After days of rumors, small moves, and inaction at baseball's winter meetings in Nashville, the MLB hot stove truly heated up over the weekend. The Los Angeles Dodgers, flush with cash thanks to an impending TV rights contract, signed right-hander Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract, making him the league's highest-paid pitcher (per year), and recipient of the biggest contract ever given out to a right-hander. The signing shores up the Dodgers' starting rotation, as Greinke and perennial Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw form a lethal 1-2 punch. And yet, this historic, division-shaking move by L.A. was only the second most important in baseball over the weekend. The top honor (or dishonor) goes to the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals are flush with young hitting talent and lack pitching. Earlier this offseason, they traded for starting pitcher Ervin Santana and also signed Jeremy Guthrie to join their rotation. However, general manager Dayton Moore didn't think that was enough, and over the weekend, tried to bulk up his pitching staff even more — with disastrous results. Moore made a deal with perhaps the best GM in the majors, Andrew Friedman of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays' front office is always seeking to gain leverage and an angle to save on payroll, and is often able to accomplish both, a process well-documented in Jonah Keri's The Extra 2%. Just last month, the Rays lost young stud outfielder BJ Upton, a former number two draft pick who signed with the Atlanta Braves for $75 million. But the Rays still have a surplus of pitchers. The pitcher-hungry Royals must have looked like guppies to the shark-like Tampa Bay front office.
The two teams worked out a deal over the weekend: The Rays will send right-handed pitchers James Shields, Wade Davis, and a player to be named later to the Royals for outfielder Wil Myers (the Royals' top prospect and a superstar-in-waiting), righty Jake Odorizzi (22 years old with very good minor league numbers), Mike Montgomery (a work in progress once considered the top prospect in the Royals organization), and Patrick Leonard (a power-hitting corner infield prospect who will be ready in three or four years). That's multiple talented, inexpensive prospects going from the Royals to the Rays. And what do the Royals get? Two years of James Shields, a nice number two or three pitcher who's on the wrong side of 30 and makes more than twice as much as the four prospects will over the next two years. Oh, and Wade Davis, a fringe starter who has shown he is best suited for middle-relief (and maybe closing), but who will most likely be headed to the Royals starting rotation, where he doesn't belong.
The biggest part of this trade, and the reason the Royals were hosed, is Myers. Last season, the 22-year-old hit .314/.387/.600 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) with 37 homers in 591 plate appearances at Class AA and AAA. When he makes the majors, he will likely be an impact player like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were last season. He very may well become a consistent threat to win an MVP award, but at the very least, he stands to become a real contributor for the Rays. What makes the trade hurt even more for the Royals — besides swapping cheap young talent for expensive aging talent — is that Shields is simply not the ace pitcher that the Royals need to jump into the contender conversation. He is not the type of pitcher you trade the best prospect in baseball for. It's not like the Royals traded their uber-prospect for Cy Young winner David Price, who is affordably under Tampa Bay control for four more seasons. Shields is an innings eater, sure, but the "Big Game James" nickname aside, his home and road splits project a statistical decline (especially without Tampa Bay's vaunted defense backing him up).
The Royals haven't had a winning season since 2003, and are likely to be on the outside looking in come next October, missing the playoffs again, something they have done every year since 1985. With Myers in tow, they might not have made the playoffs in 2013, or even 2014, but every year after that (after Shields undoubtedly leaves the team for a hefty free agent payday elsewhere, and the Royals again are in the market for pitching), with Myers just starting to approach his prime, they very well might have been playoff contenders, stocked with young talent ready to battle for AL Central supremacy for years to come. By leveraging their future for two years of declining talent, the Royals are taking a huge risk, and it's not likely to end in their favor. Somehow, the Rays did it again.