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December 11, 2012

Overthinking It

The Royals, the Rays, and the Problem with Windows

by Ben Lindbergh

Note: If you've already listened to today's episode of Effectively Wild, some of this may sound familiar.

If you think about it, the Royals and Rays, the two teams that completed a massive prospects-for-pitchers trade on Sunday, are a lot alike. Both teams are among the have-nots of the American League, competing with payrolls in the mid-60-millions (last season). Neither one draws well—in the Royals’ case, because of all the losing and because Kansas City is small, and in the Rays’ case, because of all the past losing, the newness of the franchise, and the ugliness and location of the ballpark, where it’s almost impossible to catch a foul ball without some painful and/or embarrassing consequence. To compensate for the lack of revenue, both teams try to draft, develop, and extend homegrown players as an alternative to paying for wins from free agents, and both have had among the finest farm systems in baseball for the past few seasons.

There are, obviously, as many things that separate the Royals and Rays as there are things that tie them together, from the perception that the Rays are more stat-savvy to the way the word “process” is capitalized by people who write about the Royals to the Royals’ affection for Jeff Francoeur, which isn’t unrelated to the Rays’ lead in perceived stat-savviness. But in the areas that don’t change, or change very slowly—the ones that have more to do with institutional factors like market size than with which regime is running the team at any particular time—the Royals are the Rays without the recent success.

And that’s why it’s so fascinating that it was these two teams making this trade, instead of, say, a club out of contention shedding salary and restocking for the future. Both of these teams are attempting, if not quite expecting, to make the playoffs in 2013, and neither is at the end of its success cycle (if success cycles still exist in a multi-wild-card world). You’d think the Rays, who’ve overcome similar obstacles and a long run of losing, would be the model for the perpetual also-ran Royals. But while this trade is about the Royals returning to the playoffs, which would in one sense make them more like the Rays, it’s also about the Royals either giving up or dramatically reducing their long-term chance to be like Tampa Bay.

Thanks to recent research into prospect value and the expected return on draft picks and the greater availability of minor-league stats and scouting info, it’s possible to weigh the expected value of Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard—only one of whom has made his major-league debut—against the expected values of James Shields and Wade Davis over the next two and five seasons, respectively, and declare a winner that way. On our podcast last month, Sam Miller and I speculated that it’s precisely that unprecedented ability to assign values to unproven players which is prompting teams to consider top prospects potential trade chips instead of off-limits assets. Once you can quantify what a prospect is worth, you know what another team would have to give up to get him. Then you can break your prospect piggy bank and treat your young players like any others: available for the right price. Analyze this trade in terms of expected value, and the Rays come out ahead, which partly explains why much of the baseball internet has come down on Andrew Friedman’s side.

On the surface, the Royals side of this swap looks bold and ambitious. What could be bolder than trading baseball’s top prospect, or more ambitious than trying to send Kansas City to the postseason for the first time since Davis was in diapers? But as much risk as the Royals are incurring, they’re really playing it safe, increasing the odds of immediate gratification (if any gratification long-suffering Royals fans feel can be described as “immediate”) at the potential expense of sustainable success. This trade makes them more likely to reach the playoffs next season and possibly in 2014, too, depending on how quickly Myers comes into his own, but it seemingly lowers their ceiling in 2015 and beyond, even with Davis signed through 2017. The Royals won the prospect lotto, but instead of opting for the annual annuity that could have kept them in contention as regularly as the Rays, they chose to receive the lump sum and splurge. Even when they aimed high, they set their sights low.

What the Myers trade seems to suggest is that the Royals are counting on their competitive window to close, while the Rays, having finally jimmied their own window open and propped it there for the past five seasons, are expecting it to stay that way. “We are short-stacked relative to our director competitors,” Friedman said in September. “So I think that motivates and challenges all of us.” From the outside, it seems as if the Royals were intimidated, not motivated, by the burden of balling on a budget. Maybe David Glass wouldn’t pony up for Anibal Sanchez (and for what it’s worth, signing free-agent starters isn’t part of the Rays’ playbook), and maybe Dayton Moore knows that the non-Salvador Perez part of the core won’t sign extensions, dooming the current incarnation of the Royals to a relatively short shelf life as a competitive team. Regardless of those conditions, though, it looks like the Royals have imposed some limitations on their own success, despite having already demonstrated a knack for keeping their pre-arb pipeline flowing. 

