For the past few weeks, the Royals have explored the trade market for top prospect Wil Myers, a 21-year-old outfielder who won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year honors in 2012. Rather than slot Myers into their lineup in rightfield as planned in 2013, general manager Dayton Moore decided he provided the team's best chance to upgrade a rotation that ranked 11th in the league with a 5.01 ERA and 13th in innings (890) and quality start rate (43 percent), with an eye towards contending in a perennially weak AL Central division. On Sunday night, Moore pulled the trigger on a six-player deal, sending Myers and three other prospects to Tampa Bay in exchange for starters James Shields and Wade Davis.
While the trade isn't a complete mismatch in terms of assets exchanged, it represents a fundamental misreading of the Royals' current station. Coming off a 72-90 campaign, their 17th losing season in the past 18 years, they simply weren't a front-of-the-rotation starter away from contention even when one factors in the other improvements they've made this winter, or the ones they can expect from a nucleus of young talent that itself serves as a reminder that success isn't 100 percent guaranteed for Myers. Instead, the move expresses Moore's desperation for positive results at the major league level. While he has shown a knack for drafting and developing talent that can light up prospect lists, his inability to build a competent and competitive team — which hasn't been helped by tight-fisted owner David Glass — has resulted in a .431 winning percentage during his six full seasons on the job, the majors' second-worst record.
On the other side of the table, the Rays used their bountiful pitching depth to take advantage of Moore's plight. While replacing Shields' 200-plus innings of high-quality work is hardly trivial, the trade allows executive VP of baseball operations (read: general manager) Andrew Friedman to put the finishing touches on a retooled outfield that lost B.J. Upton to free agency, while at the same time providing another rotation candidate in the form of Jake Odorizzi, a 22-year-old righty acquired from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke deal who made two starts for Kansas City after a strong year split between Double-A and Triple-A. With the money saved from Shields' contract, the budget-minded Rays can spend to upgrade at first base (the recently-signed James Loney is replacement level dreck) and DH.
Shields, who turns 31 this month, is a durable starter who misses bats but falls short of being a true ace. He has averaged 222 innings a year over the past six seasons, fifth in the majors behind CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez. Even so, his 3.80 ERA during that span, compiled while pitching half his games in pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field, isn't in the same league as the other four, all of whom have ERAs between 3.06 and 3.34 during that span. Among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings in that six-year period, Shields' 108 ERA+ is just 22nd out of 37. His 2012 campaign was representative of his established performance level: a 3.52 ERA (108 ERA+) in 227 2/3 innings (third in the league) with 8.8 strikeouts per nine (seventh) and a 3.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio (sixth). After adjusting for ballpark and defense, that performance was worth only 2.2 Wins Above Replacement, using Baseball-Reference.com's version. He's signed for $10.25 million for 2013, with a club option of at least $12 million for 2014, a relative bargain given the going rate for such workhorses; escalator clauses have bumped up his 2013 salary from $9 million (as initially reported here) and are expected to boost his 2014 salary as well.
The Rays missed the playoffs in 2012 with Shields as their number two starter behind AL Cy Young winner David Price, and ahead of Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore. That's part of the folly of envisioning the Royals as contenders, as Dayton Moore's offseason work thus far has left his revamped rotation with Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie as his second and third starters, with Davis (whom the Rays didn't even have room for in their 2012 rotation) and holdover Bruce Chen rounding out the starting five.
Santana, who turns 30 on Wednesday was torched for a 5.16 ERA in pitcher-friendly Anaheim last year, and his 4.33 career mark compiled since 2005 washes out to a 97 ERA+, three percent worse than league average; the Royals took on $12 million of his $13 million salary in acquiring him via trade. Guthrie, 33, split his season between Colorado (6.35 ERA) and KC (3.16 ERA). His overall 4.76 mark was his worst since 2009, while his career mark of 4.28 is just three percent better than league average; he just signed a three-year deal worth $25 million. The 27-year-old Davis' career 3.94 ERA, complied via two full seasons and a cup of coffee in the rotation plus a year of short relief, is two percent worse than league average; he's guaranteed $7.6 million over the next two years, with three club options totaling $25 million for the three years after that, so if he can stick in the rotation and eat innings, he's a reasonable bargain. Chen, 36, was lit for a 5.07 ERA last year and has a career 4.60 mark, six percent below league average; he'll make $4.5 million in 2013. Also in the picture — for no good reason at all — is Luke Hochevar, the 2006 overall number one pick who delivered a 5.73 ERA last year, and is at 5.39 for his career (22 percent worse than league average); rather than nontender him, the Royals will pay him at least $4 million out of a payroll that may not exceed $70 million.
