The Kansas City Royals have decided that getting front-line starting pitching now is more important than holding on to top prospects for the future.
All right, Royals' fans are now getting what they've not so quietly be screaming for the last couple of years. The team's latest move, securing two starting pitchers from the Tampa Bay Rays ensures that Kansas City's starting rotation next season will have an all-new look for the first time in what has seemed like forever.
Just 24 hours ago, we were informed that the Royals payroll had only about $3 million left under the budget figure that owner David Glass was comfortable operating under in the 2013 season. That certainly was not reassuring news that the franchise was willing or would be able to do anything transformative with Kansas City's desperate need for starting pitching, which no one should have to be reminded was the worst in Major League Baseball in 2012.
General Manager Dayton Moore had earlier acquired starter Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels and resigned free-agent southpaw Jeremy Guthrie to a new three-year deal. Santana, a former American League All-Star, had a 16-win season with the Angels in 2006 and won 17 games in 2008, but tailed off significantly in 2012. At 29 years of age (he'll be 30 on Wednesday this week) Santana's still believed to have some upside, which is what the Royals are betting on after agreeing to pick up $12 million of his salary from the Angels.
Guthrie, a 33-year-old left-hander who was acquired by the Royals in July last season, was the Royals' best starter down the stretch, finishing the year at 5-3 with a respectable earned-run average of 3.16.
The offseason moves with Santana and Guthrie sent a positive signal that the Royals' management was indeed serious about addressing the team's most critical need, but even then, both pitchers are probably no better than third or fourth starters in most major-league rotations.
That brings us to Sunday's six-man bombshell trade, in which the Royals agreed to send Will Meyers, their most prized minor-league prospect, and three other minor leaguers, including starting pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery, to Tampa Bay for veteran starter James Shields and Wade Davis. This not only is the Royals biggest personnel move under GM Moore since the 2010 trade with Milwaukee for Zack Greinke, but also one that presents a huge gamble.
By acquiring Shields, a right-hander who was 15-12 for the Rays this past season with a 3.52 ERA, the Royals have their first bona-fide staff ace since the departure of Greinke. In the 27-year-old Davis, Kansas City will have another young pitcher who has had success both as a major-league starter (64 starts with the Rays between 2009-11) and working in relief. He was 3-0 in 2012 with a 2.43 ERA in 70 1/3 innings.
The Royals have been steadfast about holding on to their top minor-league prospects, as well as their young position players, such as first-baseman Eric Hosmer, third-baseman Mike Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez, already on the big league team. The pitching needs were so deep, though, that it became fairly obvious the only value the Royals could offer another team in order to get a proven front-line pitcher, which is something KC needed not just one but several of, was to offer one or more of their rising young players, either from the minor leagues or from the parent club.
In order to close this deal, Kansas City ended up letting go of the top prospect in its minor league system in Meyers, its best pitching prospect out of the farm system in Odorizzi and Montgomery, once considered the top pitching prospect in the Royals organization but who has fallen on some difficult times the past two seasons.
Kansas City also will send the Rays minor-league third baseman Patrick Leonard, a fifth-round draft pick in the 2011 draft. Leonard played a short-season Burlington (North Carolina).
The Royals have essentially said with this multiplayer transaction that they're willing to gamble quite a bit on their future growth plans and take on additional payroll in order to win now. This is something that has been out of character for this team since the days under Ewing Kaufman's ownership.
This trade has sparked talk all over the Major League Baseball world, assessing the transaction from the Royals' perspective as either a bold, aggressive act of genius or one that will pay off for the short term but will leave the team just as desperate and in decline again three years from now. Given the level of future star power the Rays are receiving from the Royals, there is a fairly strong belief that the Rays are getting the best of this trade. But, of course, that remains to be seen.
"When you can acquire a pitcher like James Shields and Wade Davis, we have to do it," Moore said, "because that's what we've committed to our team...we've committed to our organization. It's important that we start winning games."
The Royals have not had a winning season since 2003 and have not made the playoffs since winning their only World Series championship in 1985, the longest drought currently for any team in Major League Baseball.
While a good number of Royals' fans locally expressed praise and optimism that the Royals were bold enough to make this trade, not all of the local supporters were enamored with the move. One Royals fan tweeted: "Absolutely hate it. Top 2 guys for a 32 yr old ‘good' starter. Terrible move." Another wrote, "When did Moore start taking advice from (Scott) Pioli (Chiefs' general manager)?"
The Royals have now completely overhauled their starting rotation for 2013, adding three new starters (three right-handers to go with southpaw holdover Guthrie). The Probable rotation for next season will be Shields as the opening-day starter, followed in the order by Guthrie, Santana and Davis. The real battle will be for the No, 5 spot in the rotation, which at this point would appear to be between Bruce Chen or possibly Luis Mendoza.
Comparing the projected first four starters in Kansas City's 2013 rotation with the top four starters this past season, the four-man rotation of Shields, Guthrie, Santana and Davis had a combined ERA of 3.57 in 2012, almost a full run less that last year's Royals' starters.
Anyway you look at it, chances are good that last season's No. 1 starter, former first-round draft choice Luke Hochevar, will not be wearing a Royals uniform in 2013. Hochevar was 8-16 in 2012 with a 5.07 ERA, and is 38-59 for his major-league career, all with the Royals, hardly good credentials for a supposed staff ace.
"If you're going to win consistently in the major leagues," Moore said, "you have to have a rotation that gives you innings, competes, gives you a chance to win. And that's what our goal is: to put together a very good rotation, and we fell like we've been able to do that."
That's what Kansas City Royals' fans are hoping - er, expecting - as well.
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