Let’s start with this: I don’t blame the Royals for going for it.
It’s hard to change the narrative of your season in eight days, but that’s because it’s hard to win every game you play over an eight-day span. The Royals have won eight in a row, which isn’t that unusual in the abstract – they are the tenth major league team just this season to win eight consecutive games. (And the Indians are now the eleventh.) But in the sordid history of this franchise, it is quite historic: the Royals hadn’t won eight straight games since they opened the 2003 season 9-0. That was over a decade ago. You will not be surprised to learn that every other team in the majors had won 8 in a row more recently. (In fact, with the exception of the Orioles, every other team has had an 8-game winning streak at least once since 2008.)
But you can’t discount what eight wins in a row heading right into the trade deadline can do to change the equation. On the morning of July 23rd the Royals were 45-51. They were eight games behind the Tigers, and they were ten games behind the Orioles for the second wild card spot. They had the 11th-best record in a 15-team league.
As of this morning, they are 53-51. They are over .500 after mid-June for the first time since 2003, and just the second time since 1995! They are still seven games behind Detroit, and they’ve only moved up to 9th place in the AL overall. But they’re just 4.5 games behind the second wild card spot, now held by the Indians, and just three games back in the loss column.
So they’re contenders. They’re contenders in the most tenuous sense, having to leapfrog four teams in the standings just to get into a one-game playoff that gives them a one-in-16 shot at a World Championship. Baseball Prospectus still rates their playoff odds at 2.8%, and just a 0.3% chance to skip over the Wild Card game by winning the AL Central. But those odds have tripled in the last week. ESPN.com rates their chances at 10.4%, double their odds a week ago.
Slim odds are better than no odds. A fan base accustomed to the latter is going to go crazy over the former. It doesn’t matter that the Royals reached the shores of .500 on a wave of good luck. The Royals are 10-2 since the All-Star Break, but of those 10 wins, six have been by one run, and another went into extra innings. The Royals, who had been just 13-17 in one-run games, has now won eight such games in a row. If you believe that the Royals have a chance to contend this year, then this stretch of good luck came at the perfect time. If you believe that this is all a mirage that is distracting from the real work that needs to be done to win next season, then this stretch of good luck is inconveniently timed.
(And if, like me, you mocked Dayton Moore for saying the Royals could win “15 of 20” games when they had NEVER done that since he was hired, and IMMEDIATELY after he said that they’ve won 10 of 12…well, you’re asking around for some good crow recipes.)
I’m not going to tell you what to believe; frankly, I’m not sure myself. But the Royals have to believe in it. You don’t sell at the trading deadline when you’re 4.5 games out of a playoff spot unless 1) you’ve built up the credibility to get away with it, a la Billy Beane, or 2) you’re prepared to have your fan base rise up against you. The White Sox tried that once, in 1997, and they still haven’t lived down the legacy of the White Flag Trade.
On the morning of July 31st that year, the White Sox were just 52-53 and in third place – but they were also just 3.5 games out of first place. The Indians, who had dominated the division in 1995 and 1996, were expected to run away once again, but were underachieving enough to give the Brewers (yes, the Brewers were in the AL Central) and White Sox hope. Sound familiar?
The day of the trade deadline, the Sox decided that despite being just 3.5 games out, their playoff odds weren’t realistic, and so they sold. In a single trade, they sent Wilson Alvarez (3.03 ERA in 22 starts), Danny Darwin (4.13 ERA in 17 starts and 4 relief appearances), and Roberto Hernandez (2.44 ERA and 27 saves) to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for a rookie pitcher and five prospects.
Oh, how the fans howled. And they had every right to. Even after the trade, the White Sox played exactly .500 ball the rest of the way, finishing 80-81. The Indians never did run away with the division, but held on to win the AL Central with an 86-75 record, then got within two outs of winning the World Series. Would the White Sox made up the six game difference if they had held? Maybe not. But maybe. And what if they had bought?
Of the six guys they got, Brian Manning never made the majors, and Lorenzo Barcelo and Ken Vining barely made it. Mike Caruso hit .306 as a 21-year-old rookie shortstop the next year, and was out of the majors two years later. They did get Bobby Howry, who spent 13 years in the majors as a reliever, and Keith Foulke, who would become their closer, and who eventually threw the last pitch of the World Series for another Sox team. But you could argue the impact of those two relievers didn’t come close to making up for throwing away a shot at the postseason.
