Thursday, August 1, 2013


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. 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.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Threading The Needle.

As I write this, the Royals have a losing record, and they are in third place in the AL Central, seven games out of first place. They are seven games out of the second wild card spot. (Correction: six games after winning last night.) They have the ninth-best record in the AL. They do not resemble, in any way, shape, or form, a contender.

But being associated with this franchise means you have to wear beer goggles when you look at the standings, and if you squint just right and interpret every bit of data in your favor, you can sort of pretend that the Royals have a playoff shot. They’ve only been outscored by four runs – they have a better run differential than the Yankees! (This would mean more in any other season since 1992.) Sure, they have a losing record, but they’re 49-51. (Now 50-51 after beating the White Sox last night. All hail strength of schedule!) Here’s what the Royals’ record has been after 100 games in the last nine years:

2012: 41-59
2011: 42-58
2010: 42-58
2009: 40-60
2008: 45-55
2007: 43-57
2006: 35-65
2005: 37-63
2004: 35-65

And they’re seven games out of first place? They’re only seven games out of first place! Here’s how far out of first place they’ve been on July 27th in the last nine years:

2012: 12 GB
2011: 12 GB
2010: 12.5 GB
2009: 14 GB
2008: 14 GB
2007: 16 GB
2006: 32.5 GB
2005: 28.5 GB
2004: 19 GB

The Royals are closer than they’ve been to first place than they’ve been in 10 years. Prior to this year, the Royals never got within nine games of first place at any point from this date on. In the last nine years, the Royals hadn’t been this close to first place at any point after July 4th. If they win this afternoon, they’ll be back at .500. In the last nine years the Royals haven’t been .500 or better at any point after May 26th.

So, yay, I guess. Mediocrity is a victory.

Unfortunately, victory may lead to yet more mediocrity, because it appears that the Royals don’t consider themselves sellers. There’s still a snowball’s chance in hell that they might catch the Indians and the Tigers, and apparently we Royals fans are such delicate flowers that if our team’s front office were to trade Ervin Santana for a huge stash of talent, dashing our miniscule hopes of contending this season but increasing our chances of contention next season, we’re all going to riot. Apparently we’re not psychologically strong enough to endure another losing season, while an 82-80 finish will make it all better.

If I haven’t made it clear enough: I strongly disagree with the notion that the Royals shouldn’t sell. For one thing, precisely because so many teams share in the Royals’ delusion – the Phillies, Angels, Rockies, and even Mariners may not be selling, even though they all should be –the price of talent on the market has been artificially raised, which is a boon for the teams that are selling.

The Cubs prepared themselves well for this summer’s seller’s market, and are already cashing in. Matt Garza was the best starting pitcher on the market, and in return for two months of Garza, the Cubs got Mike Olt. Olt was Baseball America’s #43 prospect after the 2011 season, and their #22 prospect barely five months ago, after hitting .288/.398/.579 in Double-A and showing off a fine glove at third base. Olt suffered a concussion while playing in winter ball, and started this season 10-for-72 in Triple-A (.139/.235/.236) before he complained of vision problems. The Rangers shut him down for a month, he returned to Triple-A on June 3rd, and from that point until the time of the trade he hit .247/.353/.506 – not quite as well as he hit last year, but good enough. just re-ranked the Top 100 prospects in the game, and Olt came in #63. He still projects as a major-league average third baseman, low on batting average but high on walks and power, and he’s basically ready for the majors.

But here’s the thing: Mike Olt wasn’t the key to the trade. That was C.J. Edwards, one of the great late-round finds in recent memory, who was drafted out of high school in the 48th round just two years ago. In 160 career innings, Edwards has allowed 94 hits and 59 walks, struck out 207 batters – and hasn’t allowed a single home run. He projects as a #3 starter in the majors, granted that he’s still in low-A ball.

Oh, and the Cubs also got Justin Grimm, who put up excellent numbers in the high minors last year, and as a rookie for the Rangers this year walked 30 and struck out 68 batters in 89 innings. But he also had a .349 BABIP, and gave up homers on 14.3% of flyballs, both numbers being unsustainably high, but which has led to a 6.37 ERA.

Grimm reminds me of Scott Feldman, who like Grimm had a high ERA pitching in The Ballpark in Arlington (5.09 ERA last year) despite good peripherals (30 walks, 96 Ks in 124 innings). The Cubs signed Feldman as a free agent, betting that getting him out of such a hitters’ ballpark, moving him to the inferior league, and a normalization in his luck would turn him into a solid starter. Feldman made 15 starts for the Cubs this year with a 3.46 ERA, and they flipped him for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

Grimm isn’t quite as good as Feldman, but he’s also a rookie under club control for the next five years. He’s worth a gamble. The Cubs also get at least one and maybe two players to be named later. All for two months of Matt Garza.

