The Royals couldn’t have had much worse a weekend. The Indians stole the first game of the four-game set played between the primary contestants (for the moment) in the fight for the AL Central, scoring once in the eighth and once in the ninth to walk off with a 5-4 win against a Wade Davis-less Kansas City bullpen. Then, from Friday on, Cleveland made a much more forceful statement, completing the sweep by outscoring the defending champs 20-2 in three more games. The Royals woke up Monday morning in Baltimore more or less where they’ve been for the last few weeks: sitting in second place, among a cluster of four deeply flawed teams vying for the AL Central title. The only things that have changed over those few weeks are the identity of the team they’re chasing (the Indians’ rise has coincided with the White Sox’s fall), the quality of their competition (Michael Fulmer has established himself in the Tigers’ rotation, and perhaps stabilized it in the process, and the Sox just traded for James Shields to fortify their staff), and the length of their injury report.
That last one—Mike Moustakas hitting the DL for the rest of the season with a torn ACL—has me wondering a little bit. It’s too early to have this conversation, because right now, the Royals remain above .500, and in this American League landscape, even a team sitting squarely at .500 would have a fair chance to reach the playoffs. It’s not too early to have the conversation about having the conversation, though, so let’s have that once-removed conversation: If the next few weeks go one direction instead of the other, should the Royals explore trading one or both of Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer?
Here’s the case for it: Both guys are only under the Royals’ control through 2017. Cain will cost them $11 million next season, under the terms of the two-year deal he signed this winter. Hosmer is making $8.25 million this year, and could well make more than Cain via arbitration this winter. Then he hits free agency, where he has arguably put himself in the Chris Davis class of first basemen—and out of the Royals’ range as buyers. Both are having very good seasons, the kinds of seasons that made them key cogs on back-to-back AL champion teams, but there are a few vital things to note about that:
1. There is no way either of those teams should have won the AL pennant. It was wild and a delight to watch. The 2014 AL Wild Card Game and the team’s comeback in Houston during the ALDS last season will live forever in so many memories, as will the entirety of both World Series. They earned it, and they deserve it. That doesn’t change the fact that, barring some means of evaluating baseball talent that is so far beyond our comprehension that we can’t even comprehend our lack of comprehension, those Royals teams were inferior to the 2014 A’s, 2015 Astros, 2015 Blue Jays, and others.
2. Those teams had Moustakas. The 2014 version had James Shields. The 2015 version had Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto and Ryan Madson. They both had a healthy and thriving Alex Gordon. This team, which has added little of value to the roster, is unlikely to have any of those things even by the end of the season, especially because the farm system was somewhat wrecked by last year’s acquisitions, and so wouldn’t be able to command the same amount of help via trade. There are also far more questions about this team’s defense and starting pitching than there were about those ones, even if some of the names have stayed the same. Other than the back of their bullpen, it’s not clear that the Royals have exceptional strengths on which to lean, to offset their somewhat glaring weaknesses.
3. Good seasons this year don’t guarantee good seasons next year, when the Royals might be better positioned to leverage those performances and turn them into a division title. Cain is 30 already, and though he hasn’t had significant health trouble this season, he’s very prone to injuries. He’s missed time with strains of his hamstring, groin, hip flexor, and oblique over the years, and he missed 22 games last season for myriad reasons—ranging from a fastball to the knee to simple rest. That’s not to say he’s likely to break down immediately; he’s as tough as he is talented. Still, he’s not an overwhelmingly safe bet to stay healthy and productive through next season, given his career arc. For his part, Hosmer is doing everything he can to attain superstar status, with a .318 TAv through Saturday and a 30-homer pace. He’s never had a full-season TAv north of .291, though, never been worth more than 3.7 WARP, so while this age-26 breakout could be a simple step up to a new and permanent level, it could also turn out to be a career year. One of PECOTA’s closest comps for Hosmer is another Royal who came up young, as good-not-great into his mid-20s, and posted a .302 TAv at 26: Billy Butler. Hosmer is no Butler, physically, but that might not stop him from becoming Butler, statistically.
There would be an enormous market for either player this summer. The Mets need a more serious replacement for Lucas Duda. The Rays are a really good first-base bat from being serious contenders. The Cardinals lack a true center fielder. That’s without getting creative at all. Hosmer and Cain would improve a lot of teams. Cain, for instance, would be a perfect fit for San Francisco, with AT&T Park’s huge right field and Hunter Pence hurt. Hosmer would force someone out of a job in Texas, but would be a clear upgrade at first base for the Rangers.
What might each player be worth? Handily, the math is about the same for each. They’ll both make approximately what it would cost to sign a 1.5-win free agent next season, and PECOTA thinks Hosmer will be worth 1.6 WARP. It has Cain pegged for 2.9 WARP next year. Let’s say Hosmer, who has outperformed PECOTA’s preseason expectation for him by plenty and looks a little more like Todd Helton than like Butler just now, carries something closer to a three-win valuation for 2017 in the eyes of those who might try to acquire him. That puts the two on roughly equal footing after this season. Of course, that leaves 2016 value to be tabulated, and after their hot starts, PECOTA thinks each player will pack plenty of surplus value down the stretch. It projects Cain for a .265 TAv (still low? Probably) and 2.4 WARP for the rest of the season, and Hosmer for a .278 TAv with 1.9 WARP. Cain is a little more marketable, since he could play any outfield position, but Hosmer is younger, has that lingering former top prospect sheen to him, and is playing better this season. It’s a pretty good bet that either one would command something like what it cost the Astros to acquire Carlos Gomez last year at the deadline: a top-flight positional prospect, another toolsy project type, a solid pitching prospect and a lesser one. For a team with the right pairing of need and urgency, they might even yield an elite prospect. (Could the Cardinals give up Alex Reyes in a deal for Cain? Would the Rangers offload the risky profiles of Joey Gallo or Lewis Brinson for the certain and potentially dramatic impact of Hosmer?)
This is unlikely to happen, of course. If the Royals scuffle and limp into late July with a record right around .500, perhaps one of their two lineup anchors could become available, but even that feels like a stretch from here. Right now, they’re very much in the thick of the AL Central race, even if the Playoff Odds Report gives them just one chance in five to make it even to the Wild Card Game. They also have the benefit of playing in that AL Central, easily baseball’s weakest division, so it’ll take at least several more weeks of evidence to make them second-guess their viability.
Still, it’s a fun thing to think about. File this right alongside the possibility that the Blue Jays could part with Jose Bautista, or that the Angels might get serious about their future and try to maximize the value of Mike Trout. It’s not going to happen. Cain and Hosmer have even more positive connections to their fan base than do Bautista or Trout, which is saying something. Public perception is a serious issue when considering trades like these, and in this case, there would be a heavy PR sales tax attached to each player, one the Kansas City front office would demand any team trying to acquire Hosmer or Cain pay before negotiating seriously. In the long run, though, if the Royals don’t do something proactive, they might wish they had.