The current status of Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore can be summed up in this nifty bit of Catch-22: If he fires manager Ned Yost, which at this point surely would be deserved, it would be the third manager Moore had canned in his tenure, which reflects rather poorly on the GM himself. And if he doesn't fire Yost, he is the man who allowed one of the losingest managers in baseball history to run his ballclub for more than four seasons, which may well reflect even worse.
The most important quality a GM can possess happens to be among the rarest, too: brutal, vicious honesty with himself, a stomach for self-criticism bordering on flagellation. It's not just that he who understands his mistakes won't make them again; it's that he who salvages the most from them suffers the least damage long-term.
If he's not going to fire Yost – and considering the Royals are on their sixth hitting coach/scapegoat in his time as manager, Yost looks to be the most secure Edgar in his job since Hoover – then at the very least Moore must start to stomach what this disappointing season is barreling toward: the trade of James Shields.
The only thing that can prevent this from becoming a must is the sort of June the Royals seem incapable of putting together. No matter how good their pitching has been – and, uh, it sort of hasn't, ranking in the bottom half of the game in ERA and even worse in Fielding Independent Pitching, which portends the future – their lineup is so chock full of mediocrity, so Glass Joe punchless that only someone blind to reality or naively optimistic could expect it to suddenly morph into something productive. This is a team that over 2,115 plate appearances has 24 home runs. The closest facsimile in history to that is Mike Benjamin. You remember him, right? Probably not, because he was a terrible-hitting backup utilityman who, over the course of his 2,124 career plate appearances, whacked exactly 24 home runs.
Knowing this, it would be more than prudent to make Shields available, gather offers and admit that trading a boatload of prospects, including Wil Myers, in an effort to win now did not work. This is not a concession that the capital-P "Process" was a failure as much as it is an acknowledgement that the future of the Kansas City Royals – a future that may or may not include Moore – looks far better with the stockpile of prospects Shields would bring rather than the back-of-the-first-round pick a qualifying offer to him in the offseason would fetch.
At this juncture, the Royals aren't even considering trading Shields, which is fine as long as it's negotiable. The market could bear more come July, frankly, and if he's sextupling down with Yost, Moore might as well give the Royals another month to show they're the team so many (here included) thought they would be. They are, after all, just 3½ games back of the second wild-card spot – albeit with seven teams ahead of them. And if they can survive a June with series against the Cardinals, Yankees, Tigers, Dodgers and Angels, perhaps they're not the pushovers they've appeared.
Until then, the most important thing regarding the Royals is the answer to this question posed by an interested executive this week: "You think Dayton trades him?" Right now ...
1. James Shields isn't going anywhere. He is doing what he does better than anybody not named Verlander: eating innings and mowing through hitters. Shields, 32, is well on pace for his eighth consecutive 200-inning season. Never has he spent a full year in the major leagues and not passed 200, just once has it been below 215, and he's on pace for another 226 2/3 this season.
His 1,639 innings since 2007 rank third, behind the currently DL'd CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander, and not only do they give interested teams the confidence that a stretch-run acquisition won't break down, they similarly steel potential suitors this offseason to ponying up nine figures for his services.
And that's what it's going to take. Workhorses with front-of-the-line stuff cost $100 million-plus in this market. Jon Lester will get it. Max Scherzer will get it. James Shields will get it. That is what a career of good health buys at a time when other pitchers' elbows are made of balsa wood. A sturdy arm like ...
2. David Price‘s will fetch even more than his former teammate on the trade market because Price isn't a free agent until after next season. And even though his fastball velocity is down, Price's peripherals say more about his performance this year than his mediocre ERA.
In 84 1/3 innings, he has struck out 90 and walked nine. And while he has allowed a dozen home runs, that number should stabilize, as nothing about his stuff or location screams that his predilection for giving up homers is anything more than statistical noise. Which means that the sort of package the Tampa Bay Rays wanted for Price this offseason – multiple top-end, major league-ready or close prospects, plus high-end, low-level talent – remains in play.
Unlike Moore, Rays GM Andrew Friedman is decidedly honest with himself and understands cut-bait time. He's not there yet, either – probably because the Rays are more talented than the Royals – but if a month from now Tampa Bay still owns the worst record in the American League like it does today, the Price sweepstakes may well cut into Shields' market, something of which Moore must be cognizant. It's one of the reasons ...