Ervin Santana, if he were on the market, is the closest thing to Matt Garza available. He’s a legitimate #2 starter who can help a team get to the postseason and help a team in the postseason. He hasn’t been as consistent as Garza over the past few years, but he’s been healthier. If the Royals can get anything close to a Garza-like haul for him, they have to move him.

Keep in mind, even if they move Santana the Royals don’t have to wave a white flag on this season. Danny Duffy is getting his groove back in the minors; in his last five starts he’s walked 7 and struck out 30. Will Smith has been outstanding all season; he’s struck out 91 against 23 walks in 82 innings in Triple-A, and in his brief time in the majors, he has 15 Ks and one walk*.

*: I’ll confess that I don’t know what the Royals are doing with Smith; they’ve apparently decided to make him a full-time reliever. He hasn’t started a game since June 2nd. In 39 innings as a reliever in Omaha, he’s been fantastic – 27 hits, 5 walks, 41 Ks. But what do the Royals need more – another dominant reliever, or a starting pitcher? Meanwhile, Chris Dwyer continues to start and continues to find bats. Just flip-flop them already.

When looking forward to 2014, the Royals have even more options. Kyle Zimmer has been, more or less, the best pitcher in the minor leagues over the past month; in his last six starts he’s thrown 37 innings, allowed 20 hits and six walks, and struck out 55. He made the jump from Wilmington to Northwest Arkansas, from an extreme pitchers’ park to a moderate hitters’ park, and hasn’t missed a beat, throwing 12 scoreless innings so far. His early season struggles were always a mystery; I loved him coming out of the draft, and his stuff was excellent even when he was getting beaten up in April and May. I think he could arrive by next May if not sooner. And while Yordano Ventura hasn’t dominated at Triple-A like he did in Double-A, he’s been reasonably effective and just needs to tighten up his command a little before he’s ready for his close-up.

So trading Santana would only modestly impact the Royals’ rotation the rest of this season, and the Royals are well-situated to put together a rotation next season with or without Santana. This should be an easy call.

It isn’t, because the Royals have different priorities than I do. I’m interested in postseason victories. They’re interested in moral victories.

The one saving grace is that if the Royals don’t trade Santana, they won’t be completely empty-handed when he departs this winter; they’ll get a draft pick after (presumably) making him a qualifying offer that he declines.

But if we can’t agree on the merits of trading Santana, I hope the Royals and I can agree that the other pitcher on their roster that’s attracting a lot of interest should be moved. I’m referring to (surprise!) Luke Hochevar.

In the never-ending battle between the Royals’ front office and the sabermetric community, the skirmish over Luke Hochevar may be the rare time that everyone wins. We were right that Hochevar would never be a successful starting pitcher, and that the Royals were making a mistake in bringing him back to be one. But the Royals mixed things up by conceding their mistake before the season began, moving him to the bullpen in late March, and he has been legitimately fantastic this season, with a 1.89 ERA in 38 innings. He’s allowed just 23 hits and 10 walks, and he’s even been better with men on base (.111/.184/.156) than with the bases empty (.205/.263/.398).

And a number of teams, most notably the Red Sox, Braves, and Dodgers, are interested. The market for relievers is as weak as the market for starters. The Baltimore Orioles just traded Nick Delmonico, a legitimate corner infield prospect who was hitting .243/.350/.469 as a 20-year-old in the Carolina League, for two months of Francisco Rodriguez. (Keith Law wrote that “Delmonico is probably a Top-200 prospect in the minors right now”.) Hochevar is a better pitcher than Rodriguez, he’s cheaper, and he’s under contract for one more year after this one.

And here’s the thing: even if the Royals want to win this year, trading Hochevar makes perfect sense. Everything I wrote about Greg Holland last time applies to Hochevar: relievers are fickle, and the Royals have more relievers than they have roster spots. As well as Hochevar is pitching, he’s still not near the top of the totem pole in Kansas City. It’s telling that Friday night, with the Royals holding on to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning, Ned Yost called upon Kelvin Herrera, newly returned from the minors. Only after the Royals scored three runs in the ninth did Yost turn to Hochevar to close out a 5-1 game. Yesterday, to protect a 1-0 lead with a man on first and one out in the eighth, Yost called on Louis Coleman.

