Mocked at time, Royals' trade for Shields now looks like a master move
There are at least two sides to every trade, but if you believed the reactions when Kansas City acquired James Shields and Wade Davis two years ago, there was only one: The Royals were fools. The Rays stole prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi. The Royals gave up way too much for pitchers who wouldn't be around when the team won.
There is a word to describe that reaction, and that word is: Oops.
Shields gets the ball for Game 1 of the World Series in Kansas City, which makes that trade an unqualified success for the Royals. If general manager Dayton Moore hadn't made that deal, the Royals would not even have made the playoffs this year. Now go back two years. It would be hard to find another trade in baseball history that was as reviled at the moment it happened. Part of that is the current era — we revile things a lot faster than we once did. It really is impressive. At this moment, somebody already hates this column, and I've barely started.
Still, Moore's trade was especially loathed. Rob Neyer, a Bill James disciple, tweeted, "My quick take: This is the worst trade in MLB history unless Wade Davis becomes a good starter, in which case it's only the second worst." Neyer was exaggerating for effect, of course, but he then wrote a column about what a bad deal this was. ESPN's Keith Law tweeted that he talked to scouts and front-office executives: "Every last one of them said the Rays came out way ahead."
Jim Bowden of ESPN tweeted: "Let's not sugar coat this deal...Rays win it with a first-round knockout. No need to debate or discuss this one." Writer Rany Jazayerli, who might be the Royals' most prominent fan, wrote, "This sucks" and left it at that. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron: "This is why the last time the Royals won 90 games, Ken Griffey Jr. was a rookie."
I'm not picking on those guys; they are smart baseball analysts, and anybody can be wrong about a trade. Besides, Law's sources are not fake. The question is, why were so many people so wrong?
I think there are two big reasons. You see these same two mistakes all the time when we analyze the sports world.
1. Context was lost
We tend to break down trades from a pure, player-for-player perspective: Who switched teams? In this case, the Royals gave up one of the best prospects in baseball, Myers, for a more expensive pitcher, Shields. They gave up six seasons of Myers, half of it at a low-cost, for two of Shields. The inclusions of Davis and Odorizzi titled the reaction even more toward Tampa Bay, but primarily, the Myers-for-Shields swap is what generated the reaction.
In a vacuum, the reaction made sense. But there are so many other factors at play. The Royals' farm system was loaded with hitting, but thin on starting pitching. Moore's job is not to win trades or get rave reviews from Baseball America. He needs to win games, and you need starting pitchers to do that. Shields also provides value to the Royals that goes beyond his numbers; he has shown the Royals what it takes to be a successful pitcher. Numbers-crunchers can dismiss that, but employees who set a great example for younger employees are important in any profession.
Moore recognized that he had a better chance of building a contending team in 2014 if he made the deal. Timing is essential to small-market clubs. The Yankees and Red Sox can buy new players every year. The Royals cannot. Moore couldn't just let his young team grow into an 82-win group; he needed to make them as good as possible when their window opened. He did that by acquiring two pitchers he really liked. It was just hard to believe at the time because ...
2. We are skeptical of those who have failed, and overly forgiving of those who have won
You saw this last year when the Cleveland Browns traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick, and everybody ripped the Browns because they are the Browns and always lose, and assumed the Colts made a good deal because they are the Colts and usually win. For what it's worth, I did it myself when the Detroit Pistons signed free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva after an incredibly successful run. I believed Pistons general manager Joe Dumars knew what he was doing, because he always had; those mistakes helped cost him his job.
The Rays, we believed, always make smart deals for young talent. The Royals, we believed, always squander chances. Moore had to fight the perception that was created for many years before he showed up. But look at what has happened. The Rays called up Myers last year in their usual way — after keeping him in the minors long enough to delay his arbitration clock, so he will remain cheap for as long as possible. When he arrived in Tampa, Myers won the American League Rookie of the Year award. The Royals missed the 2013 playoffs. The Royals Are Stupid crowd looked very good.
Then came this season. Myers only played 87 games because of a wrist injury, but he hit terribly before the injury, and his season numbers were awful: .222/.294/.320. Myers has basically played a bit more than one full major-league season, and his career numbers are nothing special for a corner outfielder: .259/.324/.400. His defensive metrics indicate he is a below-average outfielder.
Of course, Myers is young, and he could still become a terrific player. But would you bet on it now? Myers turns 24 in December. Bryce Harper is two years younger. Mike Trout is younger. Eric Hosmer, the Kansas City first baseman who seems like a veteran at this point, is only a year older than Myers. So it's not like Myers is some 20-year-old prodigy who is learning his way.
Myers has more major-league strikeouts (181) than hits. He struck out almost once per game in the minor leagues, too. He should be a solid major-league hitter for a long time, but solid hitters who play poor defense in rightfield are not exactly prized commodities in the major leagues. Myers needs to become a star to make the Royals look really dumb, and at the least, there are real doubts about that. Many other similarly touted players have struggled in the majors: Corey Patterson, Hee-Seop Choi, Cameron Maybin, Delmon Young, Desmond Jennings ... the list goes on.
Many of those players have something in common: They swing and miss too much. So does Myers. Maybe the Royals knew what they were trading better than anybody else did. A year before Moore dealt him, Myers hit .254 at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, with eight home runs in 416 plate appearances. He was still considered a sure future major-league player — Baseball America rated him the No. 28 prospect in the big leagues that offseason. But he was not a surefire star. Myers rebounded in 2012, rose to No. 4 in the prospect rankings, and Moore sold high.
Obviously, if Shields had blown out his arm last year, the trade would have failed. It was never a guarantee to work. But it made more sense at the time than people wanted to admit. The next time Moore makes a big deal, I bet you people will assume it's a good one. After all, don't you remember his brilliant trade for James Shields?