As they've done 16 other times in the past 18 seasons, the Royals finished below .500 in 2012. Despite an impressive core of young talent in their lineup, they bellyflopped to a 3-14 start and skidded to a 2-9 finish, and even while going 67-67 in between, no amount of selective endpoint shenanigans can disguise such disappointment. In the AL Central, the weakest division in terms of both winning percentage (.468) and run differential (-251), they were supposed to have an outside shot of contending, but instead they finished 16 games behind the Tigers, and 70 runs in the red, with the league's fourth-worst record and run differential.
Kansas City's biggest problem was its starting pitching, which ranked 11th in the 14-team American League with a ghastly 5.01 ERA and 13th in terms of both quality start rate (43 percent) and innings pitched (890). The Royals' starters rarely gave the team a chance to win, and only two made at least a dozen starts with an ERA below 5.00. With the pressure to show results at the big league level mounting, general manager Dayton Moore is considering trading top prospect Wil Myers, a 21-year-old outfielder (22 on December 10) who mashed 37 homers this year, for a frontline pitcher. According to numerous reports, talks have focused on Boston's Jon Lester and Tampa Bay's James Shields, but other teams such as the Diamondbacks, Mariners and A's, all deep in starting pitching, have checked in as well. While either of those hurlers — or any one of several dozen others, given the shape of the KC starting five — would be a marked improvement, the Royals should avoid the temptation to cash in the blue chip in question.
Myers is coming off a banner year in which he won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year honors. In his fourth professional season, he batted .314/.387/.600 split between the Royals' Double-A Northwest Arkansas affiliate (35 games, 13 homers, .343/.414/.731) and their Triple-A Omaha one (99 games, 24 homers .304/.378/.554). Those numbers are all the more impressive when one considers that he was the second-youngest regular in the Pacific Coast League, where he compiled the latter line. His power was unprecedented in the context of his short career; the 14 homers he hit at two A-ball stops in 2010 were his previous career high, and he had just eight in 99 games at Northwest Arkansas in 2011.
Prior to this year, Myers' development had been slowed by a few factors. 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 despite shaky work behind the plate; a 32 percent caught stealing rate attested to his arm strength, but as his player comment in Baseball Prospectus 2011 noted, "he's a downright poor receiver who was charged with 20 passed balls in 75 games behind the plate, and the number would have been higher had not some kind official scorers taken pity on him." Kansas City moved Myers to the outfield in 2011, but he missed around a month due to a laceration on his knee that became infected. His numbers sagged to .254/.353/.393, and his approach at the plate was questioned. As Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks wrote in February, "Myers has good pitch-recognition skills and can track a ball from release to glove better than a lot of major leaguers, but the best hitters also know when to attack; Myers can be a bit passive in that regard."
The Royals moved Myers around the diamond in 2012. He played 18 games in rightfield and added 87 games in center and 15 at third base. With the highly-touted Mike Moustakas in his first full season with manning the hot corner in Kansas City, the latter shift raised some eyebrows, and hinted that Myers' future may not lie in Kansas City; he may have been showcased at third for the benefit of other teams. If they keep him, Myers' home in the Royals' lineup would be in rightfield, where he'd supplant Jeff Francoeur, who drastically regressed in 2012 (.235/.287/.378) after a career-best performance in 2011 (.285/.329/.476). Myers would join a young nucleus that includes 27-year-old DH Billy Butler (.313/.373/.510, 29 homers), 29-year-old leftfielder Alex Gordon (.294/.368/.455, 51 doubles and 14 homers), 23-year-old catcher Salvador Perez (.301/.328/.471 with 11 homers in about half a season), 26-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar (.293/.331/.390 with 35 steals), the 24-year-old Moustakas (a somewhat disappointing .242/.296/.412 with 20 homers) and 23-year-old first baseman Eric Hosmer (a dismal .232/.304/.359 with 14 homers after a strong rookie campaign in 2011).
That's a lineup full of former blue-chip prospects, though as you can see from last year's statistics, not all of them have played up to the potential scouts and other talent evaluators once saw in them, and even the ones that finally have, such as Butler and Gordon, took years before fully flowering. Despite all of that talent, the Royals scored only 4.17 runs per game, the league's third-lowest rate; they ranked fourth in batting average (.265), eighth in on-base percentage (.317), and 10th in slugging percentage (.400), but the whole was less than the sum of the parts thanks in part to the league's worst walk rate (6.6 percent).
Still, one can squint and surmise that if things break right and the young players improve a bit with age, Kansas City should be able to challenge in a division where only the 88-win Tigers and the 85-win White Sox finished above .500. The Royals could do so even without Myers — if they have the pitching. To get that pitching, the thinking goes, they would need to trade Myers for a frontline starter, a Lester or Shields who could slot in ahead of Guthrie, Bruce Chen, Ervin Santana, Luis Mendoza and whoever else (perhaps rookie Jake Odorizzi, a prospect obtained from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke deal), knowing that the high-quality bullpen that Moore has assembled from among a slew of young arms (Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, Kelvim Herrera, Tim Collins) has the back end secured.