Hochevar is in a rotation with Herrera and Aaron Crow and now Coleman for the role of right-handed set-up man. If they trade him, it just opens up a spot for Donnie Joseph, or for Will Smith to return, or – most sensibly of all – it means Wade Davis can fill his spot.

Wade Davis is one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball, and that’s not disputable unless you believe that “numbers” and “mathematics” are a conspiracy. Even after 7 shutout innings last night – with three walks, four Ks, and a litany of great defensive plays – he has the third-highest ERA in baseball (5.50) of anyone with 100+ innings. He has the highest batting average allowed (.316) and highest OBP allowed (.384) of any starter.

Yet last year, in his one season working as a reliever, he had a 2.43 ERA in 70 innings, allowing 48 hits and striking out 87. Basically, Wade Davis is proving the exact same thing that Luke Hochevar is proving this year, only in reverse: even the worst major league starters can be dominant relievers. Wade Davis is Luke Hochevar. Trade one of them away, move the other one to the bullpen, and give his spot in the rotation to someone – anyone – else.

If the Royals trade Hochevar, move Davis to the bullpen, and replace Davis with Duffy, they will have improved their rotation, broken even in the bullpen, and acquired a substantial loot of prospects in return. This seems to be a no-brainer.

And as a further bonus, the Royals don’t have to worry about some sort of psychological impact on the fan base. It’s quite possible that the Royals are afraid of sending a message to their fans that they’re not serious about winning over the last two months, which might cause attendance to plummet. I think those concerns are massively overblown, but I’ll concede that trading Ervin Santana might keep some fans away from Kauffman Stadium.

But given his tortured history in Kansas City, does anyone think that trading LUKE HOCHEVAR is going to make some Royals fan, somewhere, anywhere, say, “man, I was really planning to go to the ballpark today, but now that I know I won’t be seeing Luke Hochevar pitch, I don’t know if I can go through with it”?

Trading Luke Hochevar seems to me to be about as obvious a decision as any decision that the front office has been presented with since Dayton Moore was hired. That doesn’t mean they see it that way, although recent reports are that they are, in fact, giving this option some consideration.

Frankly, I see no contradiction between trading Hochevar on the one hand, and simultaneously being buyers at the deadline. Specifically, the Royals have one glaring need that towers above all others: they need a second baseman. They might already have a second baseman in Johnny Giavotella, but they might not, and the Royals have made it perfectly clear that they have no interest in finding out.

David Lough has patched the right field hole as well as can be expected – he actually leads all AL rookies in bWAR – and while I’m skeptical he can keep this up, between him and Jarrod Dyson the Royals have no urgency to make a move there. But Royals second basemen have hit a combined .227/.277/.307 this year, and their solution is to give us more Chris Getz, who is hitting .209/.280/.281. Replacing Getz with even a league-average second baseman might be worth two wins between now and the end of the year.

And with no second baseman coming through the system on the immediate horizon – thanks for nothing, Christian Colon – a second baseman who can fill the hole for beyond this season would be even better. As skeptical as I remain about relevance in 2013, I remain convinced – if not more convinced – that the Royals have an excellent shot at contention in 2014 if they play their cards right. The Tigers aren’t getting better, and – particularly if they can’t figure out what’s happened to Justin Verlander – they could be worse. The Twins have a stacked farm system – they’re almost where the Royals were two years ago – but realistically they’re not ready to contend next season. The White Sox are the early favorite for the #1 overall pick in 2015. And the Indians probably will tread water. I see no team that’s a good bet for more than 88-90 wins in 2014.

So if the Royals insist on being buyers, let’s identify some candidates who might actually help the team.

Rickie Weeks: Weeks was a fantastic offensive player from 2009 to 2011, when he hit .269/.357/.472 and averaged 30 homers per 162 games. After the 2011 season the Brewers signed him to a four-year contract, but he hasn’t been the same since: he hit .230/.328/.400 in 2012, and this year he’s hitting .218/.321/.370. The secondary skills are still there, but he’s hitting .220 instead of .270, which is a huge difference. Weeks is only 30, so he shouldn’t be in steep decline yet, but it’s hard to ignore a track record of nearly two years. He’s also a terrible defensive second baseman. While the Royals have such a good defense overall that they can overcome one iron glove, it doesn’t make much sense to compromise on defense to get a .220 hitter just because he walks and hits some homers.

