Small moves, Kansas City Royals

From water coolers to major newspapers, all the Royals chatter in the earliest part of the young club’s offseason focuses on the need to acquire a front-line starting pitcher. Indeed, the Royals gave a combined 27 starts to Kyle Davies, Sean O’Sullivan, and Vin Mazzaro, which is approximately 27 starts too many.

Though the trio’s Fangraphs wins above replacement figure includes a handful of (also terrible) relief outings, it’s worth noting that Davies, O’Sullivan, and Mazzaro combined to record a 0.0 WAR on the year.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Royals do, in fact, need to upgrade that radioactive spot in the rotation. Speculation has centered on, among others, the Rays’ James Shields, the Cubs’ Matt Garza, and the Giants’ Matt Cain. Each would represent an improvement, and each would come at varying costs in terms of dollars and prospects.

And the Royals should pursue none of them.

There are two angles to the analysis here. The first is about the 2012 Royals. There are very few benefits to giving 27 starts to the likes of Davies, O’Sullivan, and Mazzaro, but one is that fixing just a single roster spot can have a substantial impact. Getting 200 innings from even a mediocre starter would be worth about two wins, and those guys can be found relatively cheaply. Is it worth paying a substantial premium in dollars and prospects for a marginal win or two on top of that? I say no.

Further, there are no guarantees that spinning off pieces of a still-rich farm system would make for better results on the field in 2012. As fickle as starting pitching is on a year-to-year basis, the Royals may well get comparable performance from internal candidates as they would from Shields.

Sure, Aaron Crow hasn’t started in the majors, and Mike Montgomery hasn’t advanced as quickly as expected. But for as good as Shields has been this season—and he’s been excellent—it’s worth noting that he’ll be 30 when next season starts and is coming off a 2.0 win year. Does that scream “trade Wil Myers for me?” I say no.

There is also a more fundamental reason why it is not a good idea for the Royals to make a bold move for a starting pitcher. While the Royals likely have significant payroll flexibility at the moment, they will never be among baseball’s highest spenders. This young team will get more expensive, and it is unfortunate but likely that the Royals will one day lose at least one, and likely more, of their core players due to financial concerns.

When that happens, it is vital that blue-chip prospects are ready to refresh the major league roster. The Royals’ goal should not be competing in 2012 and 2013, but competing in 2012 and 2013 and 2014 and 2015 and 2016, and on and on. Sustainable success is the holy grail of baseball operations, and attaining it requires patience.

Yes, the Royals are much closer to contention than their 71-91 record suggests. They were outscored by just 32 runs, and the club got only partial seasons from several key contributors. The AL Central is soft, and there are immediate gains to be had by upgrading just a single roster spot. But with as much cost, as little certainty, and as many alternatives as there are to trading for a front-line starting pitcher, I’d advocate that here, as just about always, the Royals’ gaze must be firmly fixed on the future.

It will not be popular for Dayton Moore to eschew glamorous options like Shields or Cain or whatever other premium players may become available. Trading lesser prospects for a Chad Billingsley or a Derek Lowe will not win local applause. Seeing if Houston or Boston would punt the contracts of Wandy Rodriguez or John Lackey will not put the Royals on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview next spring.

But it’s taken the Royals two painful decades to approach any level of organizational competence, and the cost of a couple marginal wins in 2012 is simply too high.

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  1. aweb said...

    The most challenging part for the management is to come up with a reasonable estimate of how good the team is. The entire OF had career years, some young players were solid, others struggled. Outscored by 32 runs suggests a 75 win or so base, but was that lucky or unlucky? Do you wait until you almost make it before pushing for a few marginal wins? How close is close enough?

    The two-three marginal wins could mean a shot at the playoffs next year. You should trade prospects (aside from the very top guys) for a shot at that. When teams stockpile young talent, it’s exactly so they can do this, since there is never room for everyone at the majors. There’s something to be said for selling high on prospects.

  2. Scott McKinney said...

    aweb, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that this team’s true talent level is such that an addition of 2-3 net wins would put them in contention.

    Perhaps trade prospects when you’re close to contention.  This team isn’t close.  They aren’t awful.  But they aren’t close to contention.  The true talent level of this team isn’t even at the .500 winning percentage level.

  3. Dan K said...

    I saw we should not go after a big time SP (and certainly not anything below that level).  Right now I see 4 starters on next years rotation in Hochevar, Paulino, Duffy and Chen (if we bring him back).  I have no problem with any of them.  Furthermore, we still have Crow, Mendoza and Teaford who could be our 5th starter next year and we have Montgomery and Lamb waiting for a shot in the minors.  Our team is young and exciting and part of that excitement is the depth we have in the minor leagues so if, lets say Giavotella or Melky do not perform satisfactorily next year, we have Colon and Cain that we should definitely look at (although Colon might be a few years away). I say we go with what we have and plug in pieces internally.  And if we are in contention by next years All-star break, than lets think about acquisitions at that time.

  4. kcemigre said...

    “Selling high” is a great idea, aweb, but we can’t do that with our prospects right now, because none of them are at a particularly “high” value at the moment.  No one but Hosmer had an especially good year in 2011.  (You aren’t suggesting we trade Hosmer, are you?)

    Myers and Montgomery both underperformed expectations.  Lamb was shut down to have elbow surgery, and although Odorizzi is beginning to look awful good, he has yet to reach AA ball. 

    Trading anyone in the minors right now would actually be “selling low.”

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