My reaction to the Royals’ trade for James Shields

I don’t write about baseball all that often anymore, because to do a good job of it day to day you have to immerse yourself in it more than I’m willing or able to do, but I enjoy baseball. And I’m a long-suffering Kansas City Royals fan. One of my earliest memories is going to a Royals game with my dad and cheering for George Brett. I had a framed–framed!–George Brett poster hanging in my bedroom for 25 years, and though that poster is exiled to the basement now, it’s still hanging on a wall.

I gave up on the Royals in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, then watched in disbelief as Dane Iorg delivered a clutch pinch-hit RBI single as part of an improbable comeback. I happened to be in Kansas City that weekend, and the city was positively electric the next day. I watched Bret Saberhagen toss an 11-0 masterpiece in Game 7. And then?

Well, Bo Jackson came and went. That was fun, but way too short. I watched George Brett win another batting title, get his 3,000th hit, retire in a Royals uniform, and go into the Hall of Fame. And I watched the Royals trade away a lot of talent and get little, if any, value in return.

Most Royals bloggers on the Internet today followed the same trajectory that I did, though some missed the 1970s. That explains some of the reaction to this trade.

I won’t recap every trade the Royals have made, but the Royals had Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye in their prime. They traded all three away, and the most valuable piece they acquired from those three trades, total, is John Buck, a freeswinging journeyman catcher. Buck is the only one of the so-called prospects the Royals acquired for these three who’s still in the majors.

It’s a victory any time the Royals receive any value whatsoever in trade. They traded away Zack Greinke a few years ago, and two of the players they received are actually in the majors now. Alcides Escobar looks like he may stick as a big-league shortstop, and Lorenzo Cain is a good all-around player who can hit, run and field, though he seems a bit injury prone.

So now the Royals have traded away their best hitting prospect, Wil Myers; their best pitching prospect, Jake Odorizzi (acquired in the Greinke trade), and a prospect-turned-reclamation project, Mike Montgomery, for James Shields and a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Of course the Internet went ballistic. Why not? Someone else always knows something the Royals didn’t. Right? Well, except for the time the Royals traded Benito Santiago for Leo Nunez. Nunez turned out to be a lights-out relief pitcher, so of course the Royals flipped him the next year for Mike Jacobs, who turned out to be a Steve Balboni wannabe. (Who and who? Exactly.)

One level-headed commentator wrote, “Let’s not put Wil Myers in the Hall of Fame just yet.”

Do I like the trade? No. Do I hate the trade? Not yet.

The Royals had a good offense without Myers last year. They just didn’t have any starting pitchers who have any business being anything more than a #5 starter on a mediocre team. It didn’t matter if the Royals’ offense could score five runs when most of their starting pitchers were perfectly happy to give up six.

What the Royals did have were prospects, and a bad track record of turning those prospects into something fast.

Alex Gordon and Billy Butler both came up through the Royals system and turned into good players–legitimate All-Stars, in fact–but it took a while. The jury is still out on the two key prospects from the second wave, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Moustakas is a good fielder and he’s had some good hot streaks, but he’s no George Brett. And so far Eric Hosmer is a disappointment. As it looks right now, if the Royals had the opportunity to trade either one of them for a 15-game winner two years ago, they would have been better off doing that. Trading either of them now would be selling low.

Trading Myers before he’s swung a bat in his first major-league game is selling high. And Branch Rickey once said he’d rather trade a player a year too early than a year too late.

Would it have made more sense to sign a free-agent pitcher? Sure. But here’s the thing. Zack Greinke wasn’t coming back to Kansas City, and neither was anyone better than James Shields. Free agents generally sign in Kansas City hoping for a chance to improve their careers and rebuild their value, and they aren’t surprised when they get flipped for prospects come August.

The only way you get a 15-game winner to come to Kansas City is to overpay, then hope for the best.

And maybe the Royals aren’t done. What this trade does is send the signal to everyone that the Royals intend to try to win this season. The Royals have said publicly that they have no money to spend, but that could just be talk. Talk I don’t understand, but they can say one thing to the press and another thing to players and agents.

The thing is, yesterday, Josh Hamilton wasn’t coming to Kansas City. They could have slammed a half a billion dollars on the table and he wouldn’t have come. Today, I still don’t think Josh Hamilton is coming to Kansas City, but if the Royals really want to replace Wil Myers’ bat, today they can call Michael Bourn’s agent, or Josh Hamilton’s agent, and get their phone call returned. Neither of them have the market this year that they wanted, so it’s possible one or the other might be willing to sign a one-year deal to play in Kansas City and see what happens.

What I know is that if the Royals make an effort to field a competitive team, the fans will come. If the Royals did sign Josh Hamilton, the bump in attendance would pay for it. I remember in 2003, when the Royals were marginally competitive but managed to stay in the race against all odds until late summer, Royals Stadium was a magical place again. Fans were scalping tickets, even. That was a long time ago, and if anything, Royals fans are hungrier now.

Anything can happen. Wil Myers could flame out and not even reach the major leagues. He just as easily could become a Hall of Famer. James Shields could get hurt and never win a game in a Royals uniform, or he could find something and win 20 next year. The Royals could be done revamping the roster, or they could be working on bringing a proven big-league bat to Kansas City to take some of the pressure off Hosmer and Moustakas.

The re-signing of Jeremy Guthrie looks better to me now, in light of this. Guthrie’s not expected to be the ace anymore. Now Guthrie’s #2 at best, and if someone younger finds something–and sitting on the bench in between starts next to Guthrie and Shields can’t hurt the chances of that happening–Guthrie can slide gracefully into a still-lower slot in the rotation.

For that reason, I’ll reserve judgment on this move until I see what’s next.

But I won’t hold it against other Royals fans for expecting the worst. After all, that’s pretty much all they’ve seen for the last 27 years. Well, that, and watching Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon star in the postseason in other uniforms. That hurts just as much.

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