Weeks is getting paid $10 million this year and $11 million next year, and he has a $11.5 million option for 2015 that vests if he bats 1200 times between this year and next; i.e. if he stays healthy. That’s a lot of coin for a bat-only second baseman whose bat may or may not be in decline. He wouldn’t cost a lot of prospects, and the Brewers may even be willing to eat some of his salary, but I’ll confess that my interest in him is significantly less than I thought it would be when I started this exercise. Interest level: low to moderate.

Gordon Beckham: This one’s more interesting. Beckham hit .270/.347/.460 as a 22-year-old rookie in 2009, just one year after he was drafted, and looked like a future star. It never happened. He was a third baseman as a rookie, and the White Sox moved him to second base the following year; perhaps it’s a coincidence, but he hasn’t really hit since. From 2010 to 2012 he batted .238/.303/.362.

Beckham’s 26 now, so he’s still theoretically got growth ahead of him. After missing two months with a broken hamate bone in his left hand, he’s hit .314/.339/.413 in 48 games this year. It’s probably not real improvement – it’s almost all batting average-related – but the combination of youth and his pedigree (he was the #8 overall pick in 2008) gives you pause. He’s under club control through 2015, and he’s making a shade under $3 million as a first-time arbitration-eligible player. The White Sox have finally accepted the need to rebuild, so he should be available. And while teams don’t like to trade in division, the fact that the Royals and White Sox are heading in opposite directions makes a deal viable – they can make a win-win trade if the Royals improve now and the White Sox get better in 2-3 years. And they’ve hooked up in the not-too-distant past, with the legendary Mark Teahen-for-Chris Getz deal. Interest level: moderate to high.

Howie Kendrick: If available, Kendrick would be perhaps the best second baseman available under control beyond this season. Kendrick is a line-drive machine with a career .293 average, and he’s hitting .301 this year, so even without a ton of walks he’s a valuable player. It does concern me a little that he suffers from the same lack of plate discipline that virtually everyone in the organization is afflicted with.

But Kendrick just turned 30 earlier this month, he’s under contract through 2015, and his salary, while high, isn’t outrageous ($8.75 million this year, $9.35 million next year, $9.5 million in 2015). The issues are that 1) it’s not clear the Angels are willing to sell; 2) if they are, he’s going to cost a lot of prospects; 3) it’s not clear that the Glass family would authorize that much of an increase in payroll.

Would I give up, say, Yordano Ventura and Kyle Smith for Kendrick? If the goal is to win now – and by “now” I mean “this year or next” – then yeah, I probably would. But I think that even if the Royals’ front office were willing to give up that much talent, either the Angels’ front office or the Royals’ ownership would turn the deal down. Interest level: high, but probably not high enough.

Dustin Ackley: I don’t think he’s available, but some of you have asked about him. Ackley was the #2 overall pick in the draft in 2009, arrived two years later to much fanfare, showed promise (.273/.348/.417) as a rookie, but has collapsed since, necessitating a trip to the minors this year, and he’s come back as an outfielder.

Holy crap, he’s Alex Gordon!

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but as Royals fans I think we’d be willing to bet on there being a correlation. Ackley hit .365/.472/.500 during his month-long exile in Tacoma, so there’s still something left in his bat. He’s still only 25. The Mariners have moved on at second base, as rookie Nick Franklin has locked up the position by batting .273/.338/.465. The Mariners presumably still have big plans for Ackley in their outfield – when Raul Ibanez and Mike Morse are playing two of your corners, you’re probably going to need replacements in the not-too-distant future – but I have no idea if their faith in him has wavered to the point where he’s available. Interest level: who knows, but I’d definitely ask about him.

Jose Altuve: Stop it, guys.

Look, I like the little 5’5” sparkplug as much as anyone. And I’d love to see him in a Royals uniform. But Altuve just signed a four-year extension with the Astros a month ago. As much as the Astros have committed to razing the franchise to the ground, it doesn’t strike me as a wise strategy to trade a player before the ink on his contract has dried, unless you’re trying to steal some of Jeffrey Loria’s reputation. Anyway, the Astros have pretty much burned everything down already; Altuve is one of the players they’re trying to build up over the ashes.

Besides which, Altuve is a good player; he’s not a great one. He’s a career .284/.325/.378 hitter, batting .279/.318/.359 this year. He’s an okay defender, he steals a few bases, and – this may be what excites many of you – he’s only 23 years old. The typical 23-year-old has tremendous growth potential.

