for it, and get prospects in return.
This assessment should take about 10 seconds. Maybe 15 if in the process they get a sudden urge to sneeze or yawn; there are some things you just can’t help.
Look, the Royals are not going to the playoffs this year. According to Baseball Prospectus, their odds of making the playoffs are 0.7%; their odds of winning the AL Central are 0.4%. ESPN is wildly optimistic by comparison, pinning the Royals’ odds at 4.9%. They’re eight games out. They’re in third place. And the Tigers are underachieving as much as any team in baseball – according to Baseball Prospectus’ third-order standings, which measures what a team’s record “should” be based on the quality of their offense, pitching, and their strength of schedule, the Tigers should be 61-33 instead of 52-42.
So the Tigers, with one hand tied behind their back, are eight games ahead of the Royals. And according to Buster Olney, of the 19 teams within eight games of first place at the All-Star Break, the Royals have the toughest schedule in the second half. It’s time to move on.
Let’s start with Ervin Santana, the best move Dayton Moore made last winter, who has made every start – and until his last start had thrown at least 6 innings in all of them – with an excellent 3.37 ERA. His command is as good as it’s ever been; he’s only walked 5.1% of batters, essentially tied with 2008 as the best performance of his career. Throwing more strikes sets up his excellent slider, and is the difference between being replacement level last year and being a Top-20 starter in the league this year.
His last start – in which he gave up eight runs in five innings – jumped his ERA nearly half a run, and may have given potential trade candidates pause. Santana gets the first start out of the All-Star Break on Friday, and a solid bounceback start from him is of considerable import.
Assuming he does bounce back, he’s one of the most valuable starting pitchers available on the trade market; after Matt Garza, Santana might actually be the most coveted starter left. Virtually every contender has at least one spot in their rotation which would be significantly upgraded by Santana, and he’s a guy who will not just help a contender reach the playoffs, but move forward in them; he has the ability to be a Game 2 or Game 3 starter in each playoff series.
So he should have significant trade value. If he doesn’t, the Royals can of course just hold on to him, make him a qualifying offer this off-season, and – when he almost certainly declines the one-year offer to sign a long-term deal instead – get a supplemental first-round draft pick when Santana signs elsewhere.
But I’m almost certain that Santana will bring back more value than that as a trade. Supplemental first round picks are valuable, but they’re not as valuable as a Top-100 prospect, or even as valuable as a Top-200 prospect. Sure, you might land a Sean Manaea, or you might draft a guy who’s a Top-100 prospect a year later, but the hit rate with a draft pick in the #30-40 range is less than 50/50.
Also, by trading Santana before the trading deadline the Royals would save at least $4 million, and they’d also save a little over $1 million they’d need to sign the compensatory draft pick. If you trade Santana, the prospects you acquire have already received their signing bonus. That’s $5 million that can be spent elsewhere, a not insignificant amount of money. (The Royals could of course agree to pick up most or all of Santana’s salary, which would yield a better haul of prospects in return.)
That draft pick compensation disappears if Santana is traded; his new team can not receive a draft pick. But that won’t stop a contender with a need for pitching from trading a valuable collection of prospects. It didn’t stop the Los Angeles Angels from trading three prospects, including Jean Segura, for Zack Greinke last July. Segura, who barely exhausted his rookie eligibility last season, is hitting .325/.363/.487 for the Brewers, leads the NL in hits, and made the All-Star team. (Segura alone is worth nearly as much as the four guys the Brewers gave up to get Greinke in the first place, but that’s another story.) Santana is not as coveted as Greinke was, but given that both guys were just two-month rentals, he’s not that far behind.
Looking around the majors at contenders in need of pitching, here’s a partial sample of teams that might be good fits:
- The aforementioned Pittsburgh Pirates might be a good fit, given their huge incentive to make the playoffs this year and wipe away the bad taste of 20 losing seasons in a row. Their rotation has had trouble staying healthy behind A.J. Burnett and Jeff Locke, and Santana would give them stability in the second half.
Truthfully, I don’t think they’re a great match, even though they’ve got tons of prospects to deal and an incentive to deal them. The Pirates lead the majors in ERA, and should probably be focusing their efforts to find a right fielder that can hit. They have a wealth of very good prospects, but if anything, their best prospects are too good; I doubt that the Pirates would give up any of them in return for Santana.
- The Nationals are one of the game’s most disappointing teams, and are the reason why the Pirates feel so good about their playoff chances. The Nats are six games out in the NL East and five games behind the Reds for the second wild card spot, close enough that they should be motivated to win but far enough that they should taste some desperation. And while their four returning starters (Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, and Ross Detwiler) are all pitching well, the Dan Haren experiment has gone rather poorly, with a 5.61 ERA. Santana would be a perfect fit for their rotation, giving them five above-average starting pitchers.