In a fantasy (or fantasy baseball) universe where the players are robots and fans are free of emotions, it might have made sense to trade Ervin Santana. But not in this one. I still think the Royals missed on an opportunity to trade Luke Hochevar, but that’s a small gripe, and they may well trade him this winter anyway. You can argue the Mariners screwed up by not selling, and the Phillies, and the Mets. But not the Royals. They’ve got a shot, and they know how precious it is.
As the deadline approached, I switched gears and wrote last time about how the Royals should go out and get a second baseman. So let me make this clear as well: I don’t blame them for not trading for one. Howie Kendrick, who was fortuitously made available by the Angels, has a no-trade clause that included the Royals. Gordon Beckham’s price was exorbitant. Rickie Weeks is expensive and just not that good. Kolten Wong was always a dream; the Cardinals are not motivated to move a Top 50 prospect, and changing their motivation would have cost more than the Royals could afford to pay.
This doesn’t abrogate the Royals from their prior negligence, that put them in a position where it’s now August, they are putative contenders, and they’re selecting between the likes of Chris Getz and Elliot Johnson at second base. They’ve taken to playing Miguel Tejada almost every day, and it’s almost unquestionably the right choice – Tejada is hitting .287/.311/.388.
As an aside: I’m pretty certain that I haven’t been more wrong about a Royals transaction in the past year than when I criticized them for signing Tejada this winter. My criticism was based on faulty information – it was initially reported that he signed a guaranteed contract, which he had not – but that doesn’t change the fact that I thought he was done. In my defense, that was an opinion shared by all 30 teams last year – Tejada didn’t play in the majors last year, and played just 36 games in Triple-A, in which he hit .259/.325/.296.
But the Royals’ scouts thought he showed something in winter ball, enough to bring a 39-year-old to camp with the inside edge on the utility infielder job. And they were dead right. I was dead wrong. Not only were they right, but their decision to resuscitate Tejada’s career may have huge implications now that the deadline has passed and he’s the only player in the organization that resembles an everyday second baseman. Kudos to them.
The Royals were right not to sell, and they were right not to pay what it would have taken to get a second baseman. But that didn’t leave them many options, and led to the one decision they did make: to trade pitching prospect Kyle Smith to the Astros for outfielder Justin Maxwell.
Twitter is a fantastic tool for many reasons, not the least of which being the ability to react to news in real time. But this can be a danger as well, because sometimes it’s not smart to react to news in real time. Or at least, it’s not smart to react to news in real time with thousands of people watching.
This is a fancy way of saying I probably overreacted to the trade on Twitter. OK, I definitely overreacted. That doesn’t mean I like the trade; I don’t. But I need to pick my battles, and this wasn’t a battle worth committing too many resources to.
The reason for my change of heart is that I had two main reasons for why I didn’t like the trade, which on reflection aren’t as true as I originally thought.
1) The Royals don’t need Justin Maxwell.
Maxwell is a 29-year-old outfielder with a career line in the majors of .222/.311/.419. He’s been designated for assignment twice in his career. He spent all of 2011 in the minors; since joining the Astros last year he’s hit .232/.306/.438. He hit 18 home runs in 315 at-bats last year, which is impressive; he’s hit two homers and slugged .387 this year, which is not so much.
He’s a role player, a fourth outfielder. He has value, but not that much value. Particularly to a team that already has a good fourth outfielder.
I will confess that the biggest error in my snap judgment when the trade was announced was that I was convinced the Royals would not carry five outfielders again, and that Maxwell would take the roster spot of David Lough or Jarrod Dyson. That was a mistake, obviously; Chris Getz is on the DL, and I’m quite sure the Royals will find a way to keep all five outfielders for the rest of August, at which point rosters expand to 40.
Lough is hitting .300/.317/.443, and while that’s not sustainable – he’s not a .300 hitter, and he’s only walked five times in 59 games – he’s a good fourth outfielder at the very least. Dyson is hitting .274/.337/.442 – incredibly, Lough and Dyson have the two highest slugging averages on the team – and has game-changing speed. Both Lough and Dyson are excellent defenders, and the ridiculous quality of the team’s outfield defense is probably the most underrated aspect of the team’s success since Jeff Francoeur was released.