The typical 23-year-old isn’t 5’5”, or more to the point, hasn’t hit just 13 homers in 300 major league games. There is a legitimate concern that players with very little power don’t develop offensively as well as other hitters, because if pitchers don’t respect their ability to drive the ball, they won’t fear throwing strikes to them and their OBPs won’t go up over time. Two good examples of this in 2013 are Elvis Andrus and Ruben Tejada. Both got to the majors at 20, which presages stardom, but both are having trouble even matching their performance from ages 21-22.

Altuve has a little more power than those two; he’s right at the line where I get worried. I’d love to have him, especially since he’s under contract for so long. But he’s as expensive as anyone on this list. Interest level: moderate to high, but not nearly high enough.

Danny Espinosa: Now this is interesting.

Last year, Danny Espinosa hit 37 doubles, 17 homers, and stole 20 bases for the first-place Washington Nationals. This year, it’s been even more of a nightmare for him than for them. He hit an atrocious .158/.193/.272 for the Nationals, got demoted to Triple-A, and he’s only hitting .203/.268/.297 there. Meanwhile, former #6 overall pick Anthony Rendon has taken over the second base job in Washington.

There’s no sugarcoating how awful Espinosa has been this year. But I’m not sure you can find a second baseman who was as good as he was a year ago (and two years ago) who would be easier to acquire than him. Espinosa is an unconventional hitter for a second baseman – lots of power, led the NL with 189 Ks last year – but prior to this year the overall package added up to a solid-average everyday player. He’s a good enough defender at second base to have started 34 games at shortstop last year. If you trade for him, he’s very unlikely to help you in 2013, but you’ve got two months to work your magic with him this season, in the hopes that he could be your starting second baseman in 2014, when he turns 27. Interest level: moderate. He’s a gamble, and I’d want my scouts’ input on him even more than usual, but if you think you can fix him, you just might be able to get him cheap.

Chase Utley: Right this very moment, there isn’t a better second baseman on the trade market. If Utley were on the trade market, which he isn’t. Ruben Amaro won’t trade him, and in fact wants to re-sign him, and in fact he might re-sign him. And he’s a free agent at the end of the season, so even if by some miracle you could trade for him, you’d have to go out and find a new second baseman for 2014. And if he is available, you’re going to have to out-bid a lot other teams for his services. Interest level: purely theoretical.

Michael Young: Oh God, I guess I have to list him, don’t I? Young is sort of a more talented Jeff Francoeur – a good baseball player who gets treated like God’s Gift To Baseball by some in the chattering classes, thanks to a winning personality, his defensive versatility, and a lifetime .300 average, which hides his modest secondary skills, the fact that his numbers were all put up in a great hitters’ park in Texas, and the fact that his glove has been a liability at all those positions he’s versatile in playing.

Young is 36 now, and in Philadelphia, and he’s hitting .278/.344/.404 while playing bad defense at third base. It seems like a stretch that he could come to KC and play a quality second base and hit. The Rangers are apparently interested in re-acquiring him, God bless them, and they’re welcome to have him. Interest level: as low as possible.

Daniel Murphy: On the surface, there’s a lot to like about Murphy. He’s a lifetime .290/.335/.426 hitter, he’s 28 years old, he’s under control through 2015. But I have a bad vibe about him.

For one, he’s not really a second baseman. He played exclusively left field as a rookie in 2009, then expanded his horizons to play first base in 2009. In 2011 he returned to the majors and shocked everyone by hitting .320 while adding third base and second base to his resume, and has settled in as the every day second baseman the last two years – but not surprisingly, the numbers say he’s not very good at the whole fielding thing. Throw in the fact that he’s playing in the NL, and that his offense is so dependent on his batting average, and I worry that he’ll come to KC, he’ll hit .260, and now you’ve got a .260 hitter at second base with not much pop, no walks, and bad defense. That’s not really an upgrade. He should be available, but I wouldn’t want to pay the price. Interest level: low to moderate.

Darwin Barney: He’s on the Cubs, so you know he’s available. Baseball Info Solutions rated Barney’s defense last year as 28 runs above average, and if he’s a legitimate +28 defender, he’s worth playing no matter how bad his stick is. The problem is, his stick is probably that bad, and his glove probably isn’t that good. He’s at +6 this year, and I’m comfortable saying he’s an excellent defensive second baseman. But he’s a career .253/.296/.346 hitter in the NL. He’s a better version of Chris Getz. Call me greedy, but I’d like to set my sights higher than that. Interest level: low.

