In their second major acquisition in the last three days, the Royals have picked up switch-hitting–multi-position star Ben Zobrist from the Athletics for a pair of minor-league pitchers, 25-year-old righthander Aaron Brooks and 23-year-old lefty Sean Manaea. With Zobrist joining former Reds ace Johnny Cueto—who was acquired on Sunday and will make his Royals debut in Toronto on Friday night—on the team's roster, Kansas City has seemingly completed its season-long transition from scrappy underdogs to the team to beat in the American League.
Expected to regress this season in the wake of ace James Shields’s departure as a free agent, the Royals have instead become the AL's big dog in the yard. Kansas City hasn’t trailed in its division by more than a single game all season, and entering Tuesday’s action, the Royals boast the largest divisional lead in the majors, leading the second-place Twins by eight games and sporting the third-best run differential in baseball (+75). They’ve done all of that on the strength of breakout seasons by 2014 postseason stars Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, as well as a notable comeback by new designated hitter Kendrys Morales, and the same combination of elite fielding and relief pitching that powered their success last year. To that, they have now added a true ace in Cueto, a superior pitcher to Shields, and Zobrist, whose abilities are a perfect match for the Royals' needs in the lineup as well as their overall style of play.
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How good a match is Zobrist for this team? Consider the career lines of these two players:
Player A: .264/.354/.430, 117 OPS+ (4,749 PA), 103 SB, 37.4 bWAR
Player B: .269/.349/.436, 113 OPS+ (4,708 PA), 80 SB, 31.5 bWAR
One of them is Alex Gordon. The other is Zobrist.
Zobrist (Player A) could find himself filling in for Gordon (Player B) to begin his Royals career, as Gordon is currently out until September due to a Grade 2-plus groin strain. But the ultimate destination for Zobrist, a second baseman who can play both outfield corners and spot at shortstop, is likely the keystone, where veteran Omar Infante has thus far posted the worst OPS+ (53) for a qualified hitter this season, dropping his value below replacement level despite his fine work in the field.
Curiously, the typically slick-fielding Zobrist appears to have declined defensively this season. Zobrist, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in late April, turned 34 on the day he returned from the disabled list in late May, and the advanced metrics have been down on his fielding ever since. It’s very possible that Zobrist has simply lost a step: After stealing ten or more bases in each of the last six seasons, he has attempted just two steals all season and been safe just once. Still, the improvement he represents at the plate relative to Infante will more than compensate for any shortcomings in the field. Since returning from his surgery, Zobrist has hit .276/.367/.459 in 215 plate appearances, while Infante has hit a mere .230/.244/.316 on the season.
Of course, the Royals are setting the bar for Zobrist far higher than Infante’s dismal performance. Both he and Cueto were acquired to deliver the Royals the championship they just missed winning last year. Anything short of that will be a failure, as both will be free agents in November and both cost the Royals notable pitching prospects.
In Zobrist’s case, that prospect is Manaea. Drafted out of Indiana State University with the 34th overall pick in the 2013 draft, Manaea is a 6'5" lefty whom both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked as the Royals’ third-best prospect coming into this season; both BA and BP included him among their top 100 prospects as well. A starting pitcher who throws in the low-to-mid 90s with a good slider and changeup, Manaea has struck out 10.9 men per nine innings in his first 32 minor-league starts over the past two seasons and projects as a mid-rotation starter. Unfortunately, he has a reputation for physical fragility (hip surgery was behind his drop in the '13 draft), which was not helped by the fact that abdominal and groin strains prevented him from appearing in a proper minor-league game before late June this season. Manaea made his Double A debut just last week, but did not impress in his first two starts. Still, there’s front-end upside there.
The same can’t be said for Brooks, a ninth-round pick out of Cal State–San Bernardino in 2011 who is more of a back-end fill-in starter. Brooks is a classic command-and-control type who has appeared in four major league games over the last two years but was lit up in his only big-league start thus far, that coming in May of last year.
Together, Cueto and Zobrist have cost the Royals five young pitchers, with 22-year-old lefty Brandon Finnegan (the team’s top pick in last year’s draft), 25-year-old lefty John Lamb (a former top-20 prospect who is finally knocking at the major league door after June 2011 Tommy John surgery) and 22-year-old lefty Cody Reed (the team’s second-round pick from '13) as the cost for Cueto. Both Finnegan and Manaea were also among the team’s top three prospects prior to this season per BA’s list (and top four per BP’s list).
This, of course, is the luxury of having an outstanding farm system. The Royals may not have the money to re-sign Zobrist or Cueto, but they have the prospects to put them in Royal blue for the most important part of the season, and despite the sheer quantity of talented young arms dealt for those two players, Kansas City didn’t gut its farm system to acquire them. The Royals still have Miguel Almonte, another top-100 preseason prospect, working his way toward the major league rotation (he was promoted to Triple A last Monday), where he could join 26-year-old Danny Duffy and 24-year-old Yordano Ventura. They also still have that eight-game lead in their division; the Royals are not gambling on winning a one-game playoff like last year, but instead have a clear path to a deep run in October with Cueto and Zobrist playing key roles.
The A’s, meanwhile, add Manaea to 20-year-old Casey Meisner, the 6'7" righty acquired from the Mets for Tyler Clippard, both of whom can be traced back to the trade that brought Zobrist and Yunel Escobar (briefly) to Oakland from the Rays (Escobar was quickly flipped to the Nationals for Clippard). In effect, then, the A’s traded John Jaso, shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson and minor league centerfielder Boog Powell for Manaea and Meisner. Marcus Semien (at the major league level through the excellent Jeff Samardzija trade) and Franklin Barreto (acquired in the Josh Donaldson trade and hitting well in A ball) are giving the organization depth at shortstop, so trading Robertson and a pair of fungible pieces for two pitching prospects makes sense.
Adding those two to catching prospect Jacob Nottingham and righty Daniel Mengden, acquired from the Astros in the Scott Kazmir deal, upgrades Oakland's farm system significantly. That restocking should continue next June, when the A’s will likely have one of the top five picks in the draft, given their current 44–56 record, which is tied with the Red Sox for fourth-worst in baseball. As for how long it will be before Oakland sees any movement at the major league level as a result of that restocking, the A’s are likely looking at a minimum three-year plan at this stage, with Sonny Gray’s final year of team control in 2019 representing the event horizon for the organization from this perspective.