3. Jeff Samardzija went onto the market so early. Not only did the Chicago Cubs want to capitalize on his incredible start – which saw his ERA jump nearly a point after a mess of an outing Sunday – but they didn't want to limit their potential return to players alone.
The Cubs have inquired about receiving a competitive-balance draft pick and the accompanying bonus-pool money in other deals and would consider teams' 2015 draft choices as sweeteners for a package that returns Samardzija. It's rather unlikely the Cubs strike a deal for Samardzija this week, meaning the tradable 2014 draft picks won't go toward him. Of the contending teams who could make an offer and have interest, the Colorado Rockies, choosing 35th, make the most sense. Chicago executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are creative enough, too, to consider three-team deals with an asset as valuable as Samardzija, like Price not a free agent until after next season.
He'll end up somewhere, likely out east, where a surfeit of interest among the starting-pitching-light teams – Boston, New York, Baltimore and Toronto could use more – is certain to develop. There won't be a lack of options, not with the previous three players and the ...
4. Jason Hammels of the world who represent good backup plans and give interested teams the only leverage they can muster should they truly desire an elite-level starter.
Hammel 2014 looks a lot more like Hammel 2012, the Almost All-Star, than Hammel 2013, the Epic Disaster. His velocity is ticking up start by start. Though he's practically a two-pitch pitcher – his fastball and slider account for nine of every 10 – Hammel has refined his command, bumped his strikeout rate and kept the ball inside the park. That, plus excellent luck on balls in play, equals a sub-3.00 ERA and another chance for Epstein and Hoyer to add to their impressive cache of kids.
He won't be alone on the secondary market, of course. Somewhere between Hammel and the top-end guys sits ...
5. Ian Kennedy as a proper solution – and a chance for San Diego to sell high on him after buying ridiculously low from Arizona (a one-out lefty reliever, a lefty-relief prospect and the 69th pick in this year's draft) before the trade deadline last season.
Here are the players ahead of Kennedy in strikeouts per nine innings this season: Stephen Strasburg, Corey Kluber, Madison Bumgarner, Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Masahiro Tanaka. In other words, eight All-Stars. So, no, this renaissance isn't strictly on account of him pitching at Petco Park. His ERA at home is 4.01, compared to 2.61 on the road.
Actually, Kennedy is throwing harder than he has since his spilled cup of coffee with the Yankees led to the Diamondbacks dealing for him after the 2009 season. He's back to performing like he did when he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. His teammate and comrade-in-high-awards-finishes, on the other hand, has completely destroyed his trade value, and anything the Padres can get for ...
6. Chase Headley will be based strictly on a team speculating that maybe, just maybe, he can show his 2012 season wasn't some all-time aberration. Headley, remember, hit .286/.376/.498 with 31 home runs playing half his games at Petco. That does not happen.
To see him now, then, struggling to hit over .200, his on-base percentage down nearly 100 points from its peak and his slugging percentage down 150 points, both horrifies and edifies the Padres. Dealing Headley after 2012 would've been the sort of white flag San Diego didn't want to wave after years of losing its best players and not replacing them via free agency. It also could have infused them with the young talent they rely on to win.
At the same time, the Padres tried to sign Headley to a long-term deal, only to be rebuffed each time. Perhaps that should've been a sign to dump him as soon as possible, but San Diego didn't, and now its great asset is putting up numbers on par with another massively underachieving 30-year-old, Chris Young. Headley represents opportunity lost, though at least the Padres don't find themselves with the sort of quandary ...
7. Matt Kemp presents to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not only do five years and $107 million remain on his contract after this season, he is playing Pouty von Poutenstein because the Dodgers moved him to left field, where, frankly, he has belonged for the last two seasons anyway.
The lack of range isn't what's keeping Kemp in a Dodgers uniform. It's the lack of production to justify the salary that remains. Something must give, and before Carl Crawford's ankle injury, it was Kemp's playing time. A $100 million asset doesn't rot on the bench for long, especially with another outfielder in Joc Pederson destroying Triple-A, so Kemp's name will be floated over the next two months, and teams will come back with a dollar figure for the Dodgers to eat, and we'll see if some of the near-$2 billion the Guggenheim group wanted to spend on the Clippers will go toward the dead money that is Kemp.