There’s nothing wrong, in the abstract, with using surplus parts to strengthen areas in need of an upgrade. Few teams go from fifth place to first solely by promoting prospects: one of the benefits of cultivating a strong system is the ability to leverage minor leaguers to put the last big-league pieces in place. The Royals haven’t shown the Rays’ talent for developing pitching, and they play in a more winnable division. Plus, as Jason Parks pointed out yesterday, it’s not as if the package the Rays received totally depleted the rich Royals’ system. And maybe Myers isn’t worth what his public prospect rankings would suggest, which seems plausible if, as Jeff Passan reported, the A’s really turned down a straight-up swap of Myers for the fragile left arm of Brett Anderson.

But whatever Myers is, he wouldn’t have been redundant on the Royals’ roster. Moore might not agree that Francoeur was last season’s least valuable player, but he’d probably agree that Myers is likely to be both cheaper and more productive than Francoeur by the end of 2013, when Frenchy will be a free agent. (If the best minor leaguer isn’t at least as good as the worst major leaguer, then there’s something wrong with replacement level.) The Royals’ roster is skewed toward position players, but as Sam pointed out on the podcast today, a run scored is roughly as valuable as a run saved, and the boost from [insert Royals rotation candidate here] to Shields might not be much bigger than the one from Francoeur to Myers, especially after this season.

Despite that, there is, I think, one way for the Royals to come out ahead here, though it’s not as simple as earning a single playoff appearance, as some have suggested. One playoff appearance with Shields could come at the expense of multiple playoff appearances with Myers, and as cathartic for Kansas City as that first trip back to October would be, Royals fans aren’t quite so starved for success that they’d all prefer one cookie now to two cookies in 10 minutes. To win this trade, the Royals have to beat the Rays at their own game.

In November of 2007, the Rays were on the edge of contention, though not everyone knew it: their regular-season record (like the 2012 Royals’) didn’t suggest a team about to take the next step. Those Rays, like the current Royals, had hitters: what they needed was pitching and defense. And so they dealt from a position of strength to address a weakness, trading Delmon Young and Brendan Harris (and Jason Pridie) to the Twins for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett (and Eduardo Morlan). Young, like Myers, had been the top prospect in baseball as a projected right fielder, and he’d finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting that season. Also like Myers, he’d just turned 22.

Kevin Goldstein, arguing for the Twins’ side of the trade the next day, took the position that Delmon was the best player in the deal and would make the Rays regret trading him. Joe Sheehan, taking Tampa Bay’s side, wrote this:

With this deal, the Rays have shifted from collecting talent to forming it into a baseball team, and this trade shows how seriously they take the process. Trading a player with the perceived value of Young is never easy, but with it they've leveraged a gap between that perceived value and what he actually is to make their team better.

It’s hard to see the same flaws in Myers that were evident in Young even then, though as R.J. Anderson pointed out recently, it’s somewhat worrisome that Myers is one of the only prospects of his caliber to be traded before ever taking the field for the team that drafted him. What we know is that the Royals now are at the same stage those recently renamed Rays were in late 2007: trying to turn a pile of prospect talent into a winning team at the major-league level. Whether this trade helps them accomplish that goal depends on whether Myers has a Delmon-sized “gap between that perceived value and what he actually is.” If Myers is the next Young—consensus top prospect turned replacement-level player—then the Royals will have out-Raysed the Rays, trading a flawed young player at the peak of his value, when his potential still seemed likely to pan out. Otherwise, by fixating on a brief target for contention, they may have failed to follow the Rays’ blueprint for small-market success. 

Thanks to Sam Miller for any podcast content retraced here.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

47 comments have been left for this article.

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