Both Lough and Dyson are left-handed, and Maxwell is right-handed. Against lefties, Maxwell has hit .253/.370/.455 for his career. If he plays only against left-handers, Maxwell will help.
He just may not help as much as you’d think. Jarrod Dyson is helpless against left-handers – his career line is .182/.265/.212, and even in just 115 plate appearances, that’s enough of a sample size to keep him away from southpaws in a pennant race. But Lough isn’t helpless. In his brief major league career, Lough has hit .301/.315/.442 vs. RHP, and .298/.320/.447 vs. LHP.
Granted, that’s a very small sample size – just 50 plate appearances vs. lefties. But a look at Lough’s minor league career suggests that he can hit lefties about as well as right-handers.
In nearly four seasons in Omaha – over 1750 at-bats – Lough has the following lines:
Vs. RHP: .302/.351/.460
Vs. LHP: .280/.340/.420
That’s a pretty small split. If you think Lough can hit right-handed pitching, you should have enough faith that he can hit left-handed pitching, enough so that you don’t need to make a trade to give him a platoon partner.
But here’s where I’ve changed my mind since yesterday: the problem is that I don’t think Lough can hit, or at least not nearly this well. He’s a 27-year-old rookie, for one, and unless there are extenuating circumstances for why you didn’t stick in the majors until you’re 27 (e.g. you’re from Japan, or Cuba, or were in the Negro Leagues), you’re probably going to regress badly. Just think about Royals history: Mike Aviles was 26 as a rookie. Bob Hamelin was 26. Angel Berroa, we found out later, was 25. All had tremendous rookie success; none were able to replicate it.
Maybe Lough can keep this going all season, but maybe he can’t. I think that, like Aviles, he’s going to have a long career in the majors as a backup, but is a little stretched to be an everyday player.
Dyson, on the other hand, I have more faith in. He’s even older than Lough, but he’s been around longer, and he has a track record of nearly a full season in which he’s hit .252/.323/.346. He has 66 steals in 76 attempts. He’s +17 runs defensively in less than a full season in center field. And, most unlike Lough, he actually knows the strike zone; he’s walked 51 times in 488 at-bats. I believe in his overall skill set more.
But the problem is, Dyson can’t hit lefties. So we have two outfielders, one of whom might be legitimate but can’t hit lefties, and one who doesn’t have a platoon split but whose entire performance might be a mirage.
When looked at that way, I have to confess that Maxwell represents a pretty substantial upgrade against left-handed pitching. He’s supposed to be good in the clubhouse, he has a diverse skill set (power, walks, steals), and as someone who’s spent most of his career in center field, I expect that he’ll be above-average defensively in right. So long as he only plays against lefties, he’ll be an asset.
The downside is that he’s a career .203/.272/.397 hitter vs. right-handed pitching, and he’s almost certain to face them at least occasionally. This afternoon he started against a lefty, went 1-for-2 with a walk, but was left in to bat against a right-hander and grounded out. The specifics didn’t bother me – the Royals were winning 7-2 at the time – but it remains to be seen if Yost will aggressively pinch-hit for him with Lough or Dyson against right-handed pitching. If he does, Maxwell will be a nice addition. But if Yost won’t pinch-hit for Alcides Escobar, will he pinch-hit for Maxwell?
Even if he’s used correctly, Maxwell isn’t going to make a difference of more than a few runs. He might only get 60 or 70 at-bats against left-handers the rest of the season, and that’s simply not worth that much. But it’s worth something. I was wrong; the Royals do need Maxwell. Having him on the roster instead of Getz (or Johnson) makes the team better. Just not that much better.
2) The Royals didn’t need to surrender a legitimate prospect to get him.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 20 years of watching Royals minor leaguers, it’s this: beware the Wilmington pitching prospect. The Blue Rocks play in one of the best pitching environments in the minors, and they’ve been the Royals’ high-A ball affiliate for 18 of the last 20 years. Year after year, some previously non-descript pitching prospect will put up great numbers in Wilmington, whether it’s Mike Bovee in 1994 or Corey Thurman in 2000 or Buddy Baumann in 2010. And year after year, these guys flame out in the majors, if not the high minors. In fact, if there’s one reason in retrospect why we should have been skeptical of the Royals’ Best Farm System Ever ranking two years ago, it was that four of the guys on Baseball America’s top prospect list (Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery, Chris Dwyer, and John Lamb) had all benefited from time spent in Wilmington the year before.
