Friday, August 16, 2013

Bad Trade. Good Season.

So I wrote about the Royals for Grantland today; you should probably start there.

I hate to keep referring everything back to the Myers/Shields trade, but I’ve found it’s almost impossible to move on from it, because it shapes everything about how you perceive this season. And I find it personally hard to stop talking about what a mistake the trade was when so many people continue to insist that it wasn’t. Here’s Vahe Gregorian’s column in the Kansas City Star less than two weeks ago: “Even if Myers goes on to the preposterously prosperous career he appears to have before him, and even if the other promising prospects the Royals surrendered in the momentous move ultimately succeed, the deal was a must.”

Um, okay. I guess we’re going to have to disagree on that one.

What I’ve found is that it’s so difficult to talk about the 2013 Royals without talking about The Trade because the trade is seen as a referendum on the season, and by extension Dayton Moore. If the Royals are playing well, how can you say the trade was a mistake? And if the trade wasn’t a mistake, then how can you bag on Moore?

I had a feeling this might be a problem even before the season, when I 1) savaged the trade and 2) predicted the Royals would go 86-76 this year. Well, right now Wil Myers is hitting .326/.379/.525, and the Royals (I write this between games of the doubleheader) are on pace to go 85-77. They’re playing exactly as well as I thought they would, Myers is playing even better than expected…but because being on pace to win 85 games puts them on the fringes of a playoff race, and because we’re Royals fans who haven’t been on the fringes of a playoff race in a decade, many people want to say the deal is justified.

I don’t want to get into all that again – read the other piece. I just want to make one point: it is possible to hate, hate, HATE the trade, and still acknowledge that the Royals are having a good season. It’s possible to think that Dayton Moore made a terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE mistake, and still acknowledge the good work he’s done this season.

Look, general managers – good general managers – make bad mistakes all the time. As I’ve mentioned before, prior to the 2006 season Jon Daniels traded Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young (the pitcher) to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. Otsuka pitched just 92 innings (albeit with a 2.25 ERA) for the Rangers before his career ended, and Eaton made just 13 starts with a 5.12 ERA in his one season in Texas before leaving as a free agent.

Meanwhile, Chris Young made 97 starts in San Diego with a 3.60 ERA over parts of five seasons – and he was a throw-in compared to Gonzalez, who was 23 at the time of the trade, immediately stepped into the Padres lineup and hit .304/.362/.500 in his first season. In his time in San Diego, Gonzalez averaged .288/.374/.514 – in perhaps the toughest hitters park in baseball – and missed 11 games in five years. He made three All-Star teams, got MVP votes in four out of five seasons, and then was traded for Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly, and Reymond Fuentes. Rizzo was traded to the Cubs for Andrew Cashner; the Padres are still cashing in on the original trade.

As well as Myers as played, it’s still not particularly likely that the Rays will get more value from their side of the trade as the Padres did in theirs. And the Royals have already gotten more value from Shields than the Rangers got from Eaton and Otsuka combined. That was a terrible trade.

And you know what? Jon Daniels is one of the best GMs in baseball. The Rangers have won two AL pennants since he was hired. It took them three years to get over .500 after that trade, but since 2009 they’ve won 87, 90, 96, and 93 games, and are on pace for 94 this year.

Speaking of bad decisions, it’s hard to come up with one worse than the Nationals made last year when they decided to shut down Stephen Strasburg, and deliberately gave up their #1 starter for the playoffs. I wrote at the time about what a terribly misguided decision this was, and quietly, most of the other 29 baseball teams agreed. More than that – other teams were quietly rooting for the Nationals to fail. While Moore may have been guilty of desperation, Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo was thought to be guilty of hubris, in thinking both that the Nationals could win without Strasburg and that the Nationals would be back in the playoffs soon enough.

Well, the Nationals lost in the NLDS in excruciating fashion, in the ninth inning of the deciding game 5. No one knows if they would have won with Strasburg, but given the narrow margin of defeat, it’s easy to argue that having the services of one of their best players might have tipped the scales in their favor. And as for being back in the playoffs…the Nationals, who were most pundits’ pick as the best team in the majors before the season, are 59-61 and 14.5 games behind the Braves. Baseball Prospectus puts their playoff odds at 1.7%.

Shutting down Strasburg may haunt the Nationals for years to come. But does that make Mike Rizzo a terrible GM? Well, he did put together the team with the best record in baseball last year. If you want to make the case that he’s overrated, you’d be best to focus on the record of his team this year, and not on a specific decision he’s made.

And that’s the point I want to make about Dayton Moore. I think he made a terrible decision last December, one that may haunt the Royals for years to come. It may not, if they find a way into the playoffs this year, and the final outcome of this trade is far from being written. But it is possible to separate how you feel about the trade from how you feel about this team, or the GM who made the trade. If there’s a case to be made that Moore deserves to be fired, it’s not based on that trade specifically – it’s based on the fact that he’s been on the job seven years, and at the All-Star Break this season it looked like the Royals were on their way to finishing under .500 yet again.

They no longer look that way, thanks to the best baseball this franchise has played in at least 20 years. I came right up to the line of calling for Moore to be fired, and was planning to cross that line had the Royals continued to struggle going into the trade deadline without Moore selling his best assets. But they started to win, and made the decision not to sell – which was a terrible decision to make on July 18th – a perfectly reasonable one on July 31st. I’m not arguing that he deserves a contract extension, but I think the Royals have made enough progress this year to keep the firing squad away.

And if they continue to make progress next year, he’ll continue to warrant keeping his job. The Myers trade makes this eventuality considerably less likely. But that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the progress that this year’s team has made.

I would like to be able to enjoy the Royals’ unlikely success without having people tell me that it somehow justifies the Myers trade. I would like to be able to criticize the Myers trade without being told that I want the Royals to lose, or that I am not really a fan of the team. I would like people to realize that they can concede the trade was a mistake without having to call for Moore to be fired, because they can.

One trade does not a GM make. It was a bad trade. It’s been a good season. There’s no contradiction between those two statements.