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.