That's not a rotation that can win a weak division, not with the Tigers bringing Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister to the table as well as a Miguel Cabrera/Prince Fielder-driven lineup that's been upgraded by the arrival of Torii Hunter and the return of Victor Martinez. Not with the White Sox fronted by Chris Sale and Jake Peavy, however volatile they and other key players — Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, Gavin Floyd, for example — have proven to be in recent years. Even with a nucleus that includes DH Billy Butler, first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas and left fielder Alex Gordon, catcher Salvador Perez and shortstop Alcides Escobar, Kansas City ranked 12th in the league in scoring at 4.17 runs per game in 2012, and while the Royals can reasonably hope for improvement from Hosmer (who hit dismal .232/.304/.359) and Moustakas (.242/.296/.412), they can just as reasonably expect falloff from Perez (.301/.328/.471) and Escobar (.293/.331/.390), who exceeded expectations offensively. Barring another move, K.C. must now also contend with Jeff Francouer as its starting rightfielder, coming off a .235/.287/.378 season, instead of Myers.
Myers is no guarantee for stardom, but he does have a reasonable chance at attaining it. Drafted out of a North Carolina high school as a catcher, he reached No. 10 on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list prior to the 2011 season, but poor receiving skills led the Royals to move him to the outfield, and he lost a month due to a knee laceration that became infected. He dropped to 28th on BA's list for 2012 but enjoyed a breakout, hitting .314/.387/.600 with 37 homers split between Double-A (35 games, 13 homers, .343/.414/.731) and Triple-A Omaha (99 games, 24 homers .304/.378/.554), with the latter portion compiled as the second-youngest regular in the Pacific Coast League. One concern is that he won't be able to maintain that impressive but unprecedented burst of power. As Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks wrote:
"[A] Jurickson Profar or Dylan Bundy he is not… Myers doesn’t project to be a superstar, at least as far as I’m concerned. Again, highly skilled and one hell of a prospect, but the offensive tools aren’t so crazy that Myers was considered untouchable or a slam-dunk MVP candidate at the highest level. A realistic projection might peg him as a first-division talent or perhaps as an All-Star in his peak years. The tools aren’t so loud or the holes not so small, however, that Myers will develop into the next Mike Trout or hit the ball so hard and so often that he can cure incurable diseases with his offensive stroke.
The Rays, who won 90 games — their lowest total since 2009 — but missed the playoffs in 2012, may well start Myers in the minors in 2013 so as to game his service clock and get an extra year of club control. Once he does arrive, he'll slot into rightfield alongside Desmond Jennings in center (sliding over from left with the loss of Upton) and Matt Joyce in left, with superutilityman Ben Zobrist and Brandon Guyer likely to contribute as well. Minus Shields, their rotation now shapes up with the 27-year-old Price, the 23-year-old Moore (who entered his rookie season ranked second on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list between Bryce Harper and Mike Trout but disappointed slightly with a 3.81 ERA), and the 25-year-old Hellickson (the 2011 Rookie of the Year, coming off a 3.10 ERA), with 29-year-old Jeff Niemann (a former first-round pick limited to eight starts in 2012 due to a broken leg and a rotator cuff strain), 25-year-old Alex Cobb, 24-year-old Chris Archer (who put up a 3.60 ERA while striking out 9.8 per nine at Triple-A Durham) and Odorizzi (who delivered a 3.03 ERA while striking out 8.4 per nine in 145 1/3 innings across two levels) battling for the back two slots. Both Archer (89th) and Odorizzi (68th) came into last year as top 100 prospects, and neither pitched his way off those lists. That's a rotation (and a lineup) that should be able to compete in the AL East, where the Yankees and Red Sox remain works in progress and both the Orioles and Blue Jays still have to demonstrate staying power.
The Rays also obtained two other players in the trade, pitcher Mike Montgomery and third baseman Patrick Leonard. Montgomery is a 23-year-old lefty who was a supplemental first-round pick in 2008. He came into the year ranked 23rd on BA's list and number one in the Royals' system, but was rocked for a 6.07 ERA while yielding 1.4 homers per nine at Double-A and Triple-A, his second straight year of struggling due to mechanical woes that have compromised his command. Leonard is a 2011 fifth-round pick, a 20-year-old third baseman who hit .251/.340/.494 with 14 homers in 268 PA for the Royals' Rookie league stop in Burlington, North Carolina. He didn't rank among the Royals' top 30 prospects coming into the year and is a longshot to be an impact player; the Rays are set at the hot corner with Evan Longoria signed through 2022 anyway. Even with the trade, the Royals still have a system stocked with premium minor league talent, with the next four prospects below Myers on BP's recently released top 10 list grading out as first-division regulars or better. Some of those players are years away, however, and Moore, who rightly fears for his job, couldn't afford to wait. While undeniably bold, the bet here is that his misguided gamble won't pay off.