MLB trade deadline: Will Chris Sale be on the move?
1:08 | MLB
MLB trade deadline: Will Chris Sale be on the move?
Thursday July 28th, 2016

At best, the five-year, $70 million deal the Royals gave Ian Kennedy back in January looked like a risky move from the outset given years of recent underperformance, the presence of an opt-out after 2017 and the cost of a first-round pick. At worst, it appeared to be one of the winter's biggest clunkers, even. Instead, the 31-year-old righty has arguably been Kansas City's best starter—and that's a problem. Via a report from Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, the slumping team is trying to pair Kennedy with closer Wade Davis in a trade. As the Aug. 1 trade deadline approaches, could the defending champions actually become sellers?

A few weeks ago, it would have seemed unimaginable. As of June 1, Kansas City was 30–22 and up two games in the AL Central, and while an eight-game losing streak quickly knocked the Royals back to .500, they were 43–37 as of July 2, six games back in the division race but tied for the top wild-card spot. Since then, they're tied for the league's worst record (6–14) with the Rays and Rangers and have been outscored by an AL-high 41 runs. At 49–51, they're running fourth in the AL Central, 8 1/2 back, and they're 6 1/2 back in the wild-card race; their -50 run differential, meanwhile, is the league's fourth worst. Via the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, Kansas City has an estimated 1.6% chance at the postseason, lower than the chances of the Yankees (10.5%) and White Sox (6.3%), two teams that have signaled that they're selling—the former by trading Aroldis Chapman, the latter by marketing the recently-acquired James Shields.

It would be a shocking turn of events, but not a whole lot has gone right for the Royals thus far. Their lineup has been hard-bitten by both injuries and underperformance and currently ranks second-to-last in the league in scoring at 3.95 runs per game. A May 22 collision between third baseman Mike Moustakas and leftfielder Alex Gordon knocked the former out for the season with a torn ACL and the latter out for five weeks with a right wrist sprain; he's hitting just .209/.315/.345 for a 75 OPS+. Centerfielder Lorenzo Cain has been out since June 28 due to a left hamstring strain; he made his first rehab appearance on Wednesday night. Second baseman Omar Infante (.239/.279/.321, 59 OPS+) was designated for assignment despite being owed about $14 million through next season. Shortstop Alcides Escobar (.258/.286/.314, 58 OPS+) has batted either first or second in 85 of the team's 100 games because manager Ned Yost believes in unicorns. Only three regulars are carrying an OPS+ above 100: First baseman Eric Hosmer (107), catcher Salvador Perez (103) and third base replacement Cheslor Cuthbert (104), though Cain (98), rightfielder Paulo Orlando (99) and designated hitter Kendrys Morales (96) aren't that far off. Still, that's just the lineup.

Kennedy, who couldn't keep the ball in Petco Park (1.7 home runs per nine last year, 1.2 in three seasons as a Padre), has yielded 26 homers, tied for the AL lead; that's a rate of 2.0 per nine. His 4.41 ERA (101 ERA+) is actually the best of the three starters who have been in the rotation all season, but his 5.34 FIP suggests things can get much worse, and his 35% quality-start rate is the fourth-lowest of any AL pitcher with at least 15 starts. Edinson Volquez, though he has a slightly higher ERA (4.56, for a 98 ERA+) has actually been much better than Kennedy in terms of FIP (4.11) and quality start rate (57%). Yordano Ventura (4.99 ERA, 4.73 FIP) continues to underperform while drawing more attention for his immaturity than his stuff. Chris Young, one of last year's feel-good stories, is tied with Kennedy in homers allowed—in just 67 1/3 innings, a rate of 3.5 per nine. He failed to pitch five innings in nine of his 13 starts before mercifully being sent to the bullpen in early July. Neither Dillon Gee (6.43 ERA in six starts) nor Kris Medlen (7.77 ERA in six starts) have stopped the bleeding when called upon, but Danny Duffy does have a 3.27 ERA and 57% quality start rate in 14 turns after beginning the year in the bullpen.