It takes a lot more squinting to believe that rotation can compete in a division where the Tigers have Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister as their front three (to say nothing of an upgraded lineup with Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter), and the White Sox have Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and a potentially healthier John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Santana, whom the Royals acquired from the Angels, was rocked for an MLB-high 2.0 homers per nine en route to a 5.16 ERA in pitcher-friendly Anaheim; he has a career 4.33 ERA overall. Guthrie, prior to a 14-start stretch with a 3.16 ERA for the Royals, was bombed for a 6.35 ERA with the Rockies; he has a career 4.28 ERA while striking out just 5.4 per nine. Chen put up a 5.07 ERA and has a career 4.60 mark. Mendoza, despite a relatively respectable 4.23 ERA, was still worse than league average last year and struck out just 5.6 per nine.
That's not a unit that's a Jon Lester away from winning the division, particularly not with Lester getting hit for a 4.82 ERA with the Red Sox himself. The 29-year-old lefty did make 33 starts and threw 205 1/3 innings, but his 1.1 homers per nine was his worst mark since his abbreviated 2007 season, and significantly above his prior mark of 0.8. His 7.3 strikeouts per nine represented his lowest mark since 2008 and his third straight season of decline, down from 10.0 in 2009, 9.7 in 2010 and 8.5 in 2011. Granted, he was hurt by a 23-point spike on his batting average on balls in play (from .287 in 2011 to .314 last year) but those are ominous trends that make one wonder about the health of his arm. On a deal that pays $24.6 million over the next two seasons (including a 2013 club option), he's more risk than rotation rescuer.
Shields has fewer health question marks around him. The 31-year-old righty is coming off a 3.52 ERA in a 227 2/3 inning season in which he struck out 8.8 per nine, and he'll make just $21 million over the next two seasons including a club option. Even so, he's been more heavily used than Lester, averaging 222 frames a year since 2007, and he's been working in Tampa Bay's pitcher-friendly environment, where his career ERA at home (3.33) is more than a run lower than that on the road (4.54). Granted, less exposure to the other hitters' havens in the AL East and more in the friendlier confines of the AL Central would lower that split, but it's not going to turn him into David Price, who has a career 3.16 ERA (and now a Cy Young award) to Shields' 3.89. A true ace such as Price could give Kansas City a pitcher to match Verlander and Sale, but even then, the Royals' rotation would be the worst of that trio of teams, and Price isn't going anywhere.
Moore is considering trading Myers because after six full seasons on the job, his skill at drafting and developing hasn't come close to yielding a winner. The problem isn't just in his particular tastes for veteran placeholders such as Francoeur and Chen, it's in the limited payrolls he has to work with under penny-pinching owner David Glass; last year, the team's $64.4 million ranked 25th (still ahead of contending teams such as the Rays, A's and Pirates) and the year before that it was dead last at $39.5 million. With the additions of Santana ($13 million, with the Angels paying just $1 million of that) and Guhtrie ($5 million in the first year of a three-year, $25 million deal), Kansas City has $51.7 million in commitments for 10 players for 2013, and neither of their two arbitration-eligible ones, Luke Hochevar or Chris Volstad, are worth tendering contracts to given their track records.
Glass, a former Wal-Mart CEO who ranks among the game's wealthiest owners, should be willing to spend significantly more on payroll if he wants to build a winner with the current collection of talent. In that light, the Royals would be better off keeping Myers, who should provide six years of relatively cheap middle-of-the-order production, and wooing Greinke back, even if it takes a top-of-the-market $25 million a year deal. Perhaps they could sign Anibal Sanchez and Ryan Dempster for something closer to the same price instead; while that wouldn't add up to an ace, it should provide roughly 400 innings worth of above-average work, and if the breaks go right, a Myers-augmented stronger lineup could find itself in the thick of things come summertime, at which point Glass might loosen the purse strings for another upgrade.
As the Diamondbacks have shown with regards to Justin Upton, teams sometimes float the possibility of trading talented young players without actually pulling the trigger. Myers isn't Upton, a player who has fallen short of even higher expectations but has at least proven some level of major league value beyond a doubt. There's a value to the uncertainty of the young Royal before he's exposed to major league pitching for too long, because his stock could drop as he goes through the growing pains of most 22-year-old major leaguers; does anybody hold former Yankees top prospect Jesus Montero in as high esteem after a rough rookie season with the Mariners in which he hit just .260/.298/.386 and was below average behind the plate? Myers isn't Montero, in part because the Royals already wisely steered him away from the catching track and he still retains defensive value, but as the Montero-for-Michael Pineda trade proves, even when exploiting the kind of informational asymmetry that comes with knowing one's own prospects, those trades don't necessarily pan out as intended.