(And for those of you who like to bring up Dan Haren’s struggles as proof that I’m a know-nothing imbecile, I’d just like to point out that while I do my best as an analyst, I am not privy to confidential medical reports on each player. Remember, the Chicago Cubs almost traded Carlos Marmol for Haren, but that trade fell through at the last moment because of issues with Haren’s medicals. The Nationals took a flyer anyway, but clearly the medical issues there were more significant than I had reason to believe. This doesn’t change the fact that I’m a know-nothing imbecile, mind you.)
The problem with trading with the Nationals is that Anthony Rendon is in the majors, Lucas Giolito just came back from Tommy John surgery and they’re not giving him up for a two-month rental, and there isn’t anyone else in the Nationals’ system that is worth acquiring for Santana. Unless I’m missing someone, which is possible.
- The Diamondbacks are reportedly looking for another starter as they attempt to hold off the Dodgers in the NL West. They certainly have prospects to deal. I doubt you’re getting Tyler Skaggs or Adam Eaton or anyone of that ilk for Santana, but the Diamondbacks do things a little differently from everyone else, so it doesn’t hurt to ask. They traded Trevor Bauer for Didi Gregorius (which, in their defense, doesn’t look so bad right now), and they traded Justin Upton for Martin Prado and stuff (which does). Even if their elite prospects are off the table, they have enough depth to make it worth the Royals’ while with two or three mid-range guys. The problem is that I don’t think Santana’s fly ball tendencies would play well in Arizona’s ballpark, so they may look elsewhere for rotation help.
- You don’t trade in your own division if you don’t have to, which is the main reason to be skeptical of a trade with the Indians. Otherwise it makes great sense; the Indians are the mirror image of the Royals, with a great offense and no starting pitching, and are yet another exhibit in how pitching really is NOT more important than hitting.
Francisco Lindor is untouchable, but there are some interesting names here (Dorssys Paulino? Tyler Naquin? Ronny Rodriguez?) that I’d be interested in. The Indians need all the help they can get if they want to keep up with Detroit in the second half, and I think they’re going to make a surprise splash in the next two weeks. But probably not with the Royals.
- And that brings me to the perfect trade partner, and granted I probably write that every year. In my defense, so long as Ned Colletti, the man who once traded Carlos Santana for Casey Blake, is in charge in LA, the Dodgers are a mark.
But beyond their GM’s abilities or lack thereof, the Dodgers make a lot of sense. They’re at .500 despite the highest payroll in the game, and Colletti is on the hot seat – he’s motivated to overpay future talent to win now. More than that, the emergence of Yasiel Puig means the Dodgers have four outfielders who either deserve to play, have enormous contracts, or both – Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Matt Kemp are all signed for the next four years.
So given their situation, wouldn’t you think that if the Dodgers had a top prospect who also played the outfield, that said prospect might be a little less untouchable than he would ordinarily be?
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Joc Pederson.
Pederson was an 11th-round pick out of high school in 2010, although he got $600,000 to sign. The next year he hit .353/.429/.568 in rookie ball to get people’s attention, and then last year he hit .313/.396/.516 in high-A ball at the age of 20, which really got people’s attention: he ranked #85 on MLB.com’s top prospect list, although didn’t crack Baseball America’s Top 100. This year, as a 21-year-old in Double-A, he’s hitting .296/.386/.516. He has good plate discipline (42 walks in 304 AB), power (14 homers, 19 doubles), and speed (26 steals in 29 attempts). He’s played the majority of his games in center field, but has played all three outfield positions.
He’s not Wil Myers, but he’d be one hell of a consolation prize.
The Dodgers have already traded for Ricky Nolasco, so the window might have closed. But behind a front four of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu and Nolasco, their fifth starter choices are slim. It would be nice if they were a little more desperate, though. But again, Ned Colletti traded Carlos Santana for Casey Blake. Joc Pederson seems like a steep price to pay for a half-season of Ervin Santana, but you’ll never know until you ask.
Anyway, these are all just thought bubbles. There are other teams that may be interested, other prospects who might be available, and the point isn’t the specifics of the trade; it’s that some trade should be on the table soon.
Trading Santana is the easy part. Deciding who else to trade off this roster isn’t. As much as I’d like to say the Royals should trade James Shields, I really can’t, and not just because Dayton Moore might as well be signing his own pink slip if he does that.
Last Friday I wrote an article for Grantland on the Toronto Blue Jays, and the difficult predicament they are in. Like the Royals, the Blue Jays went for it this winter, to an even larger degree: they traded four of their top five prospects, but acquired Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and R.A. Dickey, among others. But the Jays are 45-49, 11.5 games out in the AL East, and they have to decide what to do.