The Dodgers haven't been afraid to eat others' contracts. It's how they got Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Crawford. It's tougher when it's a deal handed out by the sitting general manager, though the Dodgers' desire to win and win now, made all the more difficult by the San Francisco Giants playing better baseball than anyone, places an even greater onus on Ned Colletti to turn his center-field lemon into some flavor of lemonade. Granted, as ...
8. Cliff Lee shows, dealing a $20 million-a-year-plus player isn't exactly a cake walk, especially when the trading team doesn't want to swallow any of that salary. Another year at $25 million remains on the 35-year-old Lee's deal, plus at least $12.5 million worth of a buyout on a 2016 option (or a $27.5 million salary if he throws 200 innings next season and the option vests).
At minimum, that's about $55 million for the rest of this year and next year. For a pitcher currently on the DL with an elbow issue. Which hasn't gotten better.
The Phillies are considering dealing Lee to free up some salary from a roster larded with the overpaid, underachieving and aged. Because he's Cliff Lee – because if healthy, he's still one of the best – there will be interest. Knowing the market, though – or knowing it as well as a GM who generally struggles with market dynamics can – the idea of reloading a farm system and achieving salary relief with Lee simply will not happen. The Phillies need to make a choice: give themselves a chance to reload in free agency or infuse a system in dire need of prospects to complement the dynamic J.P. Crawford and Maikel Franco.
The sooner Lee can return, the better, because the pitching market will be crowded enough as it is, and if ...
9. Justin Masterson can get back to pitching like a frontline guy instead of someone who lost 3 mph off his fastball and forgot how to command his pitches, perhaps he'll join the group of desirable pitchers.
Then again, with Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer looking every bit of such top-end guys, and Josh Tomlin a brand-new man, Masterson being Masterson and some bullpen help would leave the Indians as every bit the contenders they were last season. Michael Brantley's star turn is legit, Lonnie Chisenhall is figuring things out, the David Murphy signing plays, and if Cleveland cares to flip pending free agent Asdrubal Cabrera for pieces and go with 20-year-old Francisco Lindor (who one scout deems "more than ready"), all the better.
One way or another, Masterson is headed to free-agent land, the appetizer to Scherzer and Lester and ...
10. James Shields filling the bellies of teams ravenous for more. It's one of the reasons Kansas City wanted him in the first place: He is so extremely reliable, the antidote to young pitchers whose arms are not yet tested for the vagaries of multiple seasons. For every time Yordano Ventura's elbow clicks when he throws – it doesn't take a doctor to understand that usually does not bode well – or another young pitcher blows out, Shields toes the rubber and deals.
Here is the truth about the 2014 Royals: In nearly 10 times as many plate appearances as Nelson Cruz, they're outhomering him 24-20. And for as much as the Royals want to say their troubles come down to hitting with runners in scoring position, they're pretty much equally bad then (.244/.312/.344) as they are overall (.253/.307/.352). This is not a failure to hit with RISP. This is a failure to hit, period.
And so unless lightning strikes their bats, it is incumbent on Moore not just to entertain trading Shields but to do so. He struggles with dealing known quantities. He held onto Joakim Soria too long and watched his value plummet to nil as his elbow blew up. He refused to trade Billy Butler and now sends a .307-slugging cleanup hitter to the plate on a nightly basis because of it.
A far inferior pitcher in Matt Garza last season fetched Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm, two great, under-control bullpen arms, a power bat in Mike Olt and the Cubs' ultimate prize, C.J. Edwards, whom they expect to be a mainstay in their rotation as soon as next year. Positioning Shields as the antidote to the high prices of Price and Samardzija while still asking for a strong bounty is the reasonable, and proper, tack.
Dealing Shields will not destroy what Moore has done. He rebuilt a woebegone farm system. Royals ownership bought in and pushed the payroll close to $100 million. A workable foundation remains, and a new group – maybe the right one – is on the come, with Kyle Zimmer and Sean Manaea and Miguel Almonte set to anchor the rotation.
Some teams in this position could afford to keep Shields. The Royals are not one of them. They operate differently. In an economic environment where the chasm between teams big and small continues to multiply, they cannot pass up opportunities to better themselves going forward, no matter how much it would make a disappointing season that much more depressing.
Brutal, vicious honesty never is fun. It is, unfortunately, evermore necessary.