So much for flashes in the pan

I’ve had some questions about the Royals’ wheeling and dealing for their pennant drive, and of course I have an opinion about that.

Mostly I’m glad I was wrong about last year’s heartbreak turning into a flash in the pan. But you may be surprised to hear I’m not too heartbroken that the Royals traded away five pitchers so they could rent Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist for two months, or three if everything goes as planned.

Yes, the Royals gave up five of their best pitching prospects. But let me tell you about Royals pitching prospects. This century, the three best pitchers the Royals have developed have been the traitor Zack Greinke, Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura.

So forgive me for being cynical that the Royals just traded off a 2018 rotation that would make us forget Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza, Charlie Liebrandt, and Bud Black. I do think most of them will become useful major league pitchers. I don’t think the Royals were going to turn any of them into anything more than middle-of-the-rotation pitchers, and the Royals have been pretty good for a while at identifying underpriced middle-rotation guys they could acquire and turn around.

Also, the Royals drafted a bunch of pitchers this year. That means the Royals have another crop of pitchers who are a year or two behind them. So they traded off what they can most easily replace.

It’s a risk. But the Royals have a limited opportunity. Alex Gordon probably will be a free agent next year, and he may not come back. Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are all going to get more expensive, and Moustakas and Hosmer, being Scott Boras clients, will be difficult to retain. It’s going to be hard to keep this band together more than a couple more years, so the Royals would do well to try to win now.

Last year the Royals lost because they didn’t have anyone who could go toe to toe with Madison Bumgarner. Now, in Johnny Cueto, they do, and that means the Royals’ other pitchers will be going against other teams’ middle-of-the-rotation guys, where they’ll fare better. If the Royals had beaten Madison Bumgarner once, they’d have a nice new flag to fly next to that 1985 one. Or if they’d beaten someone not named Madison Bumgarner once, they wouldn’t have faced Bumgarner a third time.

But there’s another issue. The Royals’ bullpen has pitched the second-most innings in the league. They need a guy who can go deep into games so the bullpen can get rested once every five days. Cueto takes care of that.

Ben Zobrist solves a couple of other problems. With Zobrist around, the Royals can pinch run for anyone, because Zobrist can play any position in the infield or outfield. And it just so happens that Zobrist’s best two positions are second base and right field, which are the Royals’ two weakest positions. Zobrist won’t be the Royals’ best hitter, but he’ll probably be their second- or third-best hitter at any given time.

There have been times this year when the Royals haven’t pinch hit or pinch run for someone and lost games. Zobrist gives them coverage for that from here on out.

It’s also possible the Royals are going to try to emulate the Cardinals’ model. The Cardinals have ways of turning rentals into acquisitions–they trade for a pending free agent, then the guy finds he likes the fans and the city and signs a long-term deal. Maybe one or both players will like it in KC and be willing to consider a deal. And with the Royals selling out every home game, they may be able to afford them.

There are no guarantees in baseball, but I like what the Royals did for their odds this year. Success in baseball’s small markets is difficult and tenuous, but the approach the Royals are using of trying to win with one crop of prospects and trading the next wave for complementary parts is at least sustainable.

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