My conclusion with the Jays is that they are a team that’s built to win now, and with the exception of Josh Johnson, they return all their starters next year, so their window exists for one more season. So while it makes sense for them to trade Johnson if the right offer comes around, it doesn’t make sense to trade guys, like Colby Rasmus, who become free agents after 2014.
I think the same rationale applies to the Royals. Trading Santana, who’s going to walk in three months, makes sense. But Santana is the only player of any note who is going to be a free agent this winter. After next season, things get dicey, because Shields is a free agent after 2014, and both Gordon and Butler can leave after 2015. But at this point, I think the Royals can still dream about contending in 2014, if they get all their young hitters on track and someone steps up to replace Santana. (While whoever replaces Santana isn’t likely to be as good, whoever replaces Wade Davis isn’t likely to be as bad.)
It helps that the AL Central may be even less competitive next year. The Tigers are probably on a downward trend overall; Miguel Cabrera can’t really get any better than he is now, Prince Fielder turns 30, their stars won’t all stay healthy year after year, and aside from Nick Castellanos, there isn’t anyone in the farm system likely to help. The Twins could be a juggernaut in three years but won’t be there in 2014, the White Sox might be the worst team in baseball, and the Indians will probably be in the same 85-win range they are now.
This is an admittedly rosy assessment, but if you’re the Royals you sort of have to deal in rosy assessments at this point. If a new GM got hired tomorrow, I think you’d see him field calls on James Shields. But I think it’s defensible for Moore, having bet the farm on two seasons of Shields, to stick with his plan for next year.
The Royals don’t have a lot more assets to trade, because they don’t have a lot more assets that are close to free agency. The only other free agents this year are Miguel Tejada – who might get dealt very soon, now that the Royals have claimed Pedro Ciriaco on waivers – and Bruce Chen. (And after throwing six shutout innings, allowing just one hit, in his first start since transitioning from the pen, don’t be surprised if Chen gets moved for a prospect of modest means.) The only other free agents for next year are Luke Hochevar, who won’t get traded because he’s Luke Hochevar, and Felipe Paulino, who won’t get traded because he’ll get hurt on the plane ride over.
But there is one other asset the Royals should be trying to trade. Greg Holland might be, inning for inning, the best pitcher in baseball right now. By the most simple of assessments – the percentage of batters that he strikes out – he is without peer in 2013. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, Holland has a 2.28 ERA in 162 innings, having struck out 225 batters and allowed just seven home runs. He won’t be arbitration-eligible until next season, and won’t be a free agent until after the 2016 season. He’s only 27 years old.
Which makes this the perfect time to trade him. Here’s why:
1) Closers are fickle. This should be obvious, given that the guy Holland replaced as closer, Joakim Soria, was even better (2.01 ERA) for even longer (four years), and then was just average in 2011, and then blew out his elbow in 2012, and then got expensive and signed with the Texas Rangers in 2013. (Where he’s pitched extremely well since returning to the mound, by the way.)
Of all the missed opportunities by this administration, the failure to cash in Soria at his peak ranks highly. There is no more useless luxury in baseball than a closer on a last-place team, and yet the Royals were convinced that if they traded Soria, it would cause a psychic disruption that would turn the other 24 guys into quivering bowls of jelly, unable to carry on without their security blanket in the ninth inning.
And at the time I could hardly blame them, because after the nightmare that was the Royals bullpen from 1999 through 2006, I was a quivering bowl of jelly myself. But I’d like to think I’m capable of learning from my mistakes. If the Royals treat Greg Holland the same way they treated Joakim Soria – as an untouchable – then it’s proof that they haven’t learned from theirs.
Jayson Stark put it best: of the 18 closers with the most saves in 2011 – just two years ago – just three of those guys are closing for the same team today. The turnover among even the best closers is frightening. There’s a reason why Mariano Rivera stands apart, why he is perhaps the most respected player in the game today. It’s not simply that he’s the best reliever in the game – it’s that he’s been one of the best, almost without interruption, for the last 17 years. That’s not normal. Joe Nathan is the second-most-tenured closer in baseball, and he has roughly half as many relief innings (and less than half as many saves) as Rivera.
Holland may be the best reliever in baseball right now. He probably won’t be the best reliever in baseball next year. He might not even be an above-average reliever by 2015. But at the same time, he’s so dominant in the present that he’s one guy teams will pay a premium for.
2) The Royals have relievers. They have relievers coming out of their ears. Tim Collins has been awful for the past 2-3 weeks, which doesn’t change the fact that he’s been a very valuable pitcher for the past 2-3 years. Aaron Crow has a 3.17 career ERA, and while ERA isn’t a great way to evaluate relievers, and while he’s allowed a lot of inherited runners to score this year, I think he’s been criticized so much that he might actually be underrated at this point.