What I’m saying is that I’m fully aware that Kyle Smith’s numbers this year, in which he has a 2.85 ERA, and 96 Ks vs. 29 walks in 104 innings, may be a mirage.
But they might not. The fact that Wilmington permits bad pitchers to put up good numbers does not mean that good numbers are proof that you’re a bad pitcher. Good pitchers have to pitch there as well. Smith was a fourth-round pick out of high school who got second-round money ($695,000) the last year before the CBA changed, when the Royals were dropping money on everyone they could. The following year he made exactly one start in rookie ball before the Royals realized he had nothing left to learn there, then went to Kane County, where he had a 2.94 ERA and a K/BB ratio of better than 4-to-1. He’s had success everywhere he’s pitched, he’s only 20 years old, and he’s almost ready for Double-A.
He might stumble there. He only throws around 90, and despite a really good curveball and excellent knowledge of how to pitch, right-handers who throw 90 rarely succeed as starters in the majors. J.J. Cooper threw out the name of Mike Leake as a best-case scenario for Smith. More likely than not, if he has a future it’s in the bullpen.
But that’s not chopped liver. As a scout who emailed me (unprompted) yesterday told me, Smith “would undoubtedly pitch in the low 90s out of the pen with a plus curveball and plus feel”. That’s a major leaguer, maybe a set-up man if all goes well. As a fallback plan, that’s hardly a bad thing.
I guess what worries me is that the Royals clearly liked Smith in the draft, and he’s done everything he can to exceed expectations. To say now that he’s not really much of a prospect doesn’t square with the previous sentence. Maybe he doesn’t have much of a ceiling, but that doesn’t mean you give him away for a fourth outfielder. Smith was one of the Royals’ top 15 prospects, and that has value.
What worries me more is that the Astros obviously wanted him. There are some front offices that I’d rather just stay away from, and that’s one of them. And yes, I probably had in the back of my mind the memory of last March, when the Royals traded two prospects to the Astros for Humberto Quintero and Jason Bourgeois, both of whom might have been available on waivers had the Royals just waited a while. Bourgeois was, like Maxwell, an outfielder brought in partly because he had a history of hitting lefties. He lasted all of 62 at-bats with the Royals, and was most notable for his baserunning mistakes and bad defensive reads. Quintero managed to last 138 at-bats, and hit .232/.257/.341, before he was released.
Maxwell is better than those two guys, but then, Kyle Smith is better than Kevin Chapman and D’Andre Toney. When you look at so many of the trades that Dayton Moore has made, from Quintero and Bourgeois to trading Leo Nunez for Mike Jacobs to trading Eric Cordier for Tony Pena Jr, one common thread seems to be a lack of appreciation for the concept of replacement level. Moore seems not to understand that there is a level of performance in the majors that can be duplicated by just reaching into the grab bag of Triple-A players.
Kila Ka’aihue could have hit .228/.297/.401, like Jacobs did, and wouldn’t have cost millions of dollars and a quality reliever. There were a dozen guys in Triple-A who could field equally well (and hit equally poorly) as Pena did. There’s no reason to pay anything for replacement-level talent, because the definition of replacement-level talent is that it’s freely available. Look at the Indians: they dredged up Ryan Raburn this winter to basically fill the role that the Royals got Maxwell for. Raburn hit .171/.226/.254 by the Tigers last year and was released. This year, he’s hitting .283/.377/.584. There’s probably someone out there who can do what Maxwell can do and wouldn’t cost a legitimate prospect.
But here’s where I’ve changed my mind on this point since yesterday: replacement-level is a useful concept in the off-season, or in spring training, when replacement-level players are actually available. What makes the trade deadline different – and in my defense, it’s not like I have much experience with this – is that once the deadline passes, it’s not that easy to bring in new talent. Replacement level is fine as a theoretical construct when you’re evaluating options in January. On August 1st, when you’re in a pennant race, and you’re barred from trading for a player unless he clears waivers – suddenly rounding up a player with Maxwell’s approximate value on the double isn’t so easy. A slight overpay to get WHAT you need RIGHT NOW is justifiable.