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All told, the rotation's 4.98 ERA ranks second-to-last in the league, worse even than the Orioles (4.94), and both that group's 1.6 homers per nine and 5.00 FIP are dead last. The bullpen's 3.39 ERA ranks third, but while Davis and Kelvin Herrera are both carrying ERAs below 2.00 (1.60 and 1.58, respectively), their other high-leverage relievers—Luke Hochevar (3.86 with 1.4 home runs allowed per nine) and Joakim Soria (4.19 with 1.5 per nine)—have both been homer-prone.

A closer look at the 30-year-old Davis shows that he's taken a significant step back after two amazing, dominant seasons that featured a combined 0.97 ERA and 1.72 FIP in 139 1/3 innings. While he hasn't allowed a homer this year (and just one extra-base hit in 135 plate appearances), his 4.0 walks per nine is a career high—worse than his days as a struggling starter—and his 9.6 strikeout-per-nine rate is well off of last year's 10.4 and 2014's 13.6. Via Brooks Baseball, his average fastball velocity is down 1.2 mph from last year (96.2 to 95.3), and via FanGraphs, his out-of-zone swing rate has dipped slightly (from 29.6% to 28.2%), though his ground-ball rate has spiked (from 38.4% to a career-high 49.4%). He may be pitching to contact more—his 4.05 pitches per plate appearance is well off his 4.26 from 2014–15—but he's been less effective overall.

Davis is making $8 million this year, with a $10 million club option and $2.5 million buyout for next year that will almost certainly be picked up if he's healthy. No doubt he could bring back a very good haul via trade; with the extra year of control, his return could exceed what the Yankees received for Chapman—if general manager Dayton Moore doesn't insist upon trying to foist the remaining $65.2 million of Kennedy's deal on a buyer. No reliever is worth that price, particularly handcuffed to a hurler whose 4.28 ERA (87 ERA+), 4.28 FIP and 1.4 home-run-per-nine rate over the past 3 1/2 seasons is fifth-starter territory. Given that the Padres agreed to pay around $30.8 million of the $57.8 million remaining on Shields's deal—which contains an opt-out after this year—when they sent him to the White Sox, it figures that the Royals would have to absorb about half of Kennedy's remaining cash to make his inclusion in such a trade even worth considering.

The Royals are in rough shape now, but their roster is structured such that their competitive window runs through 2017, after which Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Duffy, Davis and fourth outfielder Jarrod Dyson will become free agents. All but Duffy, who has yet to make more than 24 starts a year, and Dyson could be priced out of the Royals' range barring significant hometown discounts. Volquez would be a free agent after 2017 as well, but only if he winds up exercising his end of a $10 million mutual option for next year—a foolish move given the dearth of quality starting pitching on the free-agent market. Back in May, I surmised that he'll receive the winter's top pitching contract, something upwards of the five-year, $90 million deal that Jeff Samardzija received from the Giants this past winter.

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If the Royals concede that this isn't their year, they could position Volquez as the market's best available starter based upon his stronger recent track record than the Athletics' Rich Hill (who made just four starts in 2014–15), the Twins' Ervin Santana or the Padres' Andrew Cashner. Davis would be the best remaining reliever thanks to his option, and Hochevar, who has a $7 million mutual option for next year, would be an appealing target, too. (Update: Hochevar was placed on the disabled list on Thursday with symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome.) Morales, who has an $11 million mutual option, won't bring back much given this year's struggles (.249/.316/.435) and lack of a defensive position.

In a seller’s market, dealing those players now could give the Royals more flexibility to plan for next year and beyond, bringing back prospects who could help to extend their window directly, fortify a farm system that’s been hit hard by graduations and trades in recent years, or be flipped this winter for more ready pieces. Dealing Cain and/or Duffy (or even Hosmer)—all of whom are under full control next year—would bring back a veritable windfall given the market’s lack of impact players.

All of that would radically change the face of a Royals squad that has changed the direction of baseball in Kansas City and that only nine months ago was the toast of the industry. But no competitive core lasts forever, and no team wins for very long by remaining in place. We’ll soon see if Moore has the will to move toward building the next winning edition of the Royals.

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