Luis Valbuena: He’s on the Cubs, so you know he’s available. He’s played primarily third base for the Cubs the last two years, but has actually played more games at second base in his career than any other position. He’s only 27, and early this season looked like he had really figured some things out at the plate; he was hitting .264/.372/.464 at the end of May.

Since then, he’s hitting .194/.302/.317. He’s at .227/.335/.386 for the season. Those secondary skills are great, but he’s a lifetime .225 hitter, and that’s a tough sell even with some walks and pop. He’s basically a poor man’s version of Rickie Weeks, and I’m having enough trouble getting excited about the original. Interest level: low.

Marco Scutaro: He can hit – since joining the Giants just under a year ago, Scutaro has hit .332/.376/.425 in 148 games. And the Giants are starting to acknowledge that it’s not going to be there year.

But Scutaro is 37 years old. And in the first season of a 3-year, $20 million contract. I’d be willing to take him, but given his age and his price, I wouldn’t be willing to surrender much in the way of prospects in return. Interest level: moderate.

Robinson Cano: Made you look.

Kolten Wong: A man can dream.

Wong was the Cardinals’ first-round pick two years ago, #22 overall, out of the University of Hawaii. He was young for a college junior, just 20 years old, and hit .335/.401/.510 in the Midwest League after signing. He then skipped a level and hit .287/.348/.405 in Double-A last year, and is hitting .298/.357/.463 in Triple-A this year. He’s still only 22 years old. He’s a lefty bat, he’s ranked in BA’s Top 100 each of the last two years, and only figures to move up the list next year. He’s even 15-for-16 in steal attempts this year. And seeing as how the Cardinals’ current second baseman, Matt Carpenter, is hitting .325/.400/.499 and might be the best second baseman in the NL right now, Wong just might be available.

Available is one thing. Attainable is another. Wong would be a perfect fit for the Royals’ lineup, a high-average, low-strikeout hitter with a little juice in his bat and good defense; he’s basically the player the Royals hoped Johnny Giavotella would be. The problem is, how do you get him?

And this might be where you thread the needle, and simultaneous buy and sell. The Cardinals are trying to fend off the Pirates and Reds to win the NL Central, and need players that can help them now. Ervin Santana would be a good fit here; they’re one starter short of a great rotation. They don’t have an acute need for a reliever, but someone of Hochevar’s talents – to say nothing of Holland’s – would still be an upgrade.

Ideally, Santana for Wong would represent the skeleton of a trade that benefits both sides. Wong could step into the Royals’ lineup immediately, easing the sting of losing Santana and signaling to fans that the Royals aren’t giving up on the season. Failing that, could this be a situation where the Royals package Hochevar with lesser prospects in order to obtain Wong? Or just trade two or three prospects for Wong straight up?

Given that Wong is himself a prospect, the Royals wouldn’t be mortgaging their future if they packaged, say, Orlando Calixte and Miguel Almonte for Wong. This isn’t a future-for-present trade so much as a redistribution of prospect talent to better suit the needs of the team. The Royals need a second baseman; the Cardinals don’t. The Cardinals don’t really need anything, but if they do have a hole, it’s at shortstop, and with Alcides Escobar signed long-term, the Royals can afford to part with Calixte. (The issue of whether Escobar is ever going to hit again can be saved for another day.)

It’s not an ideal solution, and it’s certainly not a conventional one. The best answer to the Royals’ short-term needs at second base is a 22-year-old who has yet to make his major-league debut? And yet when you consider the alternatives, there just isn’t anyone out there who’s a lock to be an above-average second baseman, who’s under contract for at least one more season, and who is worth the price it would take to get him.

If Howie Kendrick is available and affordable, by all means, go after him. If your scouts are convinced that Rickie Weeks can bounce back or that Gordon Beckham’s improvement this year is for real, I’d be comfortable with them. If you can convince the Mariners to part with Dustin Ackley cheaply, more power to you. If the best you can do is to buy low on Danny Espinosa and try to rebuild him in the minors, that’s still better than nothing.

But the one player who ought to be available and who has the talent to justify paying a significant price for is the guy who’s still in Triple-A. If the Royals want to be buyers at the deadline without jeopardizing their future, they should trade for the one guy who’s most certain to be a part of their future. Kolten Wong is that guy. I’d like to see him in Kansas City soon.

If they can get him for Ervin Santana, and hold on to their own prospects, even better. But I suspect that ship has sailed. As long as the ship coming into port has Wong on it, I won’t cry too much for the missed opportunity.