I still think that Moore overpaid. I look back to 2003, when Allard Baird brought in Rondell White and Brian Anderson and Graeme Lloyd and Curtis Leskanic and Paul Abbott without surrendering a single prospect of Kyle Smith’s caliber. (And that doesn’t even count signing Jose Lima for free.) And I think of the times in the more distant past when the Royals were willing to overspend on prospects to get the guy that completed the roster. John Schuerholz traded Jose DeJesus for Steve Jeltz just before the 1990 season to put the finishing touches on what would turn out to be the most disappointing season in Royals history to that point. Jeltz was basically Brendan Ryan without the glove; he hit .155/.200/.194 in 103 at-bats, and never played again. DeJesus, the same year, had a 3.74 ERA in 130 innings for the Phillies as a rookie starter, then threw 182 innings with a 3.42 ERA in 1991.
It could have been worse for the Royals, but DeJesus blew out his rotator cuff after that season and – aside from five appearances with the Royals in 1994 – never pitched in the majors again. They weren’t so lucky three years later, when – still on the fringes of the pennant race on July 31st – they traded two prospects for Stan Belinda at the deadline. Belinda would throw 76 innings for the Royals with a 4.83 ERA, then left as a free agent. In exchange, the Pirates got Dan Miceli, who pitched 14 years in the majors while rarely ever being any good – and they got Jon Lieber. Like Smith, Lieber was a high draft pick two years prior – he was the Royals’ second-rounder in 1992 – who was considered a very polished pitcher who didn’t have elite stuff. (That year in Wilmington, Lieber had thrown 115 innings and walked just nine batters.) But after getting promoted to Double-A, Lieber had a 6.86 ERA in four starts when he was traded.
Lieber’s stuff never did really tick up, and he was always hittable in the majors. But his command was good enough that he pitched 14 years in the majors as a starter, throwing 2200 innings with a 103 ERA+. It’s perhaps the most overlooked terrible trade in Royals history.
Smith probably won’t have Lieber’s success, or anywhere close to it. Just be aware that we can’t rule it out either. In exchange for someone who significantly upgraded the team, I’d be fine with trading him; in fact, I suggested adding him to a deal with Yordano Ventura to get Howie Kendrick. I just think that trading him for a platoon player is too much risk for the benefit. It didn’t make me feel any better that the same day he was traded, Baseball Prospectus published this analysis of GMs which ranked Dayton Moore as the third-worst GM in the game when it comes to trading. It also didn’t make me feel better when Brian Smith, who is the Astros’ beat writer for the Houston Chronicle, tweeted this about Maxwell: “Surprised Royals gave anything up.”
But I also understand that for every Jon Lieber there are ten Jeremy Hills and Alejandro Machados, guys the Royals traded away who never amounted to anything in the majors. And I’m aware that when you’re in a pennant race, the opportunity to tangibly improve your team in the hear and now takes priority. I think the Royals overpaid, but I at least understand now why they did what they did. I think Dave Cameron said what I should have said if I had learned the trick of taking my emotions out of anything the Royals do: it was a curious move, and the Royals paid a price they didn’t need to pay, but the most likely scenario is that it doesn’t hurt them too bad in the long run.
And in the interest of fairness, I should point out that Keith Law likes the trade, and disagrees with my assessment of it.
I don’t like the trade. But I don’t hate it the way I did yesterday. On the Wil Myers Trade Indignation Scale, this barely registers a tremor. If Smith turns into a quality major leaguer, I’ll say “I told you so” then. Right now, it’s time to focus on something I’ve only barely been cognizant of for the last 20 years: a pennant race, or at least the fringes of it. The Royals beat the Twins this afternoon, and if they win tomorrow will notch only their fifth 10-game winning streak ever, and their first since 1994. They face the Mets for three games and somehow miss both Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. It’s August, and I’m not starting my days by poring over the minor league box scores. After a decade of living in the future, I’m going to do my best to leave the future where it is. I’m going to do my best to live in the present. I expect to feel disappointed when the season is over. But at least I expect to feel something.