Luke Hochevar has a 2.08 ERA, and has allowed fewer than one baserunner per inning, and with men on base this year, batters are hitting .119/.196/.167. That’s right: LUKE HOCHEVAR IS UNHITTABLE WITH MEN ON BASE. Hochevar isn’t just the latest exhibit in how common it is for the lousiest starting pitchers to become top-shelf relievers; he’s also the greatest.
Kelvin Herrera was terrible for the Royals this year, but he had a 2.35 ERA and threw 84 innings as a rookie last year. The stuff is still there; in 17 minor league innings this year, he’s allowed seven hits and whiffed 25. He’s still just 23 years old.
Louis Coleman, who couldn’t even find a spot on the Royals roster for most of this year, came into the season with a 3.25 ERA in 111 career innings. Think about that for a moment – the Royals had a reliever with a 3.25 ERA that they had to send to the minors for lack of space. After his latest callup, he struck out the first seven batters he faced.
After getting called up as a reliever, Will Smith threw 12 innings, allowed 3 runs, walked none and struck out 10; that earned him a trip back to Omaha. Donnie Joseph got called up, having struck out 59 batters in 38 innings in Omaha, but was returned to Nebraska after a couple of days.
The Royals simply have more relievers than they have roster spots. It’s a great problem to have. But it is a problem, because it means they’re letting talented ballplayers waste away in the minors. They should have traded one this winter – think how much more value Kelvin Herrera had four months ago – and they should trade one now. The problem is that most relievers aren’t going to bring back a ton of value unless they’re pitching at an elite level, and right now the only guy pitching at an elite level is Holland.
If the Royals trade Holland, they may not know who his replacement will be right away – but they should have confidence that they do have his replacement, even if it might take a few months to figure out who it is. Maybe you give Crow the ninth-inning role by default. Maybe you take a chance that Hochevar really has figured everything out. Maybe you go back to the guy with the best stuff in Herrera. The point is that one of these guys should be able to seize the job the way Holland did, and if you blow a few games this year trying to figure out who that guy is, so be it. The goal is 2014, and by 2014 you should have this all straightened out.
3) Closers can still fetch a lot of talent. Think about what the A’s got for Andrew Bailey, or the Astros for Mark Melancon, or what the Nationals got for Matt Capps. And keep in mind: Holland right now is better than any of those guys were at the time, and is farther from free agency than any of them were. We could go back in time further, to the Marlins getting Brad Penny for Matt Mantei, or Ugueth Urbina getting traded for Placido Polanco and Adrian Gonzalez in separate deals, or the (gulp) Pirates getting Jon Lieber for Stan Belinda. (And I’m not even bringing up Larry Andersen’s name…oops.)
Better still, combine Holland and Santana and see what teams are willing to give up for a high-end closer AND a #2 starter. Put them in the same deal, and maybe Joc Pederson is in play. Kolten Wong, the second baseman that Johnny Giavotella was supposed to be, is in play. How much would the Diamondbacks, who are trying to contend with Heath Bell as their closer, give up for Holland and the starter they’re looking for? Maybe Tyler Skaggs is in play.
The Royals of course won’t do any of this, because Greg Holland is untouchable in their mind, because you can’t trade a top-tier closer, even though the fact that the Royals quickly found a top-tier closer to replace their last top-tier closer – a 10th-round pick replacing a Rule 5 pick – should offer a clue that closers aren’t as hard to find as you might think. The Royals won’t trade Holland because they don’t think of their players as commodities; they think of them as a family, that they all need to get along, that they need to support each other, that they need to have faith in each other.
It’s sweet and endearing, it really is, and I don’t mean that sarcastically or flippantly. The Royals have put together a roster of likable players who really do seem to get along. They’ve also put together a roster that, like every other roster they’ve put together, will lose more games than it wins. If your goal is to end that streak and put together a contending team for 2014 or 2015, now is the perfect time to see if you can trade high on Greg Holland. But if your goal is to make the 25 men in your clubhouse feel good about each other, then I guess Holland stays. We’ll see which goal the Royals emphasize.
Dayton Moore gambled his team’s future last winter in order to win in 2013 and 2014, and right now one of his two scratch-off tickets looks like a loser. If he accepts that fact and throws in the towel on this season in an attempt to make that second ticket pay off, he may yet rescue his bet. But if he’s more concerned with the aesthetics of a .500 record this year than the payoff of a playoff spot next year, that will be one more piece of evidence – and maybe the decisive piece of evidence – that he’s not the man to lead the Royals to the playoffs at all. And if he’s not that man, then it’s fair to ask whether he should still be employed in the first place.
I’m not calling for his job yet. But I will be monitoring the moves that he makes – or doesn’t make – over the next two weeks with great interest.