Defending the Royals

Just as parents today must be careful not to coddle their children too much, baseball fans must avoid coveting their favorite prospects. This tendency to prospect overvaluation makes sense, though. After finally learning that signing pricey and mediocre free agents and ignoring the perfectly apt replacements in the minors was the wrong way to go about things, we all got wise, fans and professionals alike. Even casual baseball fans have started scouring top 30 prospect lists and joined keeper leagues. But we may have gone to far. After the Royals traded away their upper farm system to the Royals over the weekend, the online reaction was swift and fierce, like a Viking warrior's response to someone drinking his mead. Some were calling it the worst trade in modern memory and the mood was one of disbelief, not believing that the Royals could trade away so much future value without at least some heavy hypnotic suggestion from Andrew Friedman. And sure, maybe Dayton Moore is a fool or he was selfishly making a last gasp attempt at keeping his job, but on the other hand, the Royals have had one pitcher throw 200 innings over the last three years. So perhaps there was some sense to the deal, too. 

While Wil Myers looks every part a powerful middle of the lineup hitter for the next decade, there's no guarantee of that either. Major League Baseball is littered with top prospects that never fully panned out at the Major League level. For every bona fide superstar, you have your Justin Uptons who are constantly on the trading block, forever waiting for that breakout; your Jay Bruces, that become dependable bats but not superstars, and then there are your bench players and total flameouts. All of them cut from the same uber-prospect cloth. Just look at the top ten prospects of 2007 from Baseball America:
  1. Daisuke Matsuzaka
  2. Alex Gordon
  3. Delmon Young
  4. Phil Hughes
  5. Homer Bailey
  6. Cameron Maybin
  7. Evan Longoria
  8. Brandon Wood
  9. Justin Upton
  10. Andrew Miller
Every single one of those players were seen as locks and only Evan Longoria and Justin Upton have come close to that original promise. And just look at the top three: Matsuzaka was frustrating and eventually a persona non-grata in Boston; Alex Gordon took years and multiple trips to the minors before he became the above average left fielder that we now see, and Delmon Young is a glorified DH without plate discipline or a job. The rest are useful players like Homer Bailey and Cameron Maybin, and flameouts like Andrew Miller and Brandon Wood. To be fair, just beyond the top ten features a group of names like Tim Lincecum, Andrew McCutchen, Troy Tulowitzki, Yovani Gallardo, the aforementioned Jay Bruce, etc etc etc. But the point is, no matter how good professional and amateur talent evaluators have gotten, there is still a wide gap between what should and will happen. 
We can even look at recent trades involving top prospects to give us reason to pause before demonizing the Royals. The Rays traded Delmon Young after only one full Major League season to the Twins in exchange for Matt Garza. Since then, Young has posted a -0.1 fWAR with two teams while Garza has been worth 13.7. The Tigers traded Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin to the Marlins for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, only for Maybin to become a below average regular for a second division club and Andrew Miller to bounce around the league. It's possible that Wil Myers becomes the next great superstar and it's possible that his trade value was never higher than it was this weekend. conceivable that Jake Odorizzi becomes a mid-rotation stalwart and it's possible that he'll be shifted to middle relief, bouncing from team to team for the next decade. It's also possible that Mike Montgomery can return to his top-30 prospect form or that he'll flame out and never reach the Majors save for the one or two September callups tossed his way. And if we believe that Montgomery still has the glimmer of his former self within him, then we have to think that Wade Davis, another top-30 pitching prospect, may be able to do the same. At the very least, Davis, only 26, has proven that he can hack it in a Major League rotation and excel in the bullpen, something not all pitchers accomplish. 
It's not like the Royals were completely fleeced either. Royals Review took a look at all similar prospect trades in the weeks before the trade, including the ones I listed above, and found that the Royals could expect to get a 2-3 win player with 3-4 years of team control left in exchange for Wil Myers. While the Royals included a number of other players in the deal, they received three years of control with Wade Davis and a four win pitcher in Shields, about what their analysis suggested. 
Many also think that a 72 win team isn't in a position to make a playoff push, but at some point the Royals have to make that leap. With their offensive core as intact as it ever will be and the AL Central weak, this, as unhappy a situation as it is, may be their best chance. Barring any future moves, the Tigers and White Sox will enter 2013 top heavy and veteran-reliant. A few injuries or some poor luck, and the AL Central would be a radically different place. In 2012, with Justin Verlander healthy and Miguel Cabrera winning the triple crown, the Tigers still only won 88 games. If any of that luck swings the Royals way, who were two games below their Pythagorean record last year, with a strengthened rotation and the hoped-for development from Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, it's not hard to see the Royals reach that magical 85-90 win plateau.  In the current baseball climate, with a second wild card in play, that could be enough to end a 27-year playoff drought. Add in the annual crapshoot that's the playoffs and the increased revenue from ticket and merchandise sales, and Dayton Moore's gamble starts to make a little more sense. 
Because if the Royals are ever going to top the division this decade, it will be on the backs of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. These are their hopeful stars, two years into their Major League careers, and the service time clock endlessly ticking. Billy Butler won't be with the team much longer, if he even remains in Kansas City through the offseason, Alex Gordon is in his prime years, and the Royals are strong with Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar up the middle. If the Royal entered 2013 without pitchers like Shields and Davis to eat up innings, it's unlikely they could compete even if Mike Moustakas hit 30 home runs, Alcides Escobar cloned himself and a groundballs never made it through the infield, and Eric Hosmer became a demigod. To compete, small market teams have to take big gambles.
As Grant Brisbee wrote last week on the subject of long-term deals: 
"There's a short-term benefit to horrible deals. Fried chicken will kill you eventually, but danged if doesn't seem like a gift from the gods as it's sliding down your gullet."
So yes, Wil Myers could hit 1,000 home runs next season and Odorizzi and Montgomery could front the Rays rotation into the next decade. But maybe the Royals knew something, too.  Dayton Moore is known for his ability to identify and develop amateur talent, but his eye for Major League talent is questionable. If anyone would know of Myers', Odorizzi's, or Montgomery's weaknesses, one would think that it would be Moore. 
I'm not saying the Royals made the right decision and I'm not saying that the Rays didn't beat up Dayton Moore in an alley and steal everything from him. I'm just saying that this trade isn't as lopsided as we originally believed and that prospects, like relationships, are great to dream on, but rarely do they end up the way we want them to. The flash reaction on Sunday night may not